Inspiration: Le Flou

There are a couple of concepts that I have encountered whilst researching the world of photography which have really struck a chord. I think both have been a part of my work without me necessarily identifying that they are a ‘thing’, but with this recognition I’ll seek to devote some conscious effort to them.

The first of these is ‘Le Flou’, the direct English translation of which is ‘the blur’. It’s origins are in painting, where it refers to techniques that conceal noticeable brushstrokes.

In the early days of daguerrotype photography using metal plates, images were – for the time – highly detailed and considered by many to be mechanical, scientific, and therefore not ‘art’. Critics of photography siezed on any lack of detail, of le flou, as a defect and refused to consider it an artistic attribute. It was a failure of the technician.

Gustave Le Gray challenged this. His use of waxed paper negatives introduced a degree of blur due to the fibres of the paper, and he wrote:

“From my point of view, the artistic beauty of a photographic print, on the contrary, nearly always lies in the sacrifice of certain details so as to produce an impression that sometimes achieves the most sublime art.”

A student of Le Gray, Henri de la Blanchère,  stated:

“Let us consult our eye; it will tell us that in overall views, the details fade and come together into general masses that grow larger as we move further away and take in a larger area … And now what will we do if we are wise, that is, if we are artists? We will heed this advice and sacrifice the details if we want to emphasize the overall scene.”

“Sacrifice, eliminate all these details, wipe away your thousand insignificant nothings, and you will have a whole that is truly artistic, truly satisfying. I am not in any way advocating the production of images that are flou: I am simply reiterating that if one insists on striving for the maximum possible sharpness, the result will be an image that is cold and hard and lacking in depth and life.”

Francis Wey linked the use of Le Flou in photography in artistic – painterly – technique in 1851 when discussing portraits:

“The bolder, more striking, and more minute the details, the more they are accentuated by the daguerreotype and the more vividly it reproduces them. As a result, the head – the principal subject – fades from view, becomes tarnished, loses its interest and cohesion, and everything shimmers, without the viewer’s attention having anywhere to focus. The theory of the sacrifice, which was practiced so extensively by Van Dyck, Rubens, and Titian, must be followed even more strictly by the heliographic artist. As a rule, these great painters made the heads of their figures shine in the midst of a somber and hazy atmosphere; then their backgrounds, which grow darker as they recede, merge along the shoulders with the folds of the figures’ garments, which are broadly suggested in a dark and solid impasto. These artists avoided outlining the human form from head to foot, and unlike certain daguerreotypes, their portraits do not resemble rotting codfish on a silver plate. What is the purpose of these sacrifices involving the distribution of light and the elimination of certain details? It is to focus attention on the figures.”

So, to the inspiration. Too often in the past I have strived for technical perfection. Blur – flou – was the enemy. Where I did introduce it through long exposures it was all too often a bit of a cliché. Pretty, but a cliché nonetheless. It’s time to focus on the heart of the subject and be a little less uptight about the possibility of flou.

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