Sometimes you think that everything was different and better in the past. Until you discover that people worried about the same things 50 years ago as they do now. For example, education is always bad, unemployment is always too high, sales are always too low, teenagers are always spoiled by new media, and the world is permanently going to hell.
So I don’t know if my lament of today is really a lament of today. Still, I wonder if photographers and their clients and admirers in the past were also so obsessed with sharpness. Or is that just a phenomenon that began with the digital age and the eternal hunt for cameras that could display more pixels?
In 1935, photographs were taken that were no sharper or blurrier than photographs taken around 1985. And that’s not surprising, because the cameras used in these periods and their capabilities were not that vastly different, at least if you shopped in the more expensive categories and allowed a professional to press the shutter button.
When the digital camera took hold in the late 1990s, suddenly everything had to be much sharper. The camera manufacturers were reminiscent of Philips and Sony when they introduced the CD player in 1985. They cried out that every detail had to be audible. Nikon and Canon felt that every detail should be visible.
Should we be happy about that? Should we really want to see everything? I’m happy to believe that in medicine it has its advantages, but in visual art? Isn’t art all about imagination? That there is something left to guess? Isn’t that precisely what can enrich our lives?
Sharpness is now used as a marketing trick. A gimmick to get people to buy ridiculously expensive cameras. Sure, often a photograph becomes more beautiful with some or even a lot of sharpness. But sharpness is not a self evident thing. Sharpness must have a function.
I don’t think Nièpcé’s and Talbot’s goal was to be able to capture every capillary in someone’s lower leg when they developed the first photographic techniques.
But as I said, I could be completely wrong.