In common use perfect and flawless are largely synonymous. That to be perfect is to be flawless and vice versa. But if the two seem generally similar, I’m going to also suggest they are just as much opposites. Because, if it’s true that we are obsessed with our flaws in this age of plastic surgery, plastic retouching, and plastic people, then I think it equally true we are not spending enough time on being the most perfect version of ourselves. In finding the good, seeing it, and believing it. Or, to put it another way, even if perfect has no flaws, it doesn’t follow that something without flaws is perfect.
per·fect [adj., n. pur-fikt; v. per-fekt]
1. conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type: a perfect sphere; a perfect gentleman.
3. exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose: a perfect actor to play Mr. Micawber; a perfect saw for cutting out keyholes.
1. having no defects or faults, especially none that diminish the value of something: a flawless Ming Dynasty vase.
Note that I’ve cleverly highlighted definitions 1 and 3 for perfect, ignoring definition 4, which, if you were to read it, would say “without flaws,” but all of this is neither here nor there. The real question for the photographer is this. As you sift through time and space, stalking your subject for just that perfect shot, what is it that you’re trying to capture? Are you removing defects? Or are you looking for meaning? Are you looking for pretty? Or are you looking for beautiful? In matters of love, which is the subject of concern for us, we love not for the flawless, but, for warts and all – for the perfect. A perfect match. A perfect manifestation of what we need and desire.
Of course, no activity is so perfect in conception that you can have just one answer or the other. There are pictures whose execution critically hinge on the removal of flaws. But it’s a question of focus. In The End of Vintage, I said that what we really need is not so much this style or that. We need a better definition of love. In more general terms, I think we need better definitions of everything. And that’s the power of photography. In fact, it is the power of every activity we do. Not simply to do something. Not just having a hobby. But a pursuit. Seeking to better understand ourselves, to give more to the world and to let the world give more back to us.
When we focus on the removal of flaws, we do not capture the essence of that which we shoot. We capture the plasticine form of it. For example, we capture make-up being put on without the anticipation or anxiety that makes the action significant. We capture the surface veneer without the soul. Two people looking at a camera, yes, but not truly the two people. In creating the flawless we create something unassailable, because there is nothing wrong with it. But greatness is anything but unassailable. Great images are the opposite. At some level, so raw and powerful as to be provocative. They challenge people, and people challenge them back. They rile and much as they let revel.
Perfect lies in the mind’s eye. It evolves, changes, and grows. It is within us, and it is our direct relationship to how we see the world and what we strive for. To find the perfect is to find the transcendent. Flawless lies in the literal. It is limited by the opaque, impenetrable surface of what exists. Forget about flawless. Forget about everything wrong. Don’t settle for a mediocre subject as a building block from which you can strip out the wrongs. Focus on what’s right. Find something that inspires, beguiles, confronts, amazes, or reveals. Then figure out how to make that idea as potent and packed as possible. Figure out how those things inhere in what lies in front of you. Maybe it won’t be as pristine, maybe it will be more so. Either way, it will engage. It will be pure of heart, and that’s what counts. After all, who said perfect has to be perfect?