Perfect Imperfection

“There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen, Anthem).

I was so excited when beautifully rendered Japanese fonts in semi-cursive gyosho style became available for the PC. A perfect line of characters on a sheet of paper was no more the question of years of practice and maybe eventually never achievable, but just a few key-strokes away. Alas, it did not take me long until I found this perfect beauty and uniformity pretty boring.

Calligraphers like to point out in that context, that in the cherished “Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion” (蘭亭集序, Chinese: Lántíngjí Xù) written by Wáng Xīzhī (王羲之) in the year 353, the character 之 appears 20 times, but no two look the same. This variety in style and expression, together with a few roughly corrected mistakes and imperfections, are considered to largely contribute to the beauty of this famous masterpiece.


“Kinder am Brunnen” (Franz Ulrich, 1936)

In the old photography books I inherited from my grandfather I found in many of the prints a kind of softness and “magic glow” I failed to achieve even when employing the most advanced digital post-processing techniques and close-to-perfect modern lenses. This effect remained an unsolved miracle for me until very recently, when I discovered a related remark in a book written by the famous photographer Ansel Adams. The specific atmosphere I cherish so much is produced by the imperfect optical design of old lenses, which makes particularly the bright areas of an image appear soft and glowing, while the dark edges remain sharp and focussed.

As I prefer the brush to my computer when it comes to writing beautifully imperfect calligraphy, I now consider employing a more than hundred years old camera stored away in my father’s cellar for my further photographic work. The modern equipment is maybe too perfect …

Copyright notice: The picture “Kinder am Brunnen” presented here was scanned from the 1936 edition of “Das Deutsche Lichtbild” (p. 127). The appendix lists “Franz Ulrich” as the photographer. I reproduce it here under the assumption that any copyright expired. In case I am mistaken, please let me kindly know and I put it off the page!

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