The undefined lines of decades-old black and white photography captivate me in a way crisp photos can’t.
I’m more enthralled by the imperfect than the perfect shot. Old photography has a quality of ugliness that makes it beautiful, whereas contemporary photography is just too clean for me.
This is obviously subjective. I do like all photography, I’m simply saying here that I prefer old photos more than I do new. The best example of this is Robert Frank, a Swiss photographer, and his book The Americans, which is a road trip through America through the eyes of Frank.
He captures everything: a charity ball, a political rally, a highway, a funeral, a gas station, a public park, etc. But I honestly believe these photos are successful because how the photos are blurred, undefined, imperfect…which makes them so much stronger, and more relevant to the subject matter: life, which is just as undefined.
I first encountered Frank’s work at the opening of a new art building at the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s mostly filled with contemporary art, but there’s a section dedicated to the history of photography. The photos in The Americans are featured in the exhibit.
I first fell in love with a photo of two men in a car driving U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho.
There is an authenticity to not being able to make out every detail of a photo. And in some strange way, more emotion comes through.
I bought the book off eBay not long after my museum trip and found that Frank also had a photo from Houston. It’s taken in a bank. A row of empty chairs leads to one man working in the corner. It made me realize that, as with any of these photos, Frank could have taken a photo of anything in the city. What did he want this to capture about the city? I could come up with multiple answers.
But why am I even talking about this?
I do think I relate this idea of perfect not being the best even in writing. There has to be an “different-ness”, a slight “ugliness” to make it really beautiful.
Raymond Carver comes to mind, or even Hemingway. I think you could even say the poet Larry Levis had this quality.
What do you think?