Sharpness is a Bourgeois Concept

Passing Through

This comment was supposedly made by Henri Cartier-Bresson to fellow photographer Helmut Newton whilst taking Newton’s portrait. According to Newton, Cartier-Bresson’s hand wasn’t as steady as it used to be and some of his pictures were “a bit fuzzy” which caused him to utter these words.

Of course, just because these words were spoken by someone who is considered to be one of the great artists of all time, does not make make them right, or even accurate. When I first read about this, possibly tongue-in-cheek, comment made by Cartier-Bresson however, it did make me think about why we value such concepts as sharpness as well as the other technical aspects of photography.

I took the above image a number of years ago whilst photographing an area of my nearest big city (Birmingham, United Kingdom) which was about to be bludgeoned and redeveloped as a flash new commercial and retail district (to be called, of all things, “Paradise“). I initially rejected the image because it was blurred – I had not used a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the woman as she made her way through the run-down area of the city.

Having recently dug into my archive I came across this picture again however and decided, even before reading Cartier-Bresson’s words, I actually quite liked it. The blurring adds to, rather than detracts from, the image I now think.

Is the woman blurred because she is hurrying through a part of town she knows not to be safe and why is she there anyway? This was already a closed up area, waiting for bulldozers to arrive, and offered no access to anywhere else. I think the fuzziness adds a bit to the mystery.

If you think about it, many of the greatest pictures of all time can hardly be considered as being sharp by today’s unforgiving standards. Look at Robert Capa’s images of the Normandy landings on D-Day or indeed Cartier-Bresson’s own iconic image from 1932 which practically defines the whole Decisive Moment movement (Behind the Gare de Saint-Lazare, Paris, France) and considered by Time to be one of the 100 greatest images of all time.These photographs were taken with cameras which, by today’s standards, would be considered as laughable in terms of their features and technical specifications yet it did not stop these great photographers producing iconic and timeless images.

Throughout history people have always made do with the tools they have at their disposal. This has not stopped them creating great works of art or developing amazing scientific inventions. No, they have embraced the constraints of those tools and developed great things despite the limitations of what they had available to them.

Would Earnest Hemingway have been a better writer if had used the latest MacBook Pro rather than a battered old Corona typewriter? Would Einstein have produced a better theory of relativity if he had been using the latest super-computer? Would Cartier-Bresson have made even more iconic images if he had been able to use pretty much any of the crop of current digital cameras armed with the latest super-sharp lenses? I think not. If the tools we use do ultimately “shape us” (as suggested by John Culkin, friend and student of the great Marshall McLuhan) then let’s embrace what we have today but make sure we don’t become obsessed with things like sharpness more than using those tools to create lasting images of our time.

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