In a Perfect World
This is a dangerous blog post. Partly because it might step on some people’s toes. Partly because I haven’t completed my thoughts on this. So all in all it’s just plain dangerous. But, I need to fill the empty space and this is something I’ve been thinking about a lately.
I’m not sure who first coined the phrase ” in a perfect world” for use in image critique. The first time I heard it was on the old Radiant Vista website. Since then I’ve heard the phrase used a lot by instructors and students alike. The fact is, I’ve used it myself, many times. But it’s something that is starting to bother me. Why? Because the reality is, we don’t live in a perfect world. No matter how much we would like to, we just don’t. So why look at things through the rose colored glasses of a perfect world? Why teach like we live in a world of perfection, when we lived in a world of imperfection?
Often we critique images and say things like, “I like this, but it would be nice if that highlight on your subject’s forehead wasn’t there. I suppose in a perfect world may be you could have waited for them to move a step forward into the shade.” Or, you might hear a statement like, “It’s a nice shot. Too bad you cropped the elbow out. Maybe, in a perfect world you could step back two or three steps and gotten all of it in.” But then we learn later, there was a wall next to the photographer and they could not step backwards or when the person moved, they moved into the light. It’s the world we live in. Why not learn to critique in an imperfect world and accept photos for the imperfect images they are?
Would we really have the guts to critique some of the of the most influential photographs of our time with the same statement?
Let’s look at this famous image by John Paul Filo. I’m sure you recognize it, was instrumental in turning the tide of support for the Vietnam War. Kent State and other universities students were protesting against President Nixon sending more troops into Cambodia. The Ohio National Guard was called out and ended up shooting and killing four students. If we were to critique this image, we would say the first thing that’s unfortunate is the poll growing out of the woman’s head. Secondly, it was unfortunate timing to have a man walking behind the man the foreground. He creates a distraction and makes it difficult to see clearly the man in the foreground. This shot was about timing. It wasn’t set up. It wasn’t composed. It was snapped. Action and emotion were caught on film forever. This was a decisive moment. This photograph won a Pulitzer prize. The photo was also memorialized in a Neil Young song and in a TV movie. I don’t think anyone even dared say to Filo, “in a perfect world.”
Here is another image, the famous image by Jeff Widener. It is of a lone man and that stands up against the tanks at Tiananmen Square. Interesting enough there are several images of this event. There is even one shot from a higher angle that doesn’t have a light post in image. But this one seems to be the most widely used from that day. If this image was shot today there’s a good chance those lights would be cloned out. In a perfect world, maybe Widner would’ve run to different room and shot this from another angle to loose the light post. But the Widner didn’t live in a perfect world. In fact, that’s what he was photographing, a very imperfect world. By the way, Widner was a nominated finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer for this image.
Then there’s this unbelievably powerful image by Nick Ut taken June 8, 1972. His picture of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, who was photographed as a naked 9-year-old girl running toward the camera to flee a South Vietnamese napalm attack won another Pulitzer prize. But, come on Nick! Couldn’t you have shot the scene a few seconds earlier so you would’ve gotten the boy on the left completely in the frame? What came over you? I guess Nick Ut and the Pulitzer committee understands they don’t live in a perfect world.
I could go on and on, but I think you get my point. A photo is not meant to be perfect. Does it help to critique or teach students what to do in a perfect world? I’m not sure, I’m still processing this question. But my gut feeling is no. I think it might be better if we critique the image as it is. Knowing we live in an imperfect world. We can say, “I would like to have seen the feet and hands in this photo. But it doesn’t take away from the impact. I love it and well done.”