1. Imperfection
Published: 11.01.2012
in the series Photographic Realism, an Attempt

In looking at both contemporary exhibitions as well as photographs as they are used in everyday aesthetic applications, one notices that imperfection plays a key role. Far removed from the ideals of the Group f/64, New Objectivity, or even the Bechers and their school, to name a few positions, photographs that consciously employ technical errors have become common sense in photography. There are photographers who use deficient cameras; Lomography aficionados sell their photographs along with this type of camera in stores in major cities; snapshots are in demand, and blurriness is the aesthetic rule. Imperfection is the new ideal of contemporary photography, even if celebrated, staged, and represented in a kind of perfection. My thesis is that imperfection serves as the contemporary modus of the real in photography. For this very reason photography has become enamored of and committed to inaccuracy, because it enables a form of representation that aims to conceptualize reality in a unique aesthetic manner. This is a strange vestige of the photographic, which, far removed from the epistemic contexts of the 19th and early 20th century, conveys an aesthetization of the ordinary. Imperfection transforms every object into a photographic reality, which emphasizes a different regime of images precisely by eschewing and renouncing the perfection of technology.

A look to history may help make this more comprehensible. In examining the history of photography, one notices that towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century a new type of manual suddenly appears, which is primarily concerned with preventing mistakes. Sometimes conceived as veritable primers spelling out the ABCs of the successful photograph, these books ascribe to a normative program in regard to both technical as well as aesthetic errors. They are intended for amateurs who do not yet know what has long been common knowledge to professionals. The books formulate the rules of an “orthographic” practice. Soon, however, in the second half of the 1920s there emerge alternative projects, which attempt, in contrast, to translate such supposed mistakes into a modernist photographic practice. The most famous is Werner Gräff’s Es kommt der neue Fotograf! (Here comes the new photographer!) from 1929.

The conflict between a normative orthophotography, on the one hand, and an experimental deviation, on the other, is merely a brief chapter in an alternative history of photography that is based on productive mistakes. This kind of history has yet to be written. It would begin already in the early age of photography, in which “epistemic mistakes” were part of the repertoire which was fine-tuned precisely because of the mistakes. A focal period would be the late 19th century with the amateur photography movement, on the one hand, and spiritualistic photography, on the other, and it would then branch into multiple directions in the 20th century. The most important aspects are the so-called snapshot photographers and all the recent trends towards exploring the low quality camera as a possible means of producing alternative images, in the literal sense of the word.

These tendencies are not merely concerned with mistakes and their productive application but also with the discovery of photography as a visualization process of the unexpected. Photography is intended to show and materialize in images something that could not have been planned in advance. The aim of the project is an alternate history of photography as the happy exploration of error and as an investigation of imperfection. I invite you to an exploration of such an alternative theory and history of photography.

58 comment(s)
Martin Jaeggi
Posted 15.01.2012 at 14:55

Imperfection has indeed become an aesthetic ideal in contemporary photography as Bernd Stiegler quite rightly points out. Yet I am not certain that this phenomenon is quite so coherent in itself. Rather, it seems to me that there are different modes of imperfection with quite different implications. I will restrict myself to contemporary photography, well aware that photographic imperfection has a longer history that begs to be written.

1.) The large-scale craze for imperfection started in the 1990s with the type of diaristic photography that was then often called "snapshot photography," i.e. Nan Goldin, Wolfgang Tillmans et al. in the art world, Jürgen Teller, Corinne Day et al. in fashion. Imperfection (analogue imperfection, that is) here signified authenticity, intimacy, freshness, a refusal of the often over-aestheticized imagery that was prevalent in the 1980s. It tied in nicely with the zeitgeist – with the sense of a new era, with rave and techno culture, with the various post-cold-war / pre-9/11 utopias fuelled by the first stock market-boom. This look quickly became prevalent in magazine and advertising, and was, alongside staged photography, one of the two strands of imagery favored during the art-world photo boom of the late 1990s / early 2000s.

2.) Another mode of imperfection surfaced with mobile phones with built-in cameras and pocket-size digital cameras. Suddenly, political events would be documented with grainy, shoddily shot pictures by amateurs that found their into international media outlets. The increased quality of built-in cameras in smartphones has turned this type of imagery into standard media fare, i.e. everyone is a reporter now. Imperfection here suggests the authenticity of the eye-witness report. It implies that the image has not been tampered with by means of Photoshop or other digital imaging programs. It seems credible since in the age of digital photography crisply perfect images seem no longer exactly trustworthy, quite in contrast to the golden age of photojournalism.

3.) The latest mode of photographic imperfection seems to be blatantly nostalgic, in a quite distinct contrast to the forward-looking exuberance of the first. It manifests itself in an interest in old analogue cameras and techniques, photograms, etc. that can be observed in certain quarters of the art and photo world. Its most salient manifestation are, it seems to me, hugely popular apps like Hipstamatic or Instagram that allow you to give a smartphone photograph the appearance of an analogue print. A quick look at Facebook indicates that a number of people prefer to show their lives tinged in the distinct yellow of old Kodachrome film applied by one of those apps. Indeed, you even get to choose between the looks of various film stocks from the 1950s, 60s, or 70s. These effects could be considered the visual analogue to certain strands in current pop music that heavily rely on sampling sounds that are distinctively from the past. Both are part of a certain retromania that seems sweep Western culture. Quite in contrast to the first two modes, imperfection here no longer signifies authenticity, but rather subjectivist nostalgia.

It seems to me that these three modes of imperfection are rather distinct. With photography's digital turn the connotations of imperfection have changed. The transition from analogue photography's imperfections as a signifier of renewal to a signifier of nostalgia seems to me as particularly striking. The credibility of imperfect mobile photographs in the news media seems to express an equal unease with the crisp and shiny perfection of digital imagery that no longer seems to reference anything undeniably real. Isn't maybe the penchant for imperfection these days an expression of a nostalgia for a photographic "real" that once was, rather than a trademark of realism?

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 15.01.2012 at 23:20

Dear Martin,

thank you very much for your precise comment. I share completely your point of view. In a way "imperfection" as I understand it is a sort of umbrella term covering a huge variety of different - and distinct - aspects of contemporary photography. "Imperfection" as a means of expression is a heuristic aproach to discover and to figure out implicit ideas and to put them into explicit ones. The three different modes of imperfection you are pointing out - diaristic, technical and nostalgic approach - are the most important ones in contemporary photography and they are , you are perfectly right, themselves - and alltogether - an expression of a profound nostalgia in the digital age. Photography seems to move back from more or less perfect digital techniques to other forms of expression using imperfection a an implicit critique of the digital possibilty. Photography is, considered from this perspective, a practice of reflection on the possibilities and the limits of technological perfection. And it shows that even the most perfect technique is imperfect. Photographic realism, that would be the main point, is in way independent from technological progress. The "real" is beyond the "hard ware" of the camera and it's apparatuses.
I am answering a little late because I was watching the new German "Tatort" (I think the title is "Todesbilder") in which photography was playing an important (and metaphorically quite exagerated) role. Here again, in this popular film dealing (which is interesting because it is always a sort of visible form of a presumably social unconsciousness) with actual phantasmas of photography, "realism" has to do with a complex psychological dimension of photographing images. The "real" we attribute to photography has to do with cultural settings in which even the most personal ones (personal phantasmas) are explicitely social ones.

Daniel Blochwitz
Posted 15.01.2012 at 19:49

Snapshot aesthetic has been deliberately used for quite some time in photography (but at least since the 1970s) in order to distinguish one's "real-life" concerns from those of aesthetician in the art world (aside, of course, from those in fashion, advertisement and editorial photography), whose photographs are often highly manipulated and technically pushed to an expert level. In fact, so-called concerned or political photographers often employ/ed imperfect aesthetics as a way of leveling the playing field and in order to somewhat dissolve the you-versus-me or subject-versus-photographer binary. It is interesting, though, that this "anti-aesthetic" has become a dominant aesthetic just in the moment when we reach a new height in the democratization of image-taking and -distribution. I assume the easy availability of tools for perfect images via recent technological advancements and their ever down-spiraling prices caused the pendulum to swing back the other way towards "nostalgia". Since everyone seems to be able to convince himself or herself to be an expert photographer, one wants to increasingly produce images that look like they have been taken with previous technologies that may have required true expertise and experience.

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 15.01.2012 at 23:33

Dear Daniel,

thank you very much for your suggestions. In fact, the actual photographic industry is using this desire to produce "other" images instead of "perfect" ones is already "pre-programmed" in the program-options you get if you buy a camera. I figured it out by chance when I was using my new camera because I commited a fault. The clear photo I was hoping to get was a "pictorial" one or even a "pinhole"-image (with modern digital camera!). Today there was in article about these programs - a sort of "photoshop in the camera".
Quite funny - isn't it?

David Campany
Posted 15.01.2012 at 20:33

Thanks for a highly suggestive opening post.

I think there is already a history of imperfection in photographic art although perhaps it has not been made explicit or conceptualized. There may be at least three reasons for this. Firstly, what has been at stake in the significance of imperfection has shifted continuously since the mid-late 19th century. Secondly there is a very wide range of photographic qualities or attributes (and also responses) that could be understood as imperfect, although they probably all stack up against ‘the rules of an “orthographic” practice’, as Bernd calls it. Thirdly, these various imperfections have had currencies in art that have been related in complex ways to their currency outside of art, in the fields of the applied image (reportage, advertising and fashion, for example) as well as the domestic snapshot.

On my desk before me I have a fascinating little book published in 1902 titled Why My Photographs Are Bad. You can see it in reasonable resolution here:


Its author, Charles M. Taylor Jr., also took the photographs for this manual. It is aimed at amateurs (a wide category) and lists the various ‘mistakes’ that afflict their images: Bad Framing: Omitting to use a headrest for portraits; Subjects posing awkwardly; Making time exposures when the wind is blowing; Foreshortening; Pictures out of focus; Lens cap inadvertently left on; Taking two pictures on one plate; Halo or ghost; The Shadow of the operator; Too much foreground; Too much sky; Failing to hold camera level while focusing; Photographing against the sun; Over-exposure; Under-exposure; Pictures in which perpendicular objects lean, or have the appearance of toppling over. Each mistake is illustrated with a photo. He follows these with his own ‘correct’ versions before ending his text with: “Keep your own style and originality, for by doing that you will become a leader in photography, and not a mere copyist or follower of others.”

Taylor imagines a photography of individuality and originality that ‘keeps to the rules’. We may laugh at the high-mindedness of his not untypical project, presuming art really must break such rules while citing everything from nineteenth and early twentieth century Pictorialism with its sandpapered lenses and hand-brushed emulsions to New Vision and Constructivist penchants for novel angles and framings, the Subjective Photography movements in Europe and North America, Conceptual Art’s romance with amateurism and the de-skilled, and the diaristic modes that were so prevalent in art photography of the 1990s). But this also tends to dogma. It is not for anyone to say that it is impossible to be original and significant while following every one of Taylor’s rules. Indeed there are plenty of examples of photographers doing just that.

In the mid-1990s I became intrigued by the little stickers placed occasionally upon photographs returned by the typical high street photo lab in the UK. Each sticker declared a problem: Over exposure; under exposure; blur; focus, fogging, film tearing, colour cast and so on. In small print there would be some advice to help you avoid the problem next time. The lab technicians would asses your images by eye and affix the appropriate sticker if they spotted an ‘error’. There were no stickers for framing, awkward posing of subjects or converging verticals. The emphasis was on more narrowly technical errors, although of course they too have an aesthetic dimension. I asked one of the technicians how she knew how to judge the images. She said her company (Snappy-Snaps) sent her for training where she was shown endless examples of ‘bad’ images. At the end she was tested on her ability to diagnose the imperfections. She told me there were thirteen different ones, each with its own sticker. So I tried to shoot a roll of thirty-six exposures committing all thirteen mistakes. When I got my processed photos back I found I had been given only four different stickers. When I complained the technician told me she was only allowed to give four, in order not to discourage the customer from taking more photos. It’s a fine balance between imperfection and financial profit.

Well, with the advent of the digital camera and home printing the amateur photo lab has almost disappeared. Digital cameras still make a few of those old ‘analogue’ mistakes, but not others. More to the point seeing one’s images immediately on the back of the camera one can ‘correct’ there and then.

Arguably this amateur photography is becoming more technically/aesthetically standardized than even the hegemony of Kodak’s advertizing could have wished for. At the same time one can discern technical and aesthetic standardization in photography’s professional fields. While I’m not sure I agree with Bernd’s suggestion that imperfection is the new norm in contemporary art photography, I do think its presence is considerable and it may have something to do with a reaction against this standardization. It certainly seem inseparable from a more acute attention to traditional emulsion/celluloid based photographic technology (it seems misguided to call it ‘analogue’ or even ‘traditional’) and from a slightly overstated revival of interest in the materiality of the print, in reaction to the immateriality of the electronic screen image.

But to even conceive of the notion of imperfection – and so many contemporary photographic artists do refer to it by that name – speaks clearly of a persistent and normative notion of the ‘perfect’.

In this light it is worth considering the recent interest in the Lomo camera. Photography and cameras have always had their cults. The rise of ‘Lomography’, which has grown to international proportions, is larger than most. At its root is a rudimentary compact camera with a history that is almost a symbol of our contradictory times.
The Lomo factory was set up in Leningrad in 1914. It made optical instruments for the Russian army. At one time it employed thousands. It made its first hand-held camera in 1937. With the fall of communism the fate of the factory hung in the balance. In the early 1990s a bunch of trendy Austrians liked the Lomo Kompakt and the pictures produced by its simple aperture, shutter and F2.8 lens (it gives a slightly vignetted image). Its functional simplicity was reinterpreted as trendy lo-fi cool for a technocratic generation looking for something ‘different’. Appropriating the Lomo had a good whiff of nostalgia about it, but not for the old Soviet Union in which it was produced. For an image culture accelerating towards greater detail and the digital, it was thought to be something out of step.
In the last decade Lomo has outgrown its dubious post-communist chic and is now marketed as a lifestyle accessory like any other. A Lomographic Society was set up. It helped the company reinvent itself as a profitable enterprise. There are now Lomo ‘embassies’ in over seventy countries. The Society has over half a million members. Central to the whole thing has been pseudo philosophy based on ten rules of Lomography:

Take your Lomo everywhere you go.
Use it anytime - day and night.
Lomography is not an interference with your life but a part of it.
Get as close as possible.
Don't think.
Be fast.
You don't have to know beforehand what is on your film.
Nor afterwards.
Try to shot from the hip.
Don't worry about rules

Yes, it does sound suspiciously like an ad for Microsoft, or even a bank with an image problem, appealing to your ‘individual creative expression’. It’s tempting to assume there must be something inherently democratic in the idea of people being encouraged to photograph their daily lives. There could be, but simply owning a means of communication doesn’t constitute empowerment in any meaningful sense. One only has to think of the way the highly lucrative mobile phone industry runs in the end on trivia.
On paper the freewheeling spontaneity of Lomo should produce some real social or photographic insight. But the results are often numbingly repetitive. Despite what is possible, this self-conscious exercise in ‘liberated’ photography has ended up generating its own formulaic habits. Looking at Lomo imagery you see the same subject matter coming up again and again. There are dozens of Lomo websites, countless exhibitions and publications, but what dominates them all are images of parties, sunsets, trees, dogs, food, gigs, fuzziness and blur. It’s a combination of a ‘look’ determined by the camera and a subject matter determined by the underlying similarity of the lives and aspirations of the snappers. A chillingly banal marriage of technical imperfection and ideological perfection.
As we know from marketing history a camera is an ideal product because in itself it means so little, it has so little content (although theorists like Villem Flusser might disagree on this point). One can project any number of things onto it. This is why, since the Box Brownie, cameras have been pitched as lifestyle accessories. The difference is that where the idea of the family was central to the photographic industry for the best part of a century, now it is mobile single people. And just as family snaps are deeply conventional and thoroughly repetitive so is this new image culture. The thin irony is that it purports to be all about individualism.

In the end Lomography has little to do with the particularities of its not-so-special camera. The phenomenon is better seen as a symptom of a generation discovering that photography can make the dumbness of the everyday fascinating, if only briefly. It’s a law of diminishing returns. The initial excitement rapidly fades away. Of course there are minor joys to be gained from photographing one’s everyday experience, from drawing attention to the overlooked little details of life as it passes in unexpected focus and hue. But do it too much and it soon becomes as bland as the life it attempts to transform. Lomo culture responds by shifting the emphasis from the single shot to the big pile of snaps – you are supposed to take lots of pictures quickly, from the hip, to move on, to avoid preciousness. Each image is deferred by the next in a fidgety search for the meaningful. This is why Lomo publicity so often uses the photo grid or the strip - the tedious can be redeemed as pretty pattern, the imperfections leveling out each other. And listless casualness can be celebrated as if it were a visual poetry of the real.
The more irrelevant the chance details the more ‘real’ a representation can seem to be. This is not a new idea. Charles Dickens was a master of it. His novels were crammed with descriptions of objects, surfaces, interiors and faces. The result was what Barthes called the ‘reality effect’, a detailed backdrop for the stories. With Lomo culture, backdrop is all there is - a mass of imperfections blurring into each other. It amounts to a visual equivalent of elevator music. Let’s call it Viewzak.
To this extent Lomo aesthetics corresponds with the general shift in ideas about photographic realism. Where once this was the preserve of the skilled, discerning professional, now it is the deskilled snap and the accidental that is thought to embody all that is honest and true. The true is no longer understood as something reasoned but as something arrived at by chance. This is the logic that calls snapshots taken in Tahrir Square ‘citizen journalism’ when in fact it is citizen reportage, something we’ve had since at least 1860s, with a reality effect linked very much to its imperfections – think Robert Capa on Omaha Beach, or Abraham Zapruder’s footage of the assassination of JFK in Dallas.
Of course the Lomo ethos is hardly unique. It fits in perfectly well with image culture of free market internationalism. The whole phenomenon has come about between the fall of communism and the filtering down of the digital compact camera to the mass market. In fact the ten Lomo rules actually seem far more suited to the way digital cameras can be used, not least because it is so much cheaper to be careless without film. (It is surprising that the half-frame camera has never been rediscovered like the Lomo. Popular in the 1960s and 70s it used regular 35mm film but you got seventy-two shots on a roll. Half the quality, twice the quantity).

Lomo has expanded in recent years. The new plastic models actually build in the idea of multiple pictures with their four cheap lenses that shoot mini-sequences. They are no longer Russian but made in the Far East. Like the training shoe, that other mass-produced commodity sold as individualism, they are put together where the labour is cheap. Just Do It? Maybe Lomo is the Nike of photography.

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 16.01.2012 at 00:37

Dear David,

thank you so much for your rich comment. The book you are mentioning seems to be a really great one and thanks of your link I'll be able to read it. There is a wonderful short book of Clément Chéroux "Fautographie" (hard to translate (especially in German), because it plays on the double meaning of "fault" and "photography") which quotes quite a lot of examples going in this direction.
The central issue of the book you have discovered - as far as I can guess it - is the idea that there should be a sort of individual expression which is always against "orthophotography" and technique. Technical perfection is considered to be naturally against individuality. That's, in fact, a rather philosophical idea which is far from being self evident. The long tradition of the dispute between between photography and fine arts is focusing precisely this idea. On one hand there are the fine arts as means of "symbolic" representation transgressing the mere mimetic "copy" of the phenomenous world; on the other there is photography as a mechanical non-individual "pencil of nature" which is by definition a "naturalistic", scientific or impersonal image. The history of "imperfection" up to the Lomo-movement seems to be still in this tradition which in considered to be an old-fashioned one - but obviously remains to be a crucial one too. The idea that individuality has to be in a constant confrontation with the technique can be found for example in Flusser's "Philosophy of photography". In his eyes photography has its very task in a permanent "war" against a "universe of technical images". "Individuality" or "personal freedom" can only be conceived as forms of images which are not already pre-programed by the "black box" of the camera. This idea is illustrated, just to mention one example, in the film "One Hour Photo" which has to do with your personal experience of photo labs. (Do you have the complete list of the 13 errors? That would be really great!) At the end of the film one series of photos shows the "idea of photography" - far from the hegemomy of standardized photos: what you can see on the photos are insignificant details, a sort of "language of the things" beyond cultural commodification or "Aneignung". The individual expression is shifting from the subject to the object and it is the very object which grants individuality. But your question is still remaining: What can be individual expression or individuality in the realm of photography? And behind this question there is another one: Why do we (still) concede such an important role to individuality in photography? Michel Foucault - just to name one of the master-theories of visual culture - wrote very few texts on photography. In a quite astonishing way he was very enthousiastic about "pictorial" photography (which, to say it explicitely, was an important contribution to the history of "imperfect" images) because pictorialism was trangressing the boundaries between art and photography. But why do we still think photography in these categories? Writing a history of "imperfect" images would be, in fact, another way of reconsidering history of photography as a cultural history and as a history of the theories of individuality, art, expression and so on.

David Campany
Posted 17.01.2012 at 14:35

What's interesting about ''imperfection" in and as art is that it commonly has to present itself as somehow perfect, that is to say deliberate, intended, trustworthy. If such an image is out of focus it is not ever-so-slightly, annoyingly, unsettlingly out of focus; it's 'definitely' out of focus. The same with colour-cast, or off-kilter framing, or scratched negatives or wayward exposure, in fact all the imperfections we've been listing. Photographers seem anxious to avoid that liminal area where the viewer might not realise and attribute the intention ("...doesn't she KNOW it's not sharp?!..."). But, strictly speaking, one could say that this liminal, ambiguous area really is the zone proper of imperfection . Everything else is perfect!

andrea stultiens
Posted 16.01.2012 at 13:04

Thank you all for this very interesting series of posts. I would like to add a few small thoughts to consider.

Concerning the camera; I do not remember Flusser saying that the images are already completely 'made' by the camera, but that the way the camera is constructed/programmed is part of the image it produces. Everyone making photographs uses this program. The photographer can try to be smarter than the camera, make use of the program within a set of criteria he (or she) set for himself. (I am not interested in the individual expression of the photographer (and would really like it if we would get over that romantic view), but in what is said using photographs.) Making use of, being smarter than the camera can include the use of imperfection, and I think this has always been done throughout the history of photography. The amateur walks into the program and its limitations, this can be recognized by the professional (Erik Kessels & co.), appropriated, and is at them moment the source of an endless list of publications.

Then another thing that is fascinating I think is the perfection and/or imperfection of what is chosen to be in front of the camera and the way this is dealt with through time. Will give that some thought myself and try to get back to it. In the mean time I am looking forward to reading more (previous) posts and what follows.

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 16.01.2012 at 17:09

Dear Andrea,

here are some quotes of Vilém Flusser. For him photography is "programmed magic" but a magic due to the camera and the apparatus. The photographer is a mere "functionary" ("Beamter") combining variations already given by the programs. But the capital idea is to conceive the task of contemporary photography as a battle or struggle between photographer and machine. Individual expression has an extremely small space of articulation. But photography has - at least in this theory - an important role, because it determines the boundairies of human freedom in a technological world. That's a real "apocalyptical" point of view and with extremely heavy philosophical presuppositions.
The easier and maybe more fruitful appraoch would be to think "imperfection" as a means of expression beyond the traditional categories amateur/professional, individual expression/cultural determination etc. The "Imperfect" has another logic of performativity and that's the important issue.

Jim Zimmermann
Posted 16.01.2012 at 15:29

wasn´t it william klein, who at first took imperfect photographs in the early sixties?

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 16.01.2012 at 17:13

William Klein did a lot of them, but there are many others: for example surrealistic photography, "abstract photography" (brulages and so on) or many exemples in "Es kommt der neue Fotograf!". Robert Frank was working with "one way camera" (thrown away after completing the film) or Robert Capa was using "imperfection" as a style of "authenticity".

David Campany
Posted 17.01.2012 at 14:16

I think in terms of influence Alexey Brodovitch's book 'Ballet', published in 1945 but shot in the late 30s, was key. His over/under exposed, roughly printed, wonky, ad hoc, scratched photos certainly converted 'errors' into expressionistic devices. The book was never commercially available but Brodovitch, art director at Harper's Bazaar at the time, gave it to many photographers and friends in the business.

Michele Smargiassi
Posted 16.01.2012 at 15:38

I completely agree, though it may seem quite paradoxical, with the idea that imperfection is becoming an effective “authenticy tag”. I understand that as a sort of reaction against the increasing false smoothness and apparent “realism” of all those digital paintings pretending to show a strong photographic aspect. But I also fear that the identification between imperfection and authenticity could finally evolve in a new arbitrary and misleading cliché, very easily adaptable for commercial purposes: every smartphone now includes image applications creating for you a perfect photographic “mistake” in the style of film-based toy cameras. In other words, my opinion is that digital imagery is quickly appropriating every corner of the photographic field, including tecnophobic areas of opposition and resistence to the new digital paradigm. This is not anymore some sort of snapshot aesthetics, instead we could call it technological imperialism...
Anyway, a brief but acute history of photographic imperfecion has been actually written by french historian Clément Chéroux in his “Fautographie, pétite histoire de l’erreur photographique”.
Congratulations for your blog.

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 16.01.2012 at 17:23

Dear Michele,

thank you for your clear warning concerning technophobia and your comments on "technological imperialism". In fact, every program of the digital industry is a reaction on a particular demand of the clients. It is really hard to explain why someone buying a modern, expensive and technologically highly developed camera needs programs to transform "good", "technically perfect" or "focuesd" photos in odd or imperfect ones. This is already taking place: nearly every camera has such a program.
This has to do with an impact of imperfection as a visual grammar. The interesting question would be to figure out the logic of this visual grammar. It's not an arbitrary language but a semiotically well defined one. We encounter a new language of imperfection which is far from being "individual expression" or "authentic" etc.

Michele Smargiassi
Posted 17.01.2012 at 16:04

For a clearer vision we should perhaps turn the topic the other way round. If we take a photographic style as "imperfect", we're probably assuming that there is somewhere such a thing as a "perfect photograph". Bu how do we define, or recognize, a "perfect photograph"?

Posted 18.01.2012 at 23:53

Another characteristic of highly accurate, technically perfect digital images is blandness. A black and white conversion of a digital photograph is typically quite dull, with flat grays. Using a digital filter in Photoshop or with in-camera software to heighten contrast and emulate film grain gives "punch" to an otherwise lifeless grayscale image.

Casimiro Mondino
Posted 16.01.2012 at 16:02

I think that imperfection in photography and also in many creative area is a simple way to take a good control over the market. It's more simple shot imperfect photos, there are more people able to do that and the quality became an indirect value that have to be certificate, in this situation the market could be controlled and oriented in a more simple way. In the last 20 years million people has gained the ability to shoot photos but great new photography masters did not revealed to public. We have discovered photography artist but not masters. A perfect photography is always a very complex action, rare and really difficult to realize, and people are not interested in that kind of things, they like to imagine to be masters and is really simple to think so if famous artist are no so far from their capabilities.

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 16.01.2012 at 17:28

Dear Casimiro,

I won't be as pessimistic as you are concerning contemporary photography. There are a lot of great photographers. It's always difficult to call them "masters" but they discover (and make us discover) a new vision of things. And that's not too bad.

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 16.01.2012 at 17:36

And here is the daily "imperfect" photo:


And this photo is called a "masterpiece".

Casimiro Mondino
Posted 17.01.2012 at 10:48

I'm sorry for my english, could be better for me answer in Italian but I know that it's not possible. Now what we mean with "Imperfection"? Tha image that you show it's not a sample of an imperfect image, it's the best result possible at that stage of technical development. It was a ultra perfect image at that level of technical knowledge. Was a masterpiece because was an incredible technical result. I think that cultural relativism is pervading our timem we have created the contemporary art (for example) what does it mean, art is and will be always avangarde. Here in Italy some body has created the "Trans avanguardia" what does it mean?. Why we appear to be plenty of desire to give more and more and more sense to the words than to the work? It's more difficult create a great art work than a great definition. This is what I mean when I say that imperfection is not contemporary photography (take a look at photographers shown at http://www.photography-now.net/) but contemporary art. And for me contemporary art is the commercial side of the art, is a decorative expression that is only dedicated to the market (and there is a good hystorical period with lot of clear samples that confirm this position). Imperfection is a loss of quality in relation to the current technical possibilities (and when I talk about technical possibilities, I speak of mechanical and language ability), imperfection mean "the quality or condition of being imperfect" or "a shortcoming; defect; fault; blemish" and that images that you have shown to me is not imperfect because there is a relative perfection not an absolute perfection in our life. All things are relative to the level of development of our culture, and that images was the maximum expression at that time. All art work that use a complex and revolutionary way to manipulate the technical are not imperfect, trivialization is imperfection, reduction of quality (not the resolution of image obviously) in stratification of messages, a loss of control and intentionality in the art work (action painting is not an imperfect art work system for all artist because the use of the technical knowledge is clearly conscious, there is the evidence of it). To be an artist the first level is to be a master in the technical instrument that you decide to use, after the artist has to be a significant intellectual, after the artist has to have talent, after has to have the vision. This are the different levels of art when an artist has all of them he became an absolute master, imperfetion is defect a masters has a perfect controll over the thinks that he want to do other wise every body could do every think and became a master. I want use a simple sample here for explain my thoughts, and is in italian: "mi illumino di immenso" is a sentence written by Ungaretti and is an extraordinary sentence, poetical and revolutionary because Ungaretti was a deep and absolute master of italian language and that sentence was a deep effort to destroy well known and consolidated rules. Many fisherman here in my little town could say similar sentence for jocking every day but there don't know any rules of their language, they don't make any revolution in our knowledge and culture. The image that you have shown has changed the world, where is "imperfection"?

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 17.01.2012 at 11:15

Dear Casimiro,

thank you very much for your comments. I propose to distinguish different types of "imperfection". The photo of Talbot is what I would like to call "epistemic imperfection". That means "imperfection" is conceived as a heuristic pratice in order to improve photography and to discover new types of photographic images. Quite a lot of early experiments in photography go in this direction. In this case, "imperfection" has a really material dimension. I tried to give a more detailed idea in an essay in the German journal "Fotogeschichte". It's No. 122. Here is the link: http://www.fotogeschichte.info/

Casimiro Mondino
Posted 17.01.2012 at 19:15

I'm sorry but I can't find your article, only the title. Could be interesting for me to know your position with more precision. By my point of view (as an artist) it's necessary understand your idea to put the photography inside the epistemiologic system, photography, from it's start was a figurative art, and like all other arts has it's own technical (mechanical, chemical, linguistic) development. But usually photography was used in the same way as a pencil, I always listen the photography to be defined automatic and instantaneous reprodacution system that differ from drawing and painting for his automatism, but honestly it's a great mistake. To shoot a photos there is a traslation of the process from during the action (painting and drwaing) to before the action (photography). Photography like film making, is a complete autonomous expressive medium. Photography hasn't any relation with drawing or painting, but it is an expressive techinque, it is a figurative art that has some scioentific elements inside (like the pigments in painting, the basis and so on) but also philosophical elements, emotional elements, rational elements and because it is an expressive medium there are complex relation inside that I can't understand in what way become epistemologic. Now I ahave to read you article to have more precise idea about that could help me to understand.

Casimiro Mondino
Posted 17.01.2012 at 14:14

Hy Bernd, don't you think that all artistic experience are euristic? An artist is always engaged in push the tools that use to express him self to new possibilities that has to be empiric to bekame art work.

Jean-Marc Caimi
Posted 16.01.2012 at 17:42

I am photojournalist and recently I run a free class of photography dedicated to migrants and refugees in Italy. Most of them don't own a proper camera and shoot with cell phones or with very basic gear, often borrowed somewhere (technical sponsor didn't join us). In my classes we talk much of the "imperfection" concept. This happens partially because of the impossibility to reach technical perfect shots and partially because I strongly believe on the strenght of the heuristic approach (not only) in photography. I have to face a first skepticism, because the imperfectionist approach is very much a western oriented concept. In facet, many of my pupils, coming from Africa, Asia or South America are very much "neat is good" or "technique first" oriented. But my (for them) awkward way of teaching them photography classes, where the snapshot, the imperfection, the instictive is priviledged, sometimes have to face a reality where these rules are a complete failure. Confused composition, harsh flash, monodimensional pictures, coming from a imperfect technique and approach are often the result. There's nothing as a poetic imperfection in these images. They are just unpleasant and I have to go over many didactics concepts with them, to exlain what could have been done, instead, with the photograpic scene, starting with composition, flash technique, exposure tips, etc, to end with positioning of the camera and handling of the whole situation. I have to correct the imperfections. So, I face a short-circuit. "Domesticated imperfection"? It sounds silly enough. I have to face the reality that we have a double headed imperfection. A good one and a bad one. An artistic imperfection and an imperfection that is simply a mistake. But what should I teach then? To express such a concept is way too complicated. And the cultural fracture, again, comes strongly in evidence in this situation. If I show them some Michael Ackerman photos, well, there's not much enthusiasm for that blurry and emotional imperfection. Stuck in this limbo, I just remove the "imperfection" word from my teacher's vocabulary, to replace it with the words "open ended". Meaning a photography that doesen't explain it all to the viewer, leaving space for interpretation. This rule leaves much more space and it seems getting to the same point as the "imperfection". Because even a technical flawless picture can contain such a secret ingedient. Could it be that "imperfection" is the shortcut to an "open ended" photography?

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 16.01.2012 at 18:11

Dear Jean-Marc,

thank you for your highly interesting comment. You are right: there is a double-headed imperfection. "Imperfection" in photography is not necesserily leading to good, pleasant or even "artistic" photos. When Werner Graeff published "Es kommt der neue Fotograf!" in 1929 as a harsh and explicit critique of the traditional conventions of photography (what I call "orthophotography") he did it in a pedagogical and instructive way showing examples of "good" photographs which were far away from the conventions but still (or even precisely because of their difference) excellent and innovative. It's again an instructional manual. "Imperfection" has its proper rules. If you go to a "Lomo"-shop the photos look a little bit the same. They have their own visual language. But to come back to your question: Why not showing again this old but still fascinating book of Graeff? Or why not discussing a series of Capa or the FSA-photographers or other series? Some of the photos are far from being convincing... So they might discover what makes a photo interesting. But I think you do all this already. You are perfectly right in emphasizing that this in fact an extremely eurocentric point of view because it is based on a long and complex history of photography. In a way photography is a language and to do "good" photos is comparable to a good writer who has to find his own style and his proper means of expression.

Alexander Beck
Posted 16.01.2012 at 17:57

Dear Bernd,

I just read your article and while I agree with some of your points, I am surprised you seriously think "Lomo should produce some real social or photographic insight".

When all is said and done, equipment is largely irrelevant. Isn't it?

A camera is surely just another tool to help artist's capture their imagination. I think it was the inimitable Ansel Adams who correctly pointed out that “the single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it”. He of course meant the photographer. Irrespective of how perfect or imperfect equipment and images are, if the imagination is out of focus so is the image and message.

Moreover, the key to good photography remains the same as with anything else, know the limits of your equipment and let your imagination create accordingly.

With kind regards,

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 16.01.2012 at 18:31

Dear Alexander,

I have to confess that I am not an adept of the Lomo-movement but I find it historically and aesthetically interesting. For me as a photo-historian or photo-theorist it is a visible shift concerning the social acceptability of authenticity and the way "realism" is taking place in photography. That's all. Lomo is a pars pro toto example of one of the most important contemporary forms of expression - but has to be explained. All along the 19th century photos like this would have been far away from being accepted as "authentic" ones. To give an impression of "realism" photos had to be sharp and detailed. And to go a little bit further in the history of photography: in the movement of pictorialism around 1900 "fuziness", as Peter Henry Emerson called it, was a consequence of a "subjective realism" trying to approach visually the subjective impression by the restricted possibilities of the camera. But the impact was still an artistic one. In press photography (Capa and others) "imperfection" was already used as a "rhetoric" visual strategy. And now we encounter an overwhelming mass of "imperfect" photos using quite different strategies.

Karl Kramer
Posted 16.01.2012 at 18:44

Dear Bernd,
to declare "imperfect" photographs as art seems to me a bit frivolous.
Most images of this category I see rather immediately show the limitations of the photographer as a photographer.
A photographer striving for mastership will always have to look for new and different ways to express himself, or else he will not be able to survive this business.
In the year 2012 the photographer who understands all the techniques and approaches of the masters before him, this photographer can today be called a master.
He must be able to look at a photograph and know how it was done.
There is nothing wrong with trying new toys, be it Lomo Cameras, be it IPhones.
In the end there has to be an image that is worth looking at it twice.
Its a matter of taste, I suppose.
Taste and style developes only through the knowledge of all the Bilderflut of the times.
Play with it! Have fun with it! Perfect the imperfection!
and keep your eyes wide open.
Karl Kramer

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 16.01.2012 at 18:52

Dear Karl,

thanks a lot. "Imperfection" was - at least in the decade from 1920-1930 - a strategy to etablish photography as art. But you are right: it is the image and not the technique that counts. And for sure: not all snapshots are "artistic" ones...

Ulrike Meyer Stump
Posted 16.01.2012 at 19:03

For an attempt to write an alternative history see also Peter Geimer, Bilder aus Versehen. Eine Geschichte fotografischer Erscheinungen, Fundus-Bücher 178, Hamburg, 2010. In his introduction, Geimer discusses André Kertész famous view of Paris called "Broken Plate" of 1929 which, in its title, emphasizes the shift from image to material, from representation to interruption, from transparency to resistance of the medium. In addition to Martin's three categories of the contemporary use of imperfection - 1) subjectivism (the intimate snapshot) 2) authenticity (the eyewitness with his "eye-phone") and 3) nostalgia, - I suggest adding a fourth category in which young artists today are deliberately, intelligently and humorously exploring chance and error as means to interfere with the dialectic relation between image and reality, representation and medium (f.ex. Stefan Burger or Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs) - in a more than just nostalgic reworking of modernist paradigms.

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 16.01.2012 at 19:39

Dear Ulrike,

Peter Geimer's book is really a great one. Thanks for giving us the references. In his categories he is - as he told me - not thinking about "faults" because they are always to be determined in relationship to intentions, rules and normative practices. His idea in "Bilder aus Versehen" is much more focusing on ontological issues, on referentiality of photography and other theoretical questions - so less historical but more philosophical.
Thanks for your proposition concerning a fourth category. Irony (and selfreflection) is important! (and the blog not ironic enough...)

Martin Jaeggi
Posted 18.01.2012 at 14:33

Dear Ulrike

Thank you for pointing out my omission. This fourth category, which we could call "self-reflexive imperfection," is indeed quite important. Not just because it asks salient questions regarding the relation of image and reality, i.e. the ontological status of photography, but also because it questions traditional notions of authorship that are intimately tied up with the Western concept of mastery. They stand in tradition of an exploration of chance, contingency, and aleatory practices that that is a major issue in 20th century art – certainly since the Surrealists and most emphatically in the wake of Cage, Fluxus et al.. Here imperfection is not a signifier of individuality, subjectivity, authenticity etc., but is rather used to explode those notions and the attendant concepts of art and the artist based on the cult of extraordinary individual and technical mastery. As some of the downright reactionary comments on this blog prove, i.e. the laments about the loss of mastery and perfection, this critique of authorship is as urgent as ever. I am sometimes quite astonished to what degree 19th-century notions of art and the artist seem to persist in certain quarters of the photo world. How is it possible to arrive in the 21st century, if you haven't even arrived in the 20th yet?

Posted 16.01.2012 at 19:56

The great thing about the iPhone apps and Lomo cameras is that people are making photographs and enjoying photography. While the artificial retro style and imperfect esthetic is trendy and popular at the moment, it too will change as new trends emerge. Those who work thoroughly in photography as artists or professionals tend to develop a style and esthetic over time that is both uniquely their own, and mostly independent of fads.

Christophe Dillinger
Posted 16.01.2012 at 21:47

i am groping my way around the idea, but I'll giveit a try...
"Imperfections" are probably what were at the heart of modern, then contemporary art. Think classical painters vs cubists for instance, although this trend should be spread all along the axis of art practices (music, architectures, etc...). I suspect a Gerricho would have found a Pollock pretty imperfect.
By its very nature, photography resisted this shift: it was very tightly linked to realism and the sciences. Now all this has gone away. Art is grungy, dirty. Not only realism has ceased to matter in painting, but non-realistic matters have actually been added to the canvas (food, found objects, corporal matters...). It seems to me that photography is simply following the same trajectory and is keeping up with the current aesthetics and conceptual paradygmes of other, more supple media.
It is also very important to note that, if we follow the "nostalgia" route to explain lomography or imperfect photography, we need to keep two things firmly in mind: one, that today's iPhone imperfections are fake (you can create your own effects in camera) and it is practiced by people who do have any link to the period this nostalgia is pointing to. It is invented nostalgia, practiced by people who have no real emotional connection with things like photo albums, yellowing prints, or 35mm slide shows (horrible experiences these were...). Why do we go out of our way to create cameras that produce imperfections? Is it to actually find a connection with the past?

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 17.01.2012 at 10:14

Dear Christophe,

thank you very much for your idea. Maybe we should think imperfection as - at least sometimes - a sort of non-mimetic photography. The approach via the realism of mimesis is not the essential one. There is another intriguing rendering of "reality" beyond "classical" visual representation.

Posted 16.01.2012 at 23:48

Perhaps another approach to imperfection was the Polaroid phenomenon,an instant record of something just seen. to see it again (of course with digital a mute idea),however it also meant,perhaps, a lack of interest in contemplating what was in front of the camera and more an interest in controlling time.Now the small Polaroid image was surely often a mess,full of accidents with sometimes a destruction of the image that was interesting ,in a surreal kind of way.Soon,, some became expert at moving the emulsion around ,leaving enough of a photographic image behind to create a marriage of painting and photography,often it was masterful.-For me the polaroids of Walker Evans have mostly been just a mere curiosity,they seem be,mostly, a compulsive collecting of signs,garbage etc. a kind of designers sourcebook of images.Yet ,now and then ,i can see how this or that photograph might become striking picture if it wasn't seen thru a milky ,unsharp,surface film.But ,it being a Walker Evans ,it is natural to integrate this work with the rest of his classic images,but to me they are "imperfect".-One of photographie's charms and powers is that it is pleasure to contemplate a photographic image ,even for the photographer ,who might see things he didn't see when the shutter went off.An imperfection calls attention to itself ,becomes ,perhaps ,a stylish device and i think contemplation within the image is made harder.

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 17.01.2012 at 10:09

and just to add one more character of polaroid photos: their fugitive existence. They fade away. Imperfection and temporal existence could be an important question.

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 17.01.2012 at 10:06

An here is the daily "imperfect" photo - today it's a photo by David Lynch:


David Campany
Posted 17.01.2012 at 15:42

By coincidence...
for anyone interested in thinking about this from the other end ('perfection'), on February 2 & 3 the Whitechapel Gallery in London hosts the symposium 'On Perfection', with a number of artists and critics discussing the photographic:


Bernd Stiegler
Posted 17.01.2012 at 16:11

and again by coincidence...
for anyone interested in pictorialistic photography: an exhibition in Konstanz ("Lichtmaler Kunst-Photographie um 1900") is showing until february 5th about 150 photos (with a lot of "gum prints" (including the first one of the brothers Hofmeister), photos by P.H. Emerson, Frank Eugene etc.): http://www.konstanz.de/wessenberg/01302/index.html

Dieter Hammer
Posted 18.01.2012 at 16:21

I do quite like this blog!

For the German speaking folks, here is a link to an excellent thesis by Kristina Lowis on the aesthetics of art photography as an international movement from 1891 to 1914.


I think it is important and worth wile to investigate a litle into pictorialism in order to understand modernism and the semiotics of current trends better.

Ludwig Datene´
Posted 18.01.2012 at 05:55

A few more thoughts while wandering in the church of "perfection "& "imperfection".I would say say that unless one has access to a cosmopolitan venue it it has hard to see a really accomplished photographic print,that is: the beauty of gradations in B&W or the choice of color emphasis or selection of a developing process,all without even taking into account the subject matter: a sensual experience.Is this banal?What about taking a civil war photo (or the many Atget versions)and making a modern print with rich blacks,is it less important than a curling stained and pale original print?Put both of them together and it is a telling comparison the imperfection in the latter is evocative in a historical way ,it has survived ,something from the tombs,thanks that we have it,the imperfection actually enhances the object.Then the modern print ,the cracks ,scratches become part of the pictures language ,perhaps learned to be acceptable ,as so many artists who engage themselves in art history,have integrated "imperfections" into the vocabulary of art ,forget about them they are part of the picture ,and now we look at the subject matter(general Grant for example) and try to get an idea what he really looked like ,but he moved ,is blurry ,"imperfection " rears its ugly head.I guess the point here is that "imperfection" can not be used as a filter ,as other esteemed bloggers above have also said._One other thing ,there is a powerful commercial trend that an original print by the photographer takes precedence over a later print by an assistant ,which might be of much better quality.For instance ,Cartier -Bresson 's prints ,made during wartime and rather poor in quality (did he even know how to print?),at a Moma exhibit,were fascinating in a 'saved from the tomb" kind of way ,but observing the viewers there ,they were taken in as one solid mass of history ,judging by the time spent on them .Quite an indictment for the master of "the decisive moment".Seeing a Talbot in person ,lifting a scrim to protect from it light,a survivor of decay.is a powerful theatrical experience ,what if it was 2o feet long in bright light ,i think it would still reveal an indelible choice vision.--Some students ,i hear talking about the corruption of photography ,the manipulation ,the sin of it.The patron saints of non-cropping(C.Bresson-W.Evans),it isnt even true they cropped ,,are the guide posts ,let photography just be record keeping ,keep the personality out of it (is that even possible after the first thousand pictures?)"imperfection""non-manipulation"is also in with the in crowd.It seems we are a now in a period of re-examination of the truth of photography .Grasshopper says :there was always manipulation in printing ,taking the picture ,lighting etc.Not for perfection ,but approximating an "imperfect" vision.Thanks for this blog ,lots to be aired,hopefully without conclusions--PS. Polaroid's digital Z340 is claimed to be "fun ,not for image quality".--Recommendation "Then is now " by Maresca ,snapshots collected by photographer/collector /dealer with a vast sensibility of photography history,check his choices..Thanks

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 18.01.2012 at 10:51

And the daily "imperfect" photo: Today it's a photo by Simone Kappeler, a very interesting Swiss photographer using a huge variety of odd cameras and films which are often no longer in use:


And here is a link to her catalogue:

Dieter Hammer
Posted 18.01.2012 at 17:08

I thougth about actual examples to illustrate Bernd´s inicial statement. Here are some great works that came to my mind: http://sallymann.com/selected-works/battlefields

William Messer
Posted 18.01.2012 at 23:30

This is an excellent topic to launch this series and much appreciated. Thank you Bernd. And thanks too to Dieter for bring Sally Mann's highly relevant more recent work to the topic. I too find myself largely in agreement with Martin's initial comment (and Ulrike's augmentation), and feel Daniel's use of the term "anti-aesthetic" to be accurate as well. I think there may have occurred an almost philosophical shift against aesthetics in the '90s, something like deliberately walking across a street when the oncoming traffic has the green light, an act of defiance and rejection of rules, as if to say the rules don't apply to me/us. Also, there is an anti-digital defiance at work (despite complete aesthetic/technical cooption by digital). Digital genuinely signals the death of photography, wherein the medium differentiates itself via it's ontological direct trace-link to its subject matter. The surge of imperfectionism may be a kind of reclaiming that ontology, resurrecting the spirit and attempting to breath life back into it. A blurred mobil phone photo taken on board one of the 9/11 planes would have become one of the more important and significant images in the first decade of this century, regardless of it's aesthetic merit (and might have inseminated a new aesthetic), exactly because of its continuing link to the actual, its presumed veracity. Imperfections became a way to first certify then signify actuality. Unfortunately, imperfectionism may be self-defeating, and little more than a wake. While for the digital semblance, and its resemblances even of the hopeful imperfections, I am tempted to augment Chéroux's term "Fautography" to refer to "Fauxtography." I also like Bernd's mention of visual grammar, as the effect of electronic communication on written grammar, from IMs to texting to tweets, may be comparable.

I am afraid I must take issue with David's history regarding the rise of "Lomography". A visit to Lomography stores will reveal masses of Diana cameras, whose use and cult status in photo-art circles well precedes that of the "trendy Austrians in the early 1990s" (although trendy Austrians were enamored of the imperfect and seemingly casual photographic image by the 1970s). The earliest use of these plastic "toy" cameras that I know of occurred in the late 1960s at the San Francisco Art Institute, when photography department chair Jerry Burchard walked his entire first year class to Chinatown and had them purchase identical Diana cameras for 69 cents, which they were required to use exclusively for the first term of the course. He intended to create an equalizing effect among the students and demonstrate that photographs are made with the eye, regardless of how advanced their camera(s) may be. (By the way, David, Olympus Pen half frame cameras were in use there at the same time.) The idea spread to other US schools and by the mid-1970s, Nancy Rexroth, a student at Ohio University in Athens, had produced her book Iowa (photographed in Ohio), enabling the popularizing of Dianas and what wold become a cult then a craze. Because he fuzzy, vignetted pictures (usually in black and white) so often resemble the representation of a dream or vague memory, their attraction may also have to do with a rejection of the real and the present – or at least a celebration of a subjective reality in preference to actuality.

This may be tangential, but I studied in the late 1960s with a former partner of Robert Moog of audio synthesizer fame, who had turned his entire house into one enormous synthesizer with thousands of patch cords running between the rooms A total mess in pursuit of electronic purity. He told me that those working on the synthesizer had assumed that the generation of an absolutely pure musical tone would be one of the most beautiful things in the world; instead it turned out to be one of the most boring. So they decided to technically analyze what they regarded as beautiful: a note produced by a Stradivarius violin. It turned out to be a complete mess. There was indeed a strong basic note, but accompanied by many others, harmonics, dissidences, above and below the note played, all adding overtones, color, inferences. The beauty, they concluded, came from the imperfections, not the perfection.

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 19.01.2012 at 01:19

And today a series of three "imperfect" photos by Kertész; the first one was already mentioned in the blog:




Dieter Hammer
Posted 19.01.2012 at 09:48

Good point, William!

Anti-aesthetics? Hm, in the visual arts throughout western history there always was an aversion against merely technically perfect works resembling objecs (Kitsch). Tizian would advise painters to subdue bright, shiny colors with brownish varnishes.

The reason why photography has and still is questioned by some as a fine or high art, is the easily achievable technically perfect image with it´s aesthetic shortcomings in art terms.

I think we should not be talking about anti-aesthetics, but rather about the actual aesthetic potential of the photographic medium in artistic terms, where „imperfection“ can be a way to make a significant aesthetic staement. Some creative override.

Recently, I was pondering about the ontological difference between Marcel Duchemp´s 1916 rady made „Fountain“ and Edward Weston´s 1923 photograph „Excusado“. The first is an everyday object brought into an aesthetic context the second is a technically perfect photograph bearing an everyday object as it´s subject matter. Do you see the difference? Duchamp went beyond the commonly accepted broadening the horizon of aesthetics and paved the way for future generations of artists liberty of expression. Weston did not go beyond the bounderies of the medium because of the very nature of the same. Maybe, this significant step is what artists are still searching to achieve in the photographic medium?

Maybe Duchamps has killed the arts at the same time, introducing the „anything goes“? Did photography keep it´s virginity? Is it the „holy grail“ of art, because it is so dificult to take a great picture in artistic and aesthetic terms?

Well, there was art before Duchamt and there is still. Just my two cents.

Dieter Hammer
Posted 19.01.2012 at 10:07

Litle correction: Weston´s "Excusado" is of 1925 not 1923.

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 20.01.2012 at 12:00

And here are some more "imperfect" photos of the pictoralistic period:


And a modern website:


And another one:


There are much more to be discovered.

And last but not least one more "in memoriam" Kodak:


And another Blog [focuschmocus] with a lot of examples:


William Messer
Posted 20.01.2012 at 23:32

I have to say that I think many of the examples Bernd is supplying art too artful to effectively make his point. Those early pictorialists were as much trying to make perfect impressionist pictures as anything else. Even the Kertesz broken plate is sufficiently artfully composed as to confound its perception as technically damaged. I am thinking of a Ukranian photographer, a friend of Boris Mikhailov back in Kharkov (whose name I can't recall now), photographing a hospital detox ward in black and white (also usually part of the reference to the real) printing in all the scratches and hairs on the negatives, then coloring just the imperfections to draw attention to them. Scratches and hairs further exclaim "this is real". (For this matter, the attention paid to Mikhailov's work could be another example of the celebration of the anti-aesthetic/imperfection). I still insist this is largely a reaction to the impending demise of the photograph, its evidentiary trace ontology. A digitally created image has as much to do with a photograph as a collage. Our desire for it to replicate the semblance of a photograph, or how we think a photograph should look, is a nostalgia for the time of the photograph as record and evidence, a connection to the actual and a longing for truth. But it's too late. When we look at a remarkable photograph-like image now we are likely to assume it was photoshopped into existence and may not have recorded anything whose actuality ever reflected light back to the lens. A lot of the craze for imperfection in photography is desperate last gasps. This is not to say that photographs will disappear; people still make etchings after all. But years from now school children will gather around photographs in museums and exclaim "Here's one. The stuff in this one really happened; these people actually existed. Even those scratches are real." R.I.P. (rest in photographs).

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 21.01.2012 at 18:01

Dear William,

you are perfectly right (& I am very happy about the wonderful new links and discoveries): my examples remain in the domain of art. Today I have posted some press photos (this is a field in which "imperfection" is quite important) and tomorrow there are amateur photos to follow. So my examples are in way an exploration of "classical" and les known photos covering different applications of photography. I think that "imperfection" is playing a quite different role in these fields. That' the interesting theoretical perspective I would like to follow.

Dieter Hammer
Posted 21.01.2012 at 23:16

Bernd, could you be more percise, please. What is your definition of art? I dare say you are mixing things.

William Messer
Posted 20.01.2012 at 23:41

The Ukranian photographer I couldn't remember is Yevgeni Pavlov.

Dieter Hammer
Posted 21.01.2012 at 09:55

William, if I undestand you right, your point is: the presence of "imperfection" alone does not make an artwork as such.

I would also advocate that!

"Imperfection" is a stylistic element in photography, like many others. It is either achieved on purpose or by chance. It can be part of picture taking or post processing.

It´s use is not alone a warranty for a photograph to qualify as a work of art. The range runns the whole gamut from frivolous, artistically insignificant attempts to really great and deep art content.

So, what makes the differnece?

Dieter Hammer
Posted 21.01.2012 at 10:12

I forgot one thing:

Imperfaction can be a technical feature (camera, ...), subject matter or a combination of either element.

Dieter Hammer
Posted 21.01.2012 at 10:20

Here are some more Artists playing with the "imperfect", I do especially admire:

Alexey Titarenko
http://www.alexeytitarenko.com/time2.html I like the play with time and admosphere.

Yamamoto Masao http://www.hackelbury.co.uk/artists/yamamoto/image_library/image_library.html
poesy in pictures

Bernd Stiegler
Posted 21.01.2012 at 17:54

And today a series of „(im)perfect“ press photos:




Augustus Valentinus
Posted 27.01.2012 at 17:37

What an excellent article and commentary! I am thrilled to see the perception of contemporary photography within these dimensions. Indeed, I turned away from photoshopped- to-death digital photography to embrace the imperfection and its nostalgic evocations, which actually do hold real meaning for me. And a quick note: half- frame was indeed resurrected in the face of the Diana Mini, Lomo LC-Wide and Golden Half, just as would have been expected;D

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