I was having a conversation recently about notions of perfection. Nothing was concluded, as is often the way, other than it is an unattainable standard. Everything can always be better. In seeking perfection the only thing measurable is the distance by which we fail.
Perfection can only ever truly exist in the moment. This has been my view for a number of years. It’s one of the reasons I like photography. With other art forms, or indeed moments in life, if you hang around too long something will ruin the moment. With a photograph all you have is the moment.
Maybe it’s just a mathematical thing. With other art there are simply more things than can fuck up. With film you need a brilliant script, reasonable acting, impeccable casting, beautiful cinematography, impeachable sound design, to be surfing the right zeitgeist…the list is not exactly endless but certainly long enough to make the chances of failure more likely than success. See also: producing a song. You may well have the perfect tune, but unless you make all the relevant production tweaks you may as well just release a looped recording of your vomiting cat. For an example of this, just head over to this Oasis documentary Supersonic and listen to the early versions of some of the tracks on Definitely Maybe. They may as well be different songs. The album underwent several production overhauls before it was released in all its final glory. Had there not been the strive for perfection and the earlier, considerably less powerful, iterations of the album released who knows whether Oasis would have even gone onto release What’s the Story.
If you accept that perfection is indeed unobtainable, then why bother trying? It’s only ever going to lead to discontent and frustration. Maybe that’s why so many artists are miserable bastards. If nothing is ever good enough then surely everything is always wrong and life is just one long frustrating existential fog populated with imperfect art practiced by deeply flawed tossers. The other way to look at things is to enjoy the ride. Or, to misquote one of those god-awful motivational posters that used to defile office walls in the late nineties, ‘It’s all about the journey’. Once you get where you’re headed the fun is over. It’s possible to look at the struggle for perfection in this way. If you achieve perfection, you have nowhere else to go. For an example of this look to athletes who achieve Olympic gold. All those hours of training, pushing towards that one goal, the peak of athletic endeavour. But then what? Once you’ve reached the summit there’s only one way to go.
When I started out in photography I had quite modest aims. I basically just wanted to take a good photo of my dog, a basset hound called Florence; and a half way decent shot of Clifton Suspension Bridge. Within a few months of buying my first DSLR both tasks had become something of an obsession. You wouldn’t think either would be that difficult – both subjects are eminently photographic so I assumed it would be a case of pointing the lens in their direction and pushing a button. On several occasion I made attempts to combine both subjects – a shot of Florence with the bridge in the background. A win, win situation if ever there was one.
Months rolled on and the perfect shots continued to elude me. There were some reasonable efforts, for sure. But I wanted perfection. In each and every shot there was something missing – and I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly. The shots were technically fine, i.e. in focus, framed reasonably, and well lit. Try as I might, though, nothing was quite good enough. I wasn’t even sure what it was I was looking for in this perfect shot. The only thing I knew was I hadn’t taken it. One of the shots of Florence running at the camera, her oversized ears flapping around in the wind, made it in into The Times one Saturday. After the initial buzz of publication in a proper national newspaper faded I began to focus on the flaws in the shot. One of which was a matter of the focus point not being quite right, it was more on her tail than her face. And then there was the issue of the background – an extremely ugly bridge which most definitely lacked the architectural splendour of my other primary subject. There was also the accompanying text I’d submitted with the photo, but my textual proclivities are another story altogether.
Part of me wondered whether on some subconscious level I was failing on purpose. As I said, once you achieve what you want, where do you go? More likely it was down to more prosaic failings – lack of ability. Certainly lack of experience at the time. Wiry-haired pseudo pop-psychologist Malcolm Gladwell talks about needing 10,000 hours of good practice at a discipline to become master of it. I’d not done the hard yards, so unless I was going to fluke perfection, which can happen in photography, the unattainable was going to remain exactly that.
Skip forward three years and I’d lost count of the hours I’d put in chasing perfection. It wasn’t a chore, I wasn’t studying photography or working professionally in the field at the time. Rather it was something I did as an escape from the crushing mundanity of everyday life. Wandering round Bristol with a basset hound and a camera could hardly be described as onerous. Chuck in a few beer pit stops and it was occasionally tempting to start thinking of myself as quite the twenty-first century flâneur. The fact I still needed to pound away at a nine-to-life admin job in a local hospital disabused me of such Romantic notions though.
A holiday in Ireland gave me a break from the Sisyphean chores of the hospital job. Whilst there Florence and I took a walk on Ballinesker Beach. It was mid summer, the three-mile beach was nearly always completely empty and absolutely gorgeous. I couldn’t quite believe the loveliness of it all, or the fact it wasn’t overrun with people. Professor Google informed me it was the same beach that Spielberg had filmed the opening battle scenes for Saving Private Ryan. If it’ll do for the world’s preeminent film director, it was clearly going to suffice for me and Florence aiming for a shot that was somewhere close to perfection.
We visited every day, trying out all manner of shots – Florence emerging from the sea, a la Ursula Andress in Dr No; Florence looking contemplative at sunset; Florence with an outstretched paw asking for a Bonio. All close but no cigar. Then, when we weren’t particularly trying, she was ambling back towards me after fetching her tennis ball for the ten thousandth time, the sun was behind us, there were skidding clouds in the sky propelled by just the right breeze – I dropped onto the sand to get eye level and shot away, taking about 20 shots and put the camera away. It was only later when I was viewing them on my laptop that I realised I had the shot. It wasn’t perfect, it never can be, but it was as close as I was going to get. The photo went onto to win the Kennel Club’s Dog Photographer of the Year award and, in some small way, changed my life. It lead to me becoming a professional photographer. The shot itself took on a life of its own, popping up all over the world at various points over the next few years. It’s still probably the best photo I’ve taken.
The mission for perfection with the Suspension Bridge is taking a few more years to crack. I’ve come close on one occasion – a misty, disappearing to infinity shot taken one November morning a few years ago with a solitary, unknown man in shot. As a photo it says a lot about some of the darker elements associated with the bridge that I wanted to capture but not glorify, and it’s a technically well executed shot which needed very little editing, which I always think indicates a higher level of quality. It is though, whilst certainly not derivative, hardly original either. I’ve seen several other very similar shots by a variety of photographers. It is, therefore, some way short of perfect; and thus leaves me with something to strive for.
Perfection, then, is ultimately unobtainable – except in the moment, and even then some element can always be improved. I do think that you have more chance of inching towards perfection in photography than in other artistic disciplines. That isn’t to say it shouldn’t be strived for – you stand a better chance of excellence if you at least aim for perfection.