Hunt for Steel
Preface & Reader Response
I want to think that there is more to a worthy photograph than the caliber and cleanliness of the camera, the purity of processing chemicals, appropriate storage, and sharp focus and perfect aperture at the instant of the snap.
by Jerry Murley
With ease, and the aid of old photographs, I vividly recall a stand of glorious old sugar maples standing near a small, white, old aluminum-clad log house. The trees were a wonder of golden yellow in their prime, some forty years ago – a perfect picture of autumn. Though edges have roughened, the shimmering essence of these trees, their massive limbs and thousands of leaves, survives even as they fall apart, limb by limb with every wind. They were our youthful glory, they are our worn maturity, slowly disintegrating: once sharp and vibrant in stupendous colors, now withering and fading with every passing year. Each successive image is but an emerging phase of the other, gradually transformed to a blur.
Youth can barely comprehend the bitter secret of age, the ever-thickening fog. But even youth is not spared the drip of dissipation. Grace of age is not the exclusive purview of those in obvious decline. It is a dancing state like shifting accommodations of an eye, an evolution of focus that can change, even augment, insight and appreciation. Or, if perceived as a flaw, age becomes an affliction that one seeks to delay with one more dietary supplement, one more vainglorious acquisition.
Hot-house vibrancy and sharpness entice but tire – more like an ideal for advertising than a model for real life. Life is not always, in fact seldom is, brilliant or clear. Though we need calibrated standards to elevate craft, and manners, there is much more to well-integrated existence and attuned perception than clinical precision.
Like straight, sparkling white teeth, a uniformly crisp image appears somewhat unnatural, perhaps tawdry and depthless. Perfect teeth, a perfect body, a perfect career, a perfect education, perfect diction, a perfect family – all are spellbinding at times but faintly errant. Perfection is a precious construct for which few have time or fortune. Though a steady market motivator, it is at core not actual but illusory.
Disparaging impeccability, of course, is easy because it offends few. It is our habit, our fate, to demean the outstanding. If delusions of personal perfection tempt us, we have only to look deeply into a mirror and plumb our souls to discover its opposite. With any luck, when we peruse ourselves, the image reflected will be beautifully, healthfully blurry.
* * *
For hours on end, day after day, I have pondered old blurry photographs while attempting to digitally repair nicks and remove trash littering the surface. Cause of the blemishes matters little, whether from dust on the camera lens when taken or on the enlarger lens during development in the darkroom, or from chemical flaws during film processing, or from film scratches and color shifts over time. I want to think that there is more to a worthy photograph than the caliber and cleanliness of the camera, the purity of processing chemicals, appropriate storage, and sharp focus and perfect aperture at the instant of the snap.
When enlarged to double size, a blurry picture takes on the characteristics of an Impressionist painting. Colors might not be pure and strong, details might be pixilated, but the vitality of scenes lifts as much weight and carries as much import in spotty commingled antiquity as might derive from estranged technical precision. Often for the first time, I see forms and movements, particularly the expressions of people who populate the frame as backdrops to primary figures, having not noticed these peripheral storylines at the time the photograph was taken.
The mottled tones of old photographs yield remarkable effects and irresistible responses. Though aged natural light be yellowed, it more accurately portrays the atmosphere of an emotional moment than does illumination of standard studio incandescence.
Feelings are only a blur, a characteristic that renders them arresting, energetic, enduring and dangerous. Outside of specialty professions and artificial aids, people do not see in complete, sharply focused detail. More likely than not, humans observe a composite haze – rather than razor clarity – that sears memory with a pungent and lasting impression of the whole, before, in and beyond the moment.
The interplay of mind and vision is a continual wonder. Even as eyes lose their luster and their power to adjust accurately over countless images day in and day out, they capture patterns that are recognized and remembered – that link powerfully to everyday and intensely novel experience, building understanding and exhilaration with repeated study.
A blurry photograph is thus an excellent picture when composed of all the right elements. The experience it conveys, however, is more difficult to share with a world accustomed to ubiquitous hard edges and imaginary flawlessness.
There is a significant place for stillness and silence and frozen poses, a place we are too much deprived of. But there is envelopment in the whir of motion, even in the hands of the photographer, that lends vibrancy and meaning to rival sacred quiet. Blurry pictures are true pictures of life in midair.
* * *
Over the past two years, as I have closely examined images of Central America in 1973, and subsequent photographs of Memphis in 1973 through 1974, I have been struck by a confounding conclusion that I learned forty years ago – and must apparently re-learn over and over again. Though at first glance Central America seems marked by unusual poverty, my blurry, but fortuitous, images reveal a vibrant community life, with all manner of people on the streets conversing, participating together in shared practices, some ritualistic and most vigorous and healthy. On the other hand, the photographs of Memphis city life of the period show a place of accidental isolation, broken social bonds, and unhealthy inertia.
My trips abroad taught me that poverty is a relative concept. It is not an absolute condition defined by specific rules regarding income, medical advancement, modern conveniences, or formulaic and ignored political equivalence. In other words, poverty is partly a state of mind. That view does not absolve individuals or social groups from their obligation to address fundamental and egregious deprivations, such as want of food, water, shelter, protection, education, health care, and genuinely equal political participation and access. The blurry afterimages of vibrancy amid relative want suggest that healthy community inclinations are ingrained in Homo sapiens; that broad, fundamental social activities are manifestations of ancient tendencies that do not require modern conveniences and contrivances; that these live on and thrive despite enthrallment by the new. We are poor indeed when we think otherwise: that we can abolish poverty by giving money on a whim and ladling soup once a year to atone for it.
Some of the most impoverished people on our planet have plenty of money, power, and electronic devices. Poverty is inertia of the spirit, a social malaise as much as an individual and institutional failing. The life I witnessed in Central America was more a guide to sustainable scale than an object of fear or a sign of threatening corruption. That community life was, and is, more an asset than a drain on the wealth of the Americas. It was, and is, more a reproach and reminder of what once was and can be than a caricature of unwashed masses pleading for our soap-scrubbed generosity, pity, and paternalism.
In my hands, the life I witnessed in Central America is presented as a blurry picture indeed, but one that contains as much truth as any sharply focused family portrait, stiffly posed before an oversize fireplace, composed solely of clean faces, sparkling eyes, smiling straight whitened teeth, and neatly pressed apparel of the latest fashion. Poverty and wealth are everywhere all at once, in the most lowly circumstances and positively among the most blessed in the world. Nevertheless, direction, momentum, and wisdom are more thoroughly captured and discernible in the context of supposed imperfection.
A still picture is a page, a blurry one a chapter. One need not wait for certain focus to grasp the point: fuzzy objects reveal vibrant context – blurry people and surroundings are moving subjects.
1. While doctoring photos of Guatemala taken in 1973, I considered the value of blurry pictures. Then I recalled the most diffuse of all my collection – an afternoon shot in low light of the inviting house in southern England where I lived off and on during the spring and fall of 1972.