There are are “rules” that are considered almost like dogmas in photography. Images have to be in tack sharp focus, especially on the eyes of the subject; children should be photographed from their height and never from above; portraits have to be taken using long lenses to not distort the subject; never shoot into the light etc. All these “rules” make sense, but what if we break them?
A couple of weeks ago I turned 33 years old, and my friends gave me a collection of Steve McCurry photo books as a present. I’m really enjoying them and I’m studying them every day. The books are The Unguarded Moment, Portraits, Looking East and Sanctuary: The Temples of Angkor. I can’t recommend them more.
Of course I knew McCurry’s work well before receiving these books, and I’m among his fans since I first saw the Afgan Girl portrait for the first time years ago. However, I have to admit I’ve never had the opportunity to look at his work printed big and in high quality. I know it’s a shame, but I know his work almost exclusively from websites and magazines (anyone NatGeo?). Until now.
Going through the pictures, I’ve been carried away and inspired by the work of this great photographer, and I’ve confirmed the reasons why he has become one of the most appreciated and influential travel and documentary photographers in the world.
Nonetheless, I can’t help noticing that some (actually a lot) of his images are soft. His subjects’ eyes are not always tack sharp, and sometimes in his portraits there’s a little motion blur or a slightly imprecise focus.
This softness doesn’t look like deliberate, just like Giacomelli did in his portrait of his wife, or like many images of Paolo Pellegrin. It looks like his selection of the frames during the editing process is just a little “permissive”.
At first I was a little afraid to acknowledge that one of my best photographers is technically off. Then serendipity has come and I’ve stumbled in an article from another photographer I appreciate, saying he noticed the same thing I noticed. He eventually developed even the expression “Steve McCurry sharp” to point at slightly off images.
The masters of photography often break rules to produce authentic masterpieces. For example, Sebastiao Salgado often shoots through the light–breaking a “rule”–to give a quasi mystic appearance to his subjects, elevating them to the grade of saints and heroes.
If you look at the work of Steve McCurry, you’ll soon notice he regularly breaks another “rule” of photography: he takes children portraits from above, and he uses quite short lenses, giving them a slightly distorted look. Yet again, his children portraits are astonishing, and transmit an image of vulnerable smallness and solitude.
To be great, photography has to be more “visceral” than the just technically perfect image, but is a slightly imperfect photograph as good as a photograph where the rules have been deliberately broken? I’d second Matt Brandon when he says that “you cannot say that McCurry’s images are any less impressive or beautiful because of the softness of film or camera movement”.
Speaking of sharpness, I don’t hesitate to say that it is an overestimated matter. Some of the greatest photographs in history are far from sharp, yet they remain powerful decades after they were taken. Just think of the photographs of the D-Day by Robert Capa. I don’t want to say we have to be sloppy with our cameras, but we may have to loosen it up just a little to really transmit what we have in our hearths rather than in our minds. Don’t you think? Let me know in the comments.