Pondering imperfection: The struggle for perfect photos
Like you, I’m always striving to becoming a better photographer (and a better person along the way). I read photo magazines. I am a member of online critique groups. I look at photos every single day. I even okay Marlene critiquing my photos — albeit a bit nervously. I do, as Marlene suggested in her blog post, critique others’ photos — mostly in my head. Some of that critiquing is positive but a lot of it is looking for imperfections.
I’ll admit to being thin-skinned sometimes. After the above photo was decimated in a critique group, I have hesitated to ask for CC (constructive criticism).
I struggle with perfectionism and in my day job, as a counsellor, I realize — often — that I’m not alone.
I went back to university as an older student and in my determination to prove my worth there, I often caught myself muttering, “You could have done better. Why didn’t you see that before you submitted it?” University culture can be brutal for perfectionists!
Fortunately, in 2010, Brené Brown came along with her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who you Are. As a therapist, I recommend this book almost more than any other. In it, Dr. Brown explores authenticity, courage, vulnerability, being enough and the process of wholehearted living. If you haven’t read it, I’m hereby recommending it to YOU. She even writes about being shamed about a photograph — pages 42-43. She asks good questions. “What if I think I’m enough, but others don’t?” “What if I let my imperfect self be seen and known, and nobody likes what they see?” She reminds us repeatedly that being authentic is risky.
Perhaps we should apply some of Brown’s thinking to our photography.
When is a photo enough? When do we stop staring at it, wondering if the horizon is perfectly straight, or if there is noise in the shadows? When do we reach the point where we stop tweaking and just love it for what it is, what it says, and the moment it captures?
I first learned photography as a teen, using film of course. I look back at some of those photos — that I thought were just fine and cringe. They aren’t perfect enough. There are focus issues and developing issues (most of which were out of my hands).
Film teaches you to pay attention to what you’re getting in-camera in a way that digital rarely does. And you have to wait. And you can’t fix-it-in-post. And it’s often less-than-perfect when that print is in your hands.
But film is what got us here.
Photography was the domain of professionals, with image making being a laborious and cumbersome process. Then in 1888, Kodak changed everything by bringing photography to the ordinary person. And thus, it became “everyman’s art” to quote Watson & Rappaport in Capturing the Light: The Birth of Photography, A True Story of Genius and Rivalry. Cheap cameras and celluloid film allowed people, for the first time, to capture their own (imperfect) lives.
If the video does not show up, you can watch it on YouTube.
This is one of my favourite photos of my parents, taken with a Kodak Brownie camera, yet imperfection abounds.
The photo is far from perfect. The horizon is wonky. My mom certainly could have stepped away from the house or posed with the house in some way. My dad could have been more mindful of his shadow and turned her slightly. But they didn’t. And the image we are left with is of my mom smiling broadly at the man she would later marry. And my dad’s shadow, showing us that he was looking down, using a reflex mirror viewfinder, falling on her dress. By his silhouette, it’s clearly Dad. THIS photo does what photos are meant to do — it captures a moment, a fleeting memory (for them) and symbolizes the beginning of our family to me. It’s perfect.
After both my parents passed way, I hauled bins and boxes of photos, slides, and negatives to my house and began what I call my grief-processing-scan-a-thon.
I found negatives of photos like the one above. I found slides of family adventures. And, one night, I found some particularly bad photos that we didn’t know existed. I found photos of my youngest sister as a baby. Now to put this into context, there are lots of lovely photos of me as a baby. I was an only child at first and in those years, Dad had a good camera. And he was excited to have a model!
Then more babies were born and that camera broke. My brother got sick. And photography wasn’t high on Dad’s priority list. My sister had long thought there weren’t any photos of her first year. But there were. Approximately 20 poorly exposed and blurry slides. Square format, taken with who-knows-what camera. Horrible from a technical perspective. Treasures from hers.
So here’s your challenge.
- Find a technically BAD photo — your own or one taken by someone in your family (so no permission issues). Ponder WHY this is a special photo for you? My guess is this is a special photo because of the story it tells, the memories it evokes. Or the symbolism of what has been captured by the camera.
- Spend sometime reflecting on what happens inside of you when you look at that photo? Can you physically feel warmth in your heart? Do you feel reconnected with the people, time and place in that image? Is it perfect? (Probably technically no, but in reality yes.)
- Look at photos you’ve taken recently. Are there any that you can genuinely say were a gift to you? You just happened to be there at that time. You just happened to click the shutter at that moment. All the skill and planning in the world wouldn’t have gotten you that image — but you GOT IT. Hold that moment for just a second or two. And then go get your camera.
If you have an imperfect photo with a story that you’re open to sharing, Marlene and I (and our friends around the world) would love to see it and read your story. Please post it on the ImageMaven Facebook page and make reference to this blog post.
George Eastman: The Wizard of Photography (a three-part video series) Part 1 is used above.
Capturing the Light: The Birth of Photography, A True Story of Genius and Rivalry. (Roger Watson & Helen Rappaport, 2013)
By Ruth Bergen Braun
In my day job, I’m a professional counsellor in Lethbridge, Alberta. (See my professional website here ruthbergenbraun.com) I work with clients who have a variety of life struggles — depression, anxiety, relationship issues, bereavement, trauma, and past and/or current abuse.
I have loved photography since my darkroom days as a teenager — long before we ever imagined the fun of digital photography. I joke that I’m so old that I took my first photography course B.C. — before computers. I have taken and enjoyed Marlene’s courses, both the Ruzuku format and Marlene’s content. I often recommend her website and online courses to people who want to learn more about both the art and technology of digital photography. I also have recommended her courses as “a gift to yourself” and thus, the idea for our course on using photography as self-care was born.
Follow my photography journey on my Facebook page.
Ruth’s blog posts: