Every fashion photographer dreams about transcending their craft’s commercialism and taking photos that are so creative and so ground-breaking, they’re good enough to hang in the Louvre. So what does it take to create great fashion images like this? If there was just one thing you could do to make your images more creative, and take them from beautiful but predictable, to intriguing and memorable, what would it be? Of course, there are a million possible answers to that question, but none are as powerful and ring as immediately true as imperfection. The secret ingredient to ground-breaking art is ugliness, asymmetry, grit and disorder. Take a look at the image below. On the left you have a basic perfect image, something you’ve probably seen on every beauty ad known to humankind. In the middle, you have a basic “glammed” up version of that image, better, but still pretty safe. And on the far right you have imperfection, in all its weird, roughed around the edges glory.
The distinction to make here is between beautiful but predictable mass-market aesthetics, and art that pushes the evelope. The one is that perfectly lit soft-focus picture of a duck floating serenely in a pond (c’mon, we’ve all seen it), and that blurry Man Ray photo of Marchesa Luisa Casati looking a little crazy. The first two images above, though clearly beautiful, will nonetheless quickly be forgotten because there’s nothing to remember. There’s nothing for the eye to hook on. The skin is soft and smooth, the hair is soft and smooth, the lighting is soft and smooth. They’re so flawless that your eyes just drift smoothly over the image and away forever. This is why more and more photographers have started to leave airbrushing and “technically perfect” lighting behind altogether in favor of something more raw, and less pretty. It’s also the reason why the most innovative fashion houses have started to feature real women in their ads. Everyone lost their marbles over Celine’s beautifully undone advertisements featuring a makeup-free Daria Werbowy, and an 80 year old Joan Didion. Those ads caught everyone’s eye exactly because they were so unexpectedly (and beautifully) imperfect.
When done right, imperfection in art is thrilling and unexpected. At times, it can even be groundbreaking, paving the way for an entirely new style and creative movement. Imperfection forces you to see the world differently and to reevaluate the things you’ve always found beautiful. All the great art revolutions happened because of this switch. Impressionism was just a blurry ” imperfect” painting technique when it first appeared, Cubism was just child’s play trying to be art. Until it wasn’t, and the whole world changed in the process. We’re used to thinking of these great paintings as the highest form of creative accomplishment, but remember, aesthetic tastes of the past were decidedly less inclined towards the impressionistic and experimental. Most people considered “real art” to look more or less like classical realism. The whole “point” of art was to create something beautiful, not something that made you question what beauty even meant.
Imperfection is not only a common ingredient in art, but very likely an essential ingredient. Ansel Adams, never one to mistake precision for perfection, often recalled the old adage that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, his point being that if he waited for everything in the scene to be exactly right, he’d probably never make a single photograph.
So many photographers are hung up on creating a flawless image, and they end up shooting themselves in the foot in the process. They create works that are so polished they’re stripped of their humanity, which is the very thing that makes people connect to your work on an emotional level. Photographers arrange models without a single hair out of place, skin is poreless and glowing, teeth Photoshopped arctic white, there’s not a single wrinkle or crinkle in their clothes, and of course bodies are smooth, slim and perfect. In a lot of fashion photography especially, perfection seems to be the point. There is no story behind the models’ perfection. She just is, like a manufactured doll, produced soley for your visual pleasure. Imperfection imparts the most precious thing of all to an artist – narrative. All those subtle flaws communicate secret messages to the viewer, giving them something to consider, to questions, to work towards. Compare the two images below.
In real every-day life, everyone loves soft Victoria’s Secret waves and pretty makeup. But that’s exactly why it doesn’t work in art. Everyone loves it, everyone expects it, and so by default it is predictable.
Obviously you can look at an image like the one on the left (above) and can’t help but enjoy it – the human brain flocks to this particular kind of perfection like pigs to mud. There’s some deep part of us that elevates perfection over everything else. But as much as we like to look at images of flawless women, there’s something incredibly bland about them. You enjoy it in the moment, but would never expect to find it framed and protected by bullet-proof glass in a museum. Pictured above you have supermodel Adriana Lima in two extremely different looks, one polished and airbrushed to perfection, and the other unkempt and rough around the edges (notice how they didn’t edit out the dark circles under her eyes?). On the left Adriana stares at you with a sultry but otherwise empty expression. The image doesn’t say anything about her as a person, except that she is here to please your eye. On the right, we can’t help but wonder about her, and why her collar is crooked, and her hair so messy. The dark circles under her eyes only intensify her gaze.
The above images of Adriana demonstrate the difference between what works in life, and what works in art. Of course no one would think that styling your hair and makeup like the image on the right would be attractive in real life. People would probably assume something went terribly wrong and ask you if you’re ok. In real every-day life, everyone loves soft Victoria’s Secret waves and pretty makeup. But that’s exactly why it doesn’t work in art. Everyone loves it, everyone expects it, and so by default it is predictable. If what you’re going for is accessible, commercial images with mass appeal, then this predictably pretty quality is spot on. But if, on the other hand, you’re trying to get published in the best fashion magazines, want to elevate your images into the art realm and dreaming about having your photographs in art galleries one day, you’re going about it all wrong.
You can keep polishing and perfecting your work until there’s literally nothing left. Perfection is the elimination of everything that makes us truly human, and makes this life so interesting. It’s the cancellation of the dark, and tense parts of a story until only the happily ever after is left. And where’s the fun in that? Without the stormy, uncomfortable parts, nothing is learned, and nothing is gained. It’s true in life and in literature as much as in art.
To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. ~ Ted Orland, “Art and Fear”
Leonardo da Vinci once said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” But perfection is sophistication taken to an extreme. We can refine our work and refine it, take away more pores, flyaways, take away more and more layers until all that’s left is a shiny naked mannequin. The same is true about graphic design – if you keep reducing design to its simplest form you would be left with nothing but blank page, and a blank page is the perfect metaphor for perfection itself: it is flawless, unblemished, and simple as it gets. But it’s also boring, arouses no emotion, it fails to tell a story, its very existence is a void. So what actual purpose does perfection serve, and why are we so obsessed with it? The moment we look away from something perfect, we have already forgotten it. In a world that’s obsessed about being the perfect everything, being the one exception makes you stand out.