sea nerd blog — coughs in the audience

There are centuries of development of skill behind acoustical musicianship, yet electronics produces something as good, to the uneducated ear, as someone who spent years learning those handed–down acoustic skills.

Electronic music certainly does have something, otherwise it wouldn’t be everywhere. Instead of a hundred or so people with a lifetime of skill, you have one computer. Human skill does remain, the music is still composed, the recording is still produced, but that’s about it.

Yet, actually, recorded acoustic music is not dead, thank you. It’s doing ok. Clearly it offers something electronic music does not. Evidently, the electronic imitation of acoustic music isn’t quite there yet. But it’s close, so close that, actually, it can be quite difficult to tell the difference to the uneducated ear.

So that uneducated ear needs reminding that acoustic music is acoustic. The differences, particularly with recorded music, need emphasising. And those differences are often the imperfections that come from the way acoustic music is performed. The movement of the finger on a string of a guitar, between notes. The musician unconsciously humming along to the music. The coughs in the audience.

Unsurprisingly, the same applies to photography. Originally an upstart technology challenging a deeply skilled artform, which it changed immensely but could never replace, photography has followed music into a division between analogue and digital. Digital takes it away from reality, as I’ve been exploring. But the analogue is still present, still has an essential role in the art.

One way that analogue photography, film, can present itself is through the imperfections of the medium. But film does not represent centuries of the development of handed–down skill, it merely represents an older technology. A photographer from a hundred years ago still does fundamentally the same as a photographer now. Certainly, the older photographer required a little more skill than at the present. A digital camera can reduce problems with focus and light, but no digital camera can correct failures of composition. Even so, an amateur with a camera can catch a scene that, before photography came along, required a highly skilled artist. The difference in skills between a film photographer and a digital photographer is nothing to those between a film photographer and a painter.

An essential difference between film and digital media is what happens afterward the image is produced. Digital images do not degrade. The underlying media might, but only by malchance; if it works as expected the digital images will not degrade in the slightest. Film, on the other hand, has to be kept carefully. If it is not kept well, its images reduce and may even be lost entirely. In other words, left alone, digital survives perfectly, whereas film slowly fades.

Then there’s the difference between digital photography and digital painting. A photograph taken with a digital camera is something from the real world. A scene created with digital software is not. The two can be combined, of course, as photoshopped images attest. The world can be altered as the artist wishes. To make it obvious a photograph is of the real world, it has to contain the the things the digital artist doesn’t want, or can’t easily add: the real–world imperfections.

I find myself with three separate lines of work:

  • My digital visual arts: chewed (i), chewed (ii) and reflets;
  • My digital photography, which is imperfect because my skills are imperfect, and because the world is imperfect;
  • My older analogue work, which adds to the digital imperfections those of age and decay, and my earlier lesser skillfulness.

Should I strive for perfection? For me, yes, because to me striving is a journey, not a destination: I strive to improve, not to become unimprovable. I believe perfection is unachievable: it is the mountain behind all mountains, once you peak one mountain you find another beyond. If you can see no further mountains to cross, is it because the journey has finished, or because your eyesight has failed?

Furthermore, is it right to lie about reality? To clean away the imperfections? To deny the imperfections? I guess it depends on what you’re trying to do. If you want to show something in ideal condition, then yes. If you want to show life, then no.

And what is imperfection to one person’s eyes is perfection to another. You might want to clean that cobweb away from the ceiling because it makes the place look imperfect, but that’s home to the spider. Its opinion of the cobweb, judging by its behaviour, is quite different to yours. You want a perfect home, it wants a perfect home. Your opinion that the cobweb is an imperfection is your opinion, no more. Of course, you’re the one with the power to remove the magnificent construction, without even bothering to consider its lethal beauty.

With my work, whether I want imperfection depends on the subject. And I often do: I want to show time, I want to show change, I want to show reality. I don’t want to deny. I don’t want to lie.

Perfection is the lie. That’s why ads show perfection: they’re being honest, underneath it all. They sell the lie, and perfection is a lie they sell. Imperfection is the real, not the wrong.

Then there’s the detail that photography represents a moment in time, not of now, but of the past. It’s an aide memoire, sometimes. But if the photograph is wrong, does memory correct it? Well, no, of course not: human memory is notoriously flawed. Our memories are constructed from imperfect perception filtered through our beliefs and biases, and then over time they morph and merge. Our memories serve more to support our beliefs rather than inform them.

Worse are false memories. Simply observing another person performing an act can create false memories that we performed that act. I suggest simply looking at a false photograph can create false memories of it being true. In essence, a memory of the imagination may over time become indistinguishable from a memory of a real event. I like to use my photography to remind people images are unreliable, memory is flawed.

So when I find some of my old photos are severely damaged by time, I may decide to show them as damaged. Sometimes it’s the damage itself is beautiful. Sometimes it’s because I’m saying something about the subject. Sometimes it’s because I don’t want to lie about the real. Sometimes it’s because I’m reminding memory is flawed. Sometimes it’s because my cleaning skills are inadequate. Sometimes it’s because I want the coughs in the audience.