I was listening to a Bob Dylan album in my car, Blonde on Blonde, and on many of the tracks I noticed every once in a while, when he sang, he placed the line a bit early or late to the beat, but not on it. Not always, most of them are right on, but every now and again, he comes in a smidge off the beat.
I consider Dylan like the indie filmmakers of his time–their equivalent in music. If you wanted to make a correlation between film and music, Dylan was writing and directing his own music career in a way that was uniquely his own, not following the trends of the time, and certainly not trying to be a perfect crooner. In fact, some didn’t even think he was talented. I was on the selection committee of the local Boulder film festival and one film that came through was a documentary about a NYC Greenwich Village coffeehouse that hosted musicians and poets back in the 1960s. And in the film, the interviewer is talking to the cafe owner about Dylan who says, “I don’t know. People are making a big deal about him, but I don’t see it. I doubt he’ll go very far. He can’t really sing.”
Not perfectly, for sure, though exactly perfect for what he was doing with his music. His style of singing and voice perfectly matched the music and lyrics he was putting out, precisely because it was imperfect. If he had the vocal style of Dean Martin or Bing Crosby, there wouldn’t have been the edge that the music needed, that Dylan brought to the songs.
Photographer Jerry Schatzberg wrote this explanation about the reason for the blurry Blonde on Blonde album cover photo in his book, Thin Wild Mercury: Touching Dylan’s Edge:
“I wanted to find an interesting location outside of the studio. We went to the west side, where the Chelsea art galleries are now. At the time it was the meatpacking district of New York and I liked the look of it. It was freezing and we were very cold. The frame he chose for the cover is blurred and out of focus. Of course everyone was trying to interpret the meaning, saying it must represent getting high on an LSD trip. It was none of the above; we were just cold and the two of us were shivering. There were other images that were sharp and in focus but, to his credit, Dylan liked that photograph.“
I can relate to that choice to “choosing the imperfect” to photography. When I do an editorial portrait shoot for a magazine, I often don’t choose the expression that is like many others but one that stands out, maybe a bit off. One with something extra. Just a little, to give it that human touch.
I’ve read that the art photographer Sally Mann seeks out vintage large format lenses from the 1800s that have degradation in them–fungus, dust, separation–because she isn’t looking for perfect, but for character. Computers are perfect. Digital comes in exactly on the beat every time. Art needs the human factor, and humans aren’t perfect.
There’s a lens I recently picked up at a flea market, it’s a 35mm f1.8G Nikon DX lens. The operative word there is DX. Which is Nikon’s distinction for crop sensor camera lenses. It shouldn’t fill a full frame sensor, which Nikon designates FX. But here’s the thing, it does. Not perfectly. There’s a slight imperfection to the corners, a touch of vignetting–just about the amount I usually apply to my photographs anyway. Since my photojournalist days printing film in the darkroom, I’ve always burned the edges of my frames to make them feel contained, framed, and feature the center portion, the main subject. This 35mm prime lens does that automatically for me. FX shooters seek it out. There are wedding photographers among other pros using it on their top-of-the-line D850s for its look. Its imperfect look.
That’s why I don’t see why people lust after some new lens that gets the highest DXOmark score (a lens review web site). To me, that’s immaterial. It’s more important to see what you can get access to. What are you shooting that is suffering with your current lens, that a bit more corner sharpness is going to tell a significantly better story?
I’d rather be with a good lens backstage with Bruce Springsteen than a tack-sharp perfect lens with a bad vantage point to shoot from. You need good quality. You don’t need the latest and greatest, you just need good, and access. Bruce Springsteen isn’t playing a new guitar, though I’m sure he can afford it. Rather he’s playing his old scratched-up Fender Telecaster that he’s always played for the past 40 years. It’s the one he likes the sound of, the one that he creates his music with.
I firmly believe there are two kinds of camera people:
- Photographers who chase pictures. And who love it!
2. Gear aficionados and photography hobbyists who read about, watch videos on, buy and compare, make test shots and sell gear. And who love it!
There’s an old line, where someone asks, “I want to shoot great photographs, what should I shoot?” The answer is obvious, “What can you shoot?”
Jim Marshall, the great rock and roll photographer, shot great photographs of rock musicians because he had access to them. He got to be where they were. His subjects were better than most people get to work with. Not to take anything away from his artistry, but it’s difficult to make a bad photograph of a great performer, whether it’s Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan, especially when you have off-stage access to them.
The perfect lens doesn’t exist. And if it did, its perfection would be a detriment. We, as photographers, have all we need. What we need is to chase more photographs. A camera always at the ready. Opportunities.
This photograph wasn’t the product of a great lens. It was made with an inexpensive Nikon 70-300mm f4-5.6D zoom lens that lives in my car’s cupholder just for occasions like this. And it is plenty sharp, but not the latest and greatest of Nikon’s offerings. Not even close. It’s worth about $100. Don’t go out and buy one, the lens didn’t make it, it was the arrival to the scene before the firemen arrived, and the driver standing with his bag, which is just me getting lucky.
Seeking perfection is really an impossible achievement. Perfectionists are people who never deliver work because they have to find a reason it’s not ready to ship. As a result, perfectionism is self-defeating. The best you can do is use what’s best for what you want to do, make it and get it out there. In whatever form you choose.
The Newsweek photojournalist David Burnett sometimes uses a Holga toy camera, even having used it on a U.S. Presidential campaign, and a Graflex RB SLR 4×5 camera. NBC’s Frank Thorpe V uses a Graflex 4×5 Speed Graphic on Capitol Hill. Neither is looking for perfection, but for character. Originality.
Special sauce. But not perfect sauce.
Even back in my newspaper photographer days, I remember making photographs where the people I was photographing said, “Everyone’s not in it, and we’re not all lined up, do you want us to all get together?” And I said, “No, I don’t set up news photos and if it’s a little messy, that’s ok, that’s real. That’s what I photograph, real events, not set up ones.” It’s why when I photographed building groundbreakings with dignitaries all holding shovels and posing, I’d make that photo since they were expecting it, then keep shooting once they were done and used the unposed photo for the story, because it showed them congratulating each other and being present at the event, not just present for the camera.
So, go for the story. Not the perfect corner sharpness. We can always choose to improve our gear, to get the best, the latest. But we just may realize we already have what we need to tell our story. And what’s most important is that we go out and make those photos and tell that story, the one only we can tell. Because no one sees the world quite the way we do.
We each have our own unique vision. And the world needs it. It needs our art. Don’t worry about perfection. Make photographs and tell us your stories. Show us your world.
I run a monthly gathering of photographers called Beers+Camera:Boulder where we gather together and bring photographs and screen or show them, and the one thing I notice every time is that what each photographer chooses to show says so much about them. “This is what I like, what I value. What I want you to see me showing. This is what I picked that represents my view of the world.” Every one is different and each is so revealing.
The photos may not all be perfect, but they are real. And say so much about each photographer.
The work that matters to them. That’s the kind of work I’m most interested in. Never once have we discussed corner sharpness. But many times we’ve been moved by a moment captured, a special photograph made their way. That told their story.
“Here’s who I am. This is what I like. Allow me to show you me.”
[Anyone get my title reference?]