The art of the undecided

We must not oppose sharpness and blur, as if the latter were only a technical defect or lack of mastery. The history of photography shows that it was, on the contrary, the subject of careful development.

The title of Pauline Martin's work, resulting from a thesis work, is surprising: what can a encounter between blur and photography? From the first blurs due to the length of exposure times to the multiple forms of failure in amateur photos, blur is so closely linked to photography (which cannot be said of drawing, painting, or even cinema) that we cannot see clearly. why or how there would be matter encounter. And yet, their trajectories are not identical: because the artistic presence of blur does not begin with photography, but with painting, and will remain associated with the pictorial domain for a long time.; and photography, if it has always had to negotiate with blur, has nevertheless made sharpness its founding value, relegating blur to a seemingly problematic place.

Composition (character and basket on a beach)
Florence Henri (around 1930-1935)
Centre Pompidou, MNAMCCI Dist. NMR-Big palace

Retracing the history of this encounter is therefore the objective of this research, which begins well before the invention of photography, in 1676 (first occurrence under the pen of Andr Flibien) and ends in 1985, with the recognition of the plastic uses of photography. silver (the text of the historian Jean-Claude Lemagny, The return of the blur is taken here as a reference). However, this story, Pauline Martin does not develop from a corpus of blurred photos selectively chosen or retained for their different expressive modalities this work, she carried it out jointly, as curator, for an exhibition dedicated to the history of blur at the Photo lyse museum in Lausanne , which gave rise to a substantial catalog. It is from speeches, texts, therefore from the material of words, their uses and the most subtle semantic evolutions that she conducts the investigation, opening the first part with this very direct question: How is the term blur understood, heard, apprehended and used at the time of photography? (p. 37).

The stakes are high, and require the study of a considerable corpus of texts, which goes well beyond theoretical and historical studies devoted to photography, delving into the archives of amateur, technical and scientific journals, into art criticism, aesthetic debates, discussions on optics, therefore all of the discourses devoted to vagueness which have accompanied its history, shaped its uses and its reception. Refracted in discourse, the history of blur short-circuits the usual schemas: the close study of the texts brings to light the tensions and contradictions which constantly make and break the encounter between blur and photography and prevent a simply linear reading, which would be told as a progressive conquest, from failure to final consecration.

The invention of a properly photographic blur

This entire research is anchored in a lexical discovery fundamental: while blur is understood today as a lack of sharpness in the image, this term was used for three centuries, from XVIIe until the end of the XIXeconstantly associated with painting, designating a soft, light, melted way of painting, a skillfully mastered vagueness that articulates the minutiae of details (like the blurs in Fragonard, Greuze, Chardin). It is therefore in no way thought of as a defect, nor even as something vague, but on the contrary as a subtle way of erasing the medium (the brush strokes) by working on the mimetic illusion of a representation close to the vision, itself leveled in more or less clear areas of attention. At XIXe century, when the practice of portraiture became widespread, everything seemed to oppose pictorial blur And photographic blur: a sign of mastery of the pictorial gesture, it betrays on the contrary the failures of the photographic technique (lack of focus or parasitic movement) and undermines the ideal of transparency of the medium. When vagueness positively makes its way into the vocabulary of critics, it will therefore assert itself in an unstable place, the crossroads of painting and photography: the first theorists of blur in photography thus find themselves in the paradoxical situation of claiming a pictorial, mimetic, deliberate blur, and fully assumed by the artist, while rejecting a technically defective photographic blur. (p. 110). The first attempts at voluntary blurring were carried out by the pictorialists, who, in France, largely dominated photographic practice until the 1920s.

The lock (detail)
Fragonard (1777)

In line with the work of Michel Poivert, which has had a lasting impact on the understanding of this often-decried movement, Pauline Martin insists on all the research that animated it: far from presenting itself as a unified movement, frozen in its claim to rival painting, pictorialism asserts itself as a moment of intense experimentation, the main challenge of which consists to blur (art) with sharpness (photography), therefore precisely produce, using multiple techniques (bichromatic eraser, chromatism) a perfectly controlled blur. This blur obeys a double logic, artistic and naturalist: against the idea of ​​a cold and mechanical copy of reality, the pictorialist blur intends to reflect a subjective and poetic vision (it is lme of the cliché, according to Robert de la Sizeranne). But it faces the same risks as pictorial blur: stretched and generalized, it acts like a fashionable and too visible effect. This is where the expression soft focus, tinged with critical irony, takes on its full meaning: the voluntary vagueness becomes the ostentatious sign of the desire to make art. Between technical fault and artifice, the recognition of artistic blur advances on a ridge line, and gets bogged down in the lost quest for a miraculous technique, the search for the perfect blur.

The 1920s: avant-garde, cinema and amateur practices

Fixed exploding
Man Ray (1934)

Pauline Martin will shed sociological light on this quest, which is certainly one of the most stimulating hypotheses of this work: if pictorialism seems caught in an eternal restart, exploring new empirical techniques to produce blur, it is not due to an illusory obstinacy , but out of a desire for social demarcation, a time when photography was massively democratized: caught between the commercial generalization of commercial portraiture dulcor, retouch, enveloped in nimbus, in the style of Harcourt's studio, and the development of amateur practices, the pictorialists, by giving their research on blur a highly complicated character, position themselves as the guarantors of technical and elitist photographic knowledge. It will be, for this same reason, received as conventional and bourgeois by modernist avant-garde movements promoting the clear and precise recording of reality (New Objectivity, New Vision). It is by associating himself with completely other values ​​(accident, chance, the unconscious) that he goes, within the surrealist movement (Fixed exploding of Man Ray is taken as a privileged figure), find his autonomy, and participate in the emergence of a new photographic paradigm, which deliberately breaks with the mimetic illusion.

The Inhumane (screenshot)
Marcel L'Herbier (1924)

The detour through cinema also allows, by comparison, to better understand the photographic blur of the 1920s: compared to the often contradictory issues which animate the thought of blur in photography, blur in cinema (in David Wark Griffith, Marcel LHerbier) seems as if obey a well-defined function, articulating aesthetics and narration (evoking psychology, the point of view of a character, memory). The success of cinematic blur, declining systematically, becomes a standardized form, which will quickly exhaust itself: here again, the soft focus signs both the recognition and the decadence of a use.

From blur to subjective blur

If the subject of the book generally follows a chronological thread, the blur receives particular attention, as its questions are specific. The French language (unlike English or German) designates by a single term the blur of focus linked to the aperture and the focal length of the lens, which constructs the space of the image in different planes and the blur of movement, which depends on the parasitic movements of the camera or the subject photographed. Motion blur, in the first decades of photography, was a problem to be eliminated, linked to relatively long exposure times. When photography claims to scientifically explore movement, it is the sharpness of the instant, and not the blur, which historically presents itself as the preferred entry point for studying movement, through the chronophotography of Jules Marey. The voluntary use of blur as an expression of movement and life would only assert itself later, in the press photography of the 1930s (the magazine Seen in particular) which covers sporting events, automobile speed, bullfights. Here again, this blur requires the most elaborate dosage and technique, capable of making the moving object legible while expressing speed.

Behind Gare St. Lazare
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1932)
Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation/Magnum Photos

With the consecration of the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson and the myth of the decisive moment, the blur becomes the sign of a creative spontaneity which combines the capture of the moment captured on the spot with the highest virtuosity of the composition. It is another paradigm of vagueness, still relevant today, which established itself in the 1950s: privileged expression of photo-event or the sensational, it bears witness to the action in progress and becomes, by association, a guarantee of sincerity, manifesting the presence and commitment of the photographer at the time of the shot, or the visually constructed sign of authenticity. But the 1950s also saw the emergence of a much more plastic blur, exploring the grain, the effects of rubbing, the very material of the blur, which gradually became a form of signature (at William Klein in particular), moving, undecided, floating, exalting the transience of beings or lending itself to more psychological approaches.

The complex path that Pauline Martin traces in the history of vagueness is fascinating. By removing the blur from its systematic opposition to the net, by also refusing to approach it by ready-made categories (motion blur, artistic blur, commercial blur), the author makes us sensitive to the internal debates in the history of the blur: far from being a unified aesthetic, a style or a technical problem, blur presents itself first of all as a place of tensions, even contradictions, through which the quality of the photographic image is redefined. The constant confrontation between photographic blur and pictorial blur is sometimes a little too insistent; it continues until the last part which curiously underlines a amnesia facing the pictorial anchoring of blur, as if photography had to constantly start from this first confrontation to assert its own value. But this does not detract from the general scope of the work.

This history of photographic blur is also, jointly, a history of the gaze and a philosophy of the image, questioning the ontology of photography (what place for blur, within a medium which has historically constituted sharpness as a founding value? Is there a properly photographic blur??), its relationship to space and time (blurring as a trace of the event), like its technique (can we blur with sharpness??). If the work is not immediately philosophical, in the sense that the entry route is not through concepts or photographic theory, it is always present, although taken obliquely: the references are punctually invoked and as if brought into play by this fine attention to the weaving of discourses on vagueness. Scholarship here takes a critical turn capable of destabilizing ready-made systems and opening new perspectives on the understanding of the uses and issues of photography.