Is sharpness a bourgeois concept?

Often repeated on internet forums (generally by contrarians) is a quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson, “sharpness is a bourgeois concept.”

What is meant by a “bourgeois concept” in the first place? I think that the meaning of “bourgeois” has changed quite a bit since Karl Marx used the term in the 1800s. I think of people who have a modest amount of affluence and career success, but are not members of the true upper class. They are not the CEO’s, but the people with six-figure jobs in middle management or sales. “Bourgeois” implies affluence without the refined taste or understatement of the true upper class. The bourgeois show off their affluence by driving unnecessarily expensive cars like Mercedes, living in McMansions, etc. It’s conspicuous but not sophisticated consumption.

In photography, we can imagine the fellow who can afford to buy a really sharp lens (like the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 which I recently reviewed), but lacks the skill, creativity, vision, etc, to take any photos worthy of such a lens. Yes that would be me, however the worst case of the bourgeois photographer would be the guy who thinks that because he’s using a really expensive camera and lens, he must be taking great photos, when in reality his photos are cr*p. I am aware that I’m not worthy of the lens.

This quote originally appeared in Newsweek. Cartier-Bresson was in his 90s when he said it in conversation with photographer Helmut Newtron, and it’s helpful to understand the context of the quote:

“He had his little Leica,” Newton remembers, “and he simply would point and shoot.” Since Cartier-Bresson’s hand isn’t as steady as it used to be, some of the pictures were a bit fuzzy. “Sharpness,” he told Newton, “is a bourgeois concept.” Newton sits back and laughs: “I thought that was just divine.”

The message is not to let gear or sharpness stand in the way of your photography. I think that Cartier-Bresson would approve of people using their iPhones to take photos. Cartier-Bresson was shooting 35mm back when nearly all serious photographers were shooting larger formats. 35mm was the iPhone of the pre-war era. Most of those old street photography photos, the kind for which Cartier-Bresson is famous, are unsharp and grainy by modern standards.

Shot on film! For real!

Just kidding. Just playing with some cheesy Photoshop plugins.

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When I was viewing the 2017 Summer Open exhibit at the Aperture Gallery (which I previously blogged about), I came across one portfolio of photos which had these types of film borders. My first impression was “this photographer used an Instragam filter!” Honest, that’s what I thought. These types of retro filter are very popular on Instagram.

Upon further reflection, I assumed a prestigious organization like Aperture wouldn’t allow those kinds of borders unless the photos were really shot on film. The borders show that he was using Kodak Portra 400. I tried to look closely at the photos to see if I could notice any film grain, but I didn’t. The most obvious giveaway that the photos were shot on a film camera is that they weren’t as sharp as photos from most of the other portfolios.

My feelings about film borders are similar to my feelings about photographers who brag about shooting with Leica. Maybe you should not try to shout out to the world that you are using “real” film by including the film borders in your prints; rather let people viewing the photos notice for themselves the special film qualities. If the qualities imparted by film are that special, then should not the borders be superfluous? During the era when people actually shot with film, the borders were not shown. Sort of. It’s well known that Henri Cartier-Bresson liked his film borders, and there were times when the borders were popularly included with fine art prints, but it’s my understanding that they eventually came to be seen as “artsy and pretentious,” which is my natural reaction, and the film-border-look died out.

Looking further into matters, I discovered that the photographer, Jon Henry, has an online portfolio and an Instagram account. As is proper for an online portfolio oriented to fine art photography, there is no mention of what kind of camera was used. But taking the time to look through his entire portfolio while sitting in a comfortable chair in front of a computer screen, it’s more obvious now that he used lo-fi equipment for at least some of the photos, because I spotted blurry areas and light leaks.

On his Instagram feed, Jon was unable to avoid talking about his gear, and the mystery was solved. He shot these pictures with 4×5 large format. That explains why I didn’t see any obvious film grain.

Do you know how expensive it is to shoot 4×5 color film? The cost of the film is $5 per sheet, and I found a place online that develops this stuff for $4 per sheet, so every time he pushes the shutter button, there goes $9 worth of film and developing costs! And all that to get a lo-fi look that could have easily been accomplished with much less expensive medium format cameras, where each shot would cost about one-tenth the price of 4×5 large format.

After all this talk about film borders and his gear, let me compliment Jon Henry; his portraits are very compelling and excellent photography.

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Going back to the image I posted above, it was taken this year on Memorial Day weekend at Seaside Heights, New Jersey. I know, not a very classy place. But interesting to see how it looks now, after it has been rebuilt after being mostly destroyed a few years ago by Hurricane Sandy.

Strangely, it was a very ugly photo before I used the cheesy Photoshop plugins, but after applying retro warm colors and adding a black film border, the image looks so much more visually appealing. On my to-do list is to look into what exactly that plugin did to the image, and also look into whether black borders (minus the cheesy faux-film lettering) enhance the display online.

David Yarrow’s animal photos

Today I saw David Yarrow’s animal photos at the Rotella Gallery in Soho.

At first, my reaction was rather blasé. I thought here we have a basically kitsch genre of photography, the animal photo, and someone is trying to make it seem more highbrow by showing them in black and white. And then the photos are turned into “limited edition” prints that are marketed to rich people, also making the photographer and the gallery owner rich (or at least affluent) in the process. Assuming the gallery sells enough prints to cover the cost of rent and payroll.

However, after watching this video about David Yarrow, I now have a better appreciation for Mr. Yarrow. What he does is pretty darn cool, actually.

1. He understands that telephoto lenses take boring pictures. He quotes Robert Capa who famously said,“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” The key to his photography is to use a 35mm lens (on a full-frame Nikon camera) and keep the camera low to the ground so that the animals look more menacing.

2. But how does he get so close to the animals? Remote control!

3. He uses zone focusing. He triggers the remote-control shutter when he sees (from a safe distance) that the animals are close enough to the camera.

4. Doesn’t he occasionally lose an expensive camera when an elephant stomps on it? Yes he does, and he has videos showing it happening.

His photos at the Rotella Gallery look pretty sharp, so I guess that full-frame Nikon DSLRs take sharp photos.