Is sharpness a bourgeois concept?

Often repeated on internet forums (generally by contrarians) is a quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson, “sharpness is a bourgeois concept.”

What is meant by a “bourgeois concept” in the first place? I think that the meaning of “bourgeois” has changed quite a bit since Karl Marx used the term in the 1800s. I think of people who have a modest amount of affluence and career success, but are not members of the true upper class. They are not the CEO’s, but the people with six-figure jobs in middle management or sales. “Bourgeois” implies affluence without the refined taste or understatement of the true upper class. The bourgeois show off their affluence by driving unnecessarily expensive cars like Mercedes, living in McMansions, etc. It’s conspicuous but not sophisticated consumption.

In photography, we can imagine the fellow who can afford to buy a really sharp lens (like the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 which I recently reviewed), but lacks, the skill, creativity, vision, etc, to take any photos worthy of such a lens. Yes that would be me, however the worst case of the bourgeois photographer would be the guy who thinks that because he’s using a really expensive camera and lens, he must be taking great photos, when in reality his photos are cr*p. I am aware that I’m not worthy of the lens.

This quote originally appeared in Newsweek. Cartier-Bresson was in his 90s when he said it in conversation with photographer Helmut Newtron, and it’s helpful to understand the context of the quote:

“He had his little Leica,” Newton remembers, “and he simply would point and shoot.” Since Cartier-Bresson’s hand isn’t as steady as it used to be, some of the pictures were a bit fuzzy. “Sharpness,” he told Newton, “is a bourgeois concept.” Newton sits back and laughs: “I thought that was just divine.”

The message is not to let gear or sharpness stand in the way of your photography. I think that Cartier-Bresson would approve of people using their iPhones to take photos. Cartier-Bresson was shooting 35mm back when nearly all serious photographers were shooting larger formats. 35mm was the iPhone of the pre-war era. Most of those old street photography photos, the kind for which Cartier-Bresson is famous, are unsharp and grainy by modern standards.

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