It was telling that with Saturday's poll, a number of people chose to assume that I was talking about conventional "image quality." I wasn't. I was talking about "the results you want." That could be anything.
I don't care about "image quality," anyway. I care more about image properties.
What does that mean?
When it comes to photographs, a "property" is what I call "quality" without the value judgment attached. And with a much broader range of possibilities.
Grainlessness might be an aspect of image quality. To me it's just a property—as is extreme graininess. Or anything in between. Accurate color might be another aspect of conventional "image quality." That's a property too—as is deliberately or adventitiously inaccurate color. And so on.
People suffer from very oppressive ideas about which properties of images are "good." Certain properties are said to be "good" and their absence "bad." I choose not to submit to that oppression. Shake loose your shackles, your bonds and fetters! Free yourself!
But really, photographers talking about "image quality" are like pious people talking about moral virtue. Certain image qualities have to be "good." Lack of those "good" qualities is a shortcoming...a failure...a sin. "Bad."
Sharpness is the most highly prized, the most widely accepted, image virtue. But who says an image has to be sharp? Some are, some aren't. Some sharp images look like crap and some sharp images look great. Unsharp images, ditto—sometimes that can look good, sometimes not. It depends.
Sharpness is a property that suits some pictures and not others. Some photographers treat it like a virtue, as if possessing more of it confers ever more glory and honor upon them.
They're wrong about that. What, you can't imagine a thoroughly bad photograph that's extremely sharp? Never seen one? I've seen thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Millions, even.
Consider that during the time of the pictorialist movement—and among the amateurs that kept its values alive in its aftermath—the same assumption held sway, except in the reverse. Image unsharpness was the virtue, the accepted convention.
I used to see a fair number of pictures that were ruined because they weren't sharp enough. Those days are mostly gone. Even modest cameras and lenses can take pictures that are plenty sharp these days.
Granted, it's somewhat more difficult to make a photograph work when it suffers from unvirtuous properties—you have to be sensitive to the effect those properties have, the way they function visually, and how well they suit a particular picture and its message, instead of being just plain clueless about all those things. And in order to achieve the virtuous properties, your equipment, materials, and techniques need to be capable of it. There is a certain—slight—honor in that, I suppose.
But in general we should stop being such image virtue bigots, and stop seeing "image quality" as this great big value judgement looming above everything. We're not talking about morality here. We're just talking about the properties of photographs. No property automatically makes a photograph better. No property automatically disqualifies a photograph from being good. Being bigoted just closes us off to a greater range of possibility in our own work, and to a greater and more subtle range of possibility in the accomplishments of others.
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A book of interest today:
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Mike Plews: "Talking about properties vs. qualities got me thinking about a Ralph Steiner quote that popped up in a photo magazine back in the early 1980s. I can't remember it exactily. It was part of a series of critiques of reader photographs and it essentially said thay you need to photograph things you actually care about. Copying other peoples' stuff or worrying too much about who likes your work gets in the way.
"Anyway I couldn't find the quote iteslf but did run across this which is just about as good:
If I were to teach, I wouldn't teach a course in photography. I'd teach a course called 'What Matters.'
"So I suppose you could consider 'it matters' as a quality worth striving for as you take pictures."
Mike replies: I went to a lecture by Ralph at Dartmouth at which he said the same thing, so I approached him in the hallway afterward and told him that when he taught that course, I wanted to take it. He said he was never actually going to teach the course, but if I'd buy him lunch he'd give me the syllabus. I treated him to a nice lunch and although he really didn't touch on the contents of the mythical course, he treated me to a long, lively, challenging and very interesting conversation.
A fascinating guy and a natural teacher.
Bill Pierce responds: "Hooray for Ralph Steiner, the most generous of men who probably set a record for helping other photographers."
Jim Hughes responds: "I think the Photo Critique Mike P. is referring to appeared in the April, 1983, edition of the original Camera Arts. We had asked a panel consisting of Ralph Steiner, Cole Weston and George Tice to comment on prints submitted by seven readers. Ralph said about one image:
I think one thing a supposed critic should know is when to stop looking for ways to improve [the photograph being studied], and just say he is lying flat on the floor with amazement and admiration. This mixture of nature and the work of man is not my kind of subject, nor would I hang your print on my wall, but that in no way stands against what you wanted to do—you made the photograph for yourself, not for me.
"I hope this is the Steiner quote Mike Plews had in mind. If not, my apologies—but I was happy for the opportunity to go back and read Ralph's words again!"
Graham Dew: "Couldn't agree more. It's our job as photographers to know which quality is appropriate for the job. To illustrate your point, how about this fantastic unsharp picture by Josef Koudelka:
Mike replies: I do have to point out that many of Koudelka's prints have an almost supernatural sense of subjective sharpness, though.