A History of Blurring
A History of Blurring
Some of the most well-known images from recent years are blurred, the details cannot be made out clearly, yet the photos continue to circulate widely: Lady Diana in the revolving door of the Ritz in Paris, Mohammed Atta at the check-in at Portland. The protagonists pass in front of the surveillance cameras last time before dying, thus giving the fuzziness a feeling of foreboding, almost as if it were the stylistic means of an iconography of catastrophe. More than anything else, though, it turns every observer into a detective who dreams of finding the vital clue in the image, the one that will explain the inexplicable that is soon to take place. Hence, it is blurred images that exert the strongest fascination and capture so many curious eyes. Even if we exclude sensational images, blurring is currently fashionable, especially in the extrovert culture of entertainment and of the body. For some years, we have encountered out-of-focus images more and more often in various kinds of publications – from the advertising brochure to the art catalogue – and the higher the cultural pretensions of an illustrated magazine, the greater the likelihood of only a few of the photos being sharply defined. Even photojournalism is not above depicting its subjects through the alienating effect of blurring, thus crossing over into the territory of artistic experimentation. Lastly, advertising agencies choose this stylistic means to give a mysterious and unusual air to commercial products. In all these examples, the term “blurred” does not express a definite concept but embraces various effects such as soft focus, fuzziness, fading, over-exposure and graininess.
This is all quite surprising, since the idea that blurring is a mistake still persists today. Indeed, amateur photographers hand back their prints without even taking them out of the shop if the subject represented is indistinct or unrecognizable, and manuals continue to offer standard advice on how to avoid out-of-focus images. So why is something that would be considered an error in other contexts accepted in the media and actually admired for its elegance? Is there perhaps “good” and “bad” blurring? And why are fuzzy images making a major comeback precisely today? In actual fact, blurring was one of the great discoveries of the 19th century and, right from the start, it was never an ideologically neutral stylistic technique. In its different variants, which were mostly photographic, the technique was used to express diverse interpretations of the world. While blurring created by movement was used to indicate pride in progress, soft focus – extremely widely adopted – embodied the romantic and antimodern desire for the idyllic and for solitude, later often criticized as affectation. Other kinds of blurring were used in Pointillism and Symbolism. Even then, these techniques were the subject of controversial and diversified debates at which the principles underpinning the meaning of images or the very functions of art were discussed. The study of these past debates enables us to reflect more deeply on the current conception of the image and, above all, changes the way we see the abstract movement in modern art.
The search for inner images
The claim that remembered images are mostly fuzzy can only be explained by a naïve faith in metaphor: figures of speech like “faded memory”, “blurred recollection”, “to remember something vaguely”, and also certain examples in poetry, result in our seeing remembered images as vague, indistinct or grainy. Such an example is given by Wittgenstein when speaking of the impossibility of a similarity existing between intrapsychic processes and their external representation. […]
The belief that fuzzy images constitute a more faithful representation of memory is a mere convention in which blurring functions as a code, and this can be seen more clearly, perhaps, in cinema. We know that a soft-focus effect or a series of fuzzy images indicates a flashback – a memory of one of the protagonists – or a dream. Moreover, blurring is often associated with slow motion, where suspended movements give a floaty feeling to the subjects depicted. What is presented in this way is not subject to the laws of gravity, but is of an immaterial nature; it is a mental experience. Associating blurring with the spiritual proves even more effective when it occurs for no iconographic purpose. At the dawn of photography, when the new medium was still a source of astonishment, a foggy image or one with fuzzy details or fading, always stimulated reflection: instead of attributing the phenomenon to a material defect or a mistake in the developing process, the preferred theory was that the camera had captured more than was visible to the human eye. Given the marked interest in the occult during that period, one understands that photography was considered capable of fixing not only apparitions, visions and ghosts, but also thoughts, memories, intrapsychic images and other phenomena of this kind. Similarly, the discovery of the X-ray at the end of the 19th century gave rise to the further spread of new experiments whose goal was to render visible “inner” or immaterial phenomena.
The photographs that strike us most are often out of focus and, in many cases, this is often what makes them sensational. What can be considered an iconographic principle of spiritualistic photography or that of the supernatural, but also, paradoxically, scientific photography, can easily be applied to other genres: every good photojournalist or war reporter is well aware of the dramatic effect created by a blurred or out-of-focus image, and there is not one photo editor who, at times, does not prefer a blurred image even when the same scene reproduced in all its clarity is available. Only in the odd case is blurring actually a mistake to be avoided, and in these situations fuzzy photographs are published merely because they document an exceptional event as well as possible. […]
More than anything else, however, a blurred photo is credited with authenticity. It is presumed to be an awkward – and hence spontaneous – shot taken by an amateur photographer, with no thought of exploitation, with no forethought. Nevertheless, it is precisely the shots like this, which a reporter may have been waiting to take for hours, if not days, in the same spot, that seem the most impromptu and create the effect of a scoop. […]
The authentic quality of an image can be especially important in the field of political photography, arousing emotions that can create a feeling of disquiet. Photographers and war reporters, like Robert Capa, are able to give their images the compelling feel of an eye-witness account precisely through their exploitation of blurring, which appears to suggest that they were faster and got closer than the others. As a tool of immediacy, blurring becomes a further indication of truth, but, this time, not only as an attempt at mimesis or observation of the surface of the visible, but also as the trace of the documented fact itself. Instead of being part of a reproduction, the fuzziness becomes an intervention in the photography: the event alters its actual reproduction and in this way it is directly present. An event can even go as far as cancelling its own image by refusing to allow it to form. It is precisely this negation of photography as mere reproduction that leads us to understand that, unlike a painting, its possibilities are never exhausted in the representation of a subject. As a photochemical process, photography is a causal reaction, thus always remaining a fixed part of the situation it makes visible.
Reflection of the image
What can the best painter obtain with his images? And how “strong” can these images be? It is no accident that totalitarian ideological and political systems have always believed in the power of art, seeking to exploit the latter for their own ends. For Gerhard Richter, who trained in the school of Socialist Realism, this strong conviction of art’s effectiveness became a subject of critical reflection following his move to West Germany in 1961. Since then, Richter has explored, under the ironical label of “Capitalist Realism”, the issue of what gives images authority, making them either credible or disturbing. To this end, he has drawn inspiration for his paintings from the aesthetics of photography, often using the stylistic means of blurring. Early on, Richer devoted himself mainly to transposing to painting enlarged photos from newspapers and magazines, often starting with poor quality reproductions or slightly fuzzy images, which he worked on to make completely unrecognizable. These interventions always derived from the repertoire of photography and simulated the blurred, fuzzy effects of the images; in fact, the photographic origins of his works in black and white are unmistakable. In so doing, Richter introduced in painting stylistic techniques that were generally used to ensure authenticity and the impact of photographs, experimenting to see if these same effects would work in another medium, considered less reliable. Richter has always admitted his fascination with the authenticity attributed to photography. In a note of 1964/65, he maintained that photography offered “the only image able to transmit the absolute truth, because it sees ‘objectively’; we believe in photography a priori, even when it is technically lacking and the subject is barely recognizable”.1 Hence, Richter reflects on the relationship between the exactness of reproduction and authenticity, as well as on the different degrees of credibility of the various types of images. What makes an image that is lacking in detail, fuzzy and without colour, in which we can just make out a few sketchy shapes, sometimes much more believable than one depicted precisely, which shows all the subjects with a wholly illusionistic effect? In an interview of 1966, Richter said: “A painted murder is completely devoid of interest, a photographed one shocks everybody. We must introduce something like this in painting”.2 In this regard, he is like a painter of icons who copies and recopies an original image that is considered authentic and venerated like a reliquary, in order to be part of the power of that image thought not to have been created by a human hand. At the same time, Richter sees photographs as having “a cultural function”; rather like Susan Sontag, he considers them “sacred images”. 3 This is why he does not want to “paint painting” but aims for a style that “eschews the appearance of painting”. 4 […]
It was through the rejection of pictorial illusionism – which becomes more and more evident within a series such as this – that the evolution of the history of modern art, along a path that led from blurring to complete abstraction, appears to have taken place. This linearity ties in with Clement Greenberg’s definition which, although first published in the Forties exerted a strong and lasting influence. According to Greenberg, the history of avant-garde painting consisted in “a progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium”. Greenberg’s judgement is clearly positive and he considers progressive the fact that the surface of the picture itself became visibly flatter, until, in the end, all pictorial space was lost. […]
While we can say that Richter’s work illustrates the evolution of recent art history, his artistic programme nevertheless differs from the principles on which the avant-garde was founded: for him, painting has no established aim, and if it did have one it could not consist in denying painting its right to reproduce. Rather, Richter is interested in studying various types of painting in parallel: the individual works in his series are to be seen as alternatives of equal worth rather than as attesting to development. Within this perspective, blurring plays a key role in that it reflects the tradition of pictorial illusionism as much as the modern rejection of imitation: in blurring not only the subjects are modified but also the expectations concerning the image itself. The fact that Richter draws on nearly all the classical genres in his production stresses his need to take as a subject the image “in itself”, its roles and its possible functions. His still lifes, nudes and landscapes are never standard examples of the genre: blurring gives the subject depicted a limited presence – a slight alienation – as if it were a citation or indirect speech. By analogy with “speaking improperly”, Richter’s images could be defined as “improper” nudes or still lifes – which makes them typical postmodern works. In Richter, an idyll in landscape is at the same time a reflection on or parody of itself, and his success can be explained also by the fact that he is able to develop his paintings along two tracks: both as images and images that speak of images. […]
With the end of the avant-garde ideologies, blurring seemed to have become the big winner. It was as if, following its spread in the late 19th century, it had only temporarily been relegated to second position and then staged a comeback as the “star” of the stylistic medium, enriched with more, new values. This rebirth – which was more than a mere rediscovery – happened in a completely unexpected way. Even so, for many decades blurring effects were not taken seriously. They were not radical enough for the abstractionists and not precise enough for the figurative painters. The pioneers of classic modern art, and even more so postwar artists, insisted on sharp lines and forms – everything that was fuzzy and undefined was, in their eyes, inadequate for expressing a serious, existential feeling of life. […]
To show its importance and to achieve a cathartic effect, art had to ask something of the viewer; it had to be powerful and disturbing. On this point abstractionists and figurative painters – usually in violent opposition –agreed. They all looked on blurring with suspicion and diffidence, as if it were a mistaken compromise: in actual fact, it is the means of expression of abstract art without throwing into question the objectivity of representation. It could be accused of deceiving the viewer, of attenuating ideological contrasts. Nevertheless, towards the end of the 20th century blurring had an appeal precisely as the possibility of creating a synthesis between abstract and figurative art. The contrast between the two was no longer expressed as conflict: many artists practised both pictorial traditions, experimenting with ways in which the elements of abstract language could be combined with stylistic forms of figurative painting.
Iconography of the good life
Never have so many people been able to see as clearly as they can today in our Western culture of wellbeing. Nowadays, glasses and contact lenses are even used to remedy minor defects and are not just a privilege of the wealthy, as in the past. Hence the need has increased to respect the visual quality of things, whose surfaces we want to be refined, flawless and painstakingly worked and which are disappointing or even disturbing if they are not pleasing to the eye. Advertising in particular exploits the high standards demanded by the new visual capacity available: the aesthetics of goods adulates with images, models and printed slogans; progress, novelty and product value are communicated preferably by means of glossy, flawless presentation. Various kinds of formal configurations could not be imposed on those with reduced vision, since they would merely perceive the material presence of the objects as something weak, insubstantial and rather dull. In a highly commercialized world in which every surface is expressly prepared as a striking visual event, our eyes have much more to do now than in the past. Every kind of environment is more demanding than ever, engaging a large part of our attention with its many stimuli, which are always new and often powerful. So it is not surprising that fuzzy images have become attractive and there is a revival of effects like soft-focus, which was already employed in the 19th century to counteract an overabundance of stimuli. Never before has the image been used to create a moment of relaxation, reflection and carefreeness as it is today. Above all, the advertising aesthetic operates mainly through soft-focus variants. Even in the past decades, this sector did not simply adhere to the principle according to which a message must be as loud and aggressive as possible; on the contrary, the possibilities of blurring were already being exploited then, though in many cases simply to create tender and romantic atmospheres or synaesthetic effects: the characteristics of perfumes, deodorants, bath gels and other products that are attractive mainly because of their scent, have to be perceived through soft-focus. From Odol to Chanel, the list of products publicized with this technique is long and, not infrequently, they are “sold” with provocative and ambiguous images in the style of the teenage eroticism associated with David Hamilton. In actual fact, advertising has constantly adopted the artistic convention that expresses femininity through blurring. […]
Hence, advertising is based on a precise strategy: the simpler and fuzzier the image, the more it lends itself as a screen on which the thoughts and desires of the viewer can be projected, inducing him to dream even more. Surprisingly, we are more likely to attribute many advantageous characteristics to a product that is not clearly defined. The message promises nothing concrete, but there is no hype either – so that if the customer is disappointed, he has no grounds for complaint and can only blame himself. Blurring has made him an idealist who tends to identify with an image rather than being convinced by a different product. […]
Soft-focus goes even further. Indeed, while a message couched in these terms stands out for its charm and subtlety in a variegated environment bloated with information, at the same time it indicates that the company being advertised only manufactures a certain kind of product. This is even truer in our advanced culture of wellbeing in which most people do not even give any value to the things they own.
This text is based on the volume by Wolfgang Ullrich, Die Geschichte der Unschärfe, Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin 2009
Gerhard Richter’s quotes included in this article are excerpted from an interview by Anthony Thwaites, recorded by Sigmar Polke in October 1964 and published in Gerhard Richter. Text, Schriften und Interviews, edited by H. U. Obrist (Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1993).
Other Richter’s quotes:
1. “Notizen 1964/65”, in Gerhard Richter. Text, Schriften und Interviews 1993, p. 25.
2. Interview with Dieter Hüsmanns and Fridolin Reske (1966), in Gerhard Richter. Text, Schriften und Interviews 1993, p. 52.
3. “Notizen 1964/65”, in Gerhard Richter. Text, Schriften und Interviews 1993, p. 25.
4. Interview with Peter Sager (1972), in Gerhard Richter. Text, Schriften und Interviews 1993, p. 62.
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