The Un-Moment: Why Gritty Beats Glossy & the Deceit of Perfection

The Blakes. "Un-moment" by Chase Jarvis

When I was a less experienced artist, I thought that less gloss meant less talent. For, after all, it seemed to me to be commonly assumed in our culture that talent resided only in the gloss, the perfection, and the polish. If your art didn’t have polish it was only because you we’re able to apply it.

Now, I tend to feel just the opposite. Gloss, more often than not, acts as a substitute for soul, a clear vision, intent. It’s certainly more challenging to find the perfect vintage car to purchase than it is to select a shiny new sports car. It seems like gloss too often is the easy way out.

Cartier-Bresson

Photographically, for me, this translates away from traditional, more “perfect” images and toward the more real moments. It’s the off moments, or rather the “un-moments” that make stronger, more emotionally charged images. Those images feel more like my life—far more imperfect and far more relevant.

by Richard AvedonThere are a million images around us to prove my point. Think of the work of so many masters. Cartier-Bresson. Think of Warhol’s photos, of Avedon’s. Or more modernly, of Ryan McGinley’s or Chris Buck. Examples from my own work can be found in the Seattle 100: Portrait of a City book
. I shot 100,000 images for that book (here’s a gallery of 30 of them), and the ones the made the final 300-image book edit were almost always this “un-moment” of which I write. These un-moments–these instants just before and just after those photographic moments that have been so historically revered in our culture–seem so much more revealing, engaging, and meaningful. My growing experience tells me that this sliver of time that captures the spontaneous and the genuine and pierces through the façade of a conventionally “perfect” portraits does so in a way that more accurately reveals the truly human.

Certainly there are exceptions to my hypothesis abound – where polished images succeed – its simply my hope that we suspend our de facto acceptance of the new-and-polished and recognize that it’s more often something gritty that challenges us to find a deeper aesthetic, take a longer vision and seek more soulful connections. Put simply, “gritty” may require more emotional and metaphysical investment from us viewers, but it is far less deceitful than “glossy” and creates a far greater opportunity for culturally-relevant, creative success.

[this post is adapted from a piece on design that I origially wrote for Arcade Magazine]

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49 Responses to The Un-Moment: Why Gritty Beats Glossy & the Deceit of Perfection

  1. Landry January 10, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    I always prefer the gritty/off moment. It is more true and resonates. I’d love to see a move away from glossy perfection, back to character and depth.

    • trey January 11, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

      its not only the gritty stuff or the “un moment” stuff that resonates. its the stuff that you shot ages ago that you thought sucked. the stuff that you were ashamed to let see the light of day. when i was a less experienced photographer i did a shoot with my sister for an online magazine she co produced. i shot approximately 500 – 600 images that day and at the time only 4 actually were good enough to use in the magazine. The rest.. well as far as i was concerned all sucked. Fast forward 2/3 years, im trying to clean up my hard drive and i come across the folder for the shoot. i take a look inside and it was like i had hit the jackpot! image upon image of awesomeness. what changed? My eye, my technique, my knowledge, my skills had all had advanced 100 fold since that day and looking at the images again i saw things that i had never seen before, possibilities that never existed but now did. An example is todays picture on my site.
      The point im making is 2 fold. that gritty un moment could be the defining moment for any of us and the “un moment , gritty but crap image” of today could be the “moment” for tomorrow.

      Trey

  2. Robert January 10, 2012 at 10:10 am #

    This is exactly my view as well, and I often find the best shots are the sort of ‘in between’ moments. Clients don’t always agree though!

    • Brandon Bloch January 10, 2012 at 10:31 am #

      haha… yeah. Clients. Sometimes I wanna shake them and be like “forget how the thing looks… how does it make you FEEL?!” It’s a balance.

  3. Scott Webb January 10, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    I think this is why mobile photography has soared in interest the same way polaroids have too. As Mike Lin (architectural graphic renderer) always says: “BE LOOSE”

  4. Carson January 10, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    Yyyyyyup.

  5. kayhan January 10, 2012 at 10:14 am #

    This is an excellent post. However, this idea of not polished, carefree images have been abused to a great degree these days as well. I think knowing and understanding the rules before breaking them is vital. I am so very sick and tired of all these hipster images everyone these days tries to sell you as art!

    • Maryanne January 13, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

      If your a hipster and you know it clap your hands
      If your a hipster and you know it clap your hands
      If you a hipster and you know it then your art will surly show it
      If your a hipster and you know it clap your hands

      I have no idea what that means, but I’m laughing and clapping.

  6. Gary Gardiner January 10, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    One of the lessons I gave photographers who worked for me when I was an AP staffer was to always arrive early and stay late.

    Some of the best photos from scripted and routine events came from the unprepared moments, not the event itself.

  7. Brandon Bloch January 10, 2012 at 10:29 am #

    Awesome post. I think about this all the time too. Actually, I see a lot of parallels in sports and fine art. Think about someone like Michael Jordan mastering the fundamentals first (glossy), and then being able to improvise on the court (gritty). Or impressionist artists like Van Gogh who could have been technically perfect in their renderings (glossy), but then became looser and more impressionistic (gritty) as they got older and mastered their medium. Or think of Frank Gehry, who can design an architectural masterpiece by scribbling on a napkin.

    I think gritty images mean you’ve mastered the art to the point where you’re able to rely more on instincts for the shot… and the results usually have a more emotional immediacy, which is what the audience will respond to more than showing off how skilled and glossy the photographer is.

    So, yeah… totally.

  8. RJ Kern January 10, 2012 at 10:30 am #

    While talent captures moments, the real talent lies in choosing the photo among the other ‘moments’ and showcasing them, against the grain. The giant lives within us to be proud of that editorial, artistic process.

  9. Martin Moore January 10, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    Couldn’t agree more. This is how I’ve always shot and prefer to shoot. I like to capture the moment right before or right after, those tend to be the most genuine and authentic shots.

  10. Phillip January 10, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    We live in a time of reality tv. Interestingly enough, the more time people spend in work cubicles, traffic and on-line, the more they seem to like images that are ‘real’.

  11. Andy January 10, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    I’ve always thought the un-moment was actually THE moment?

  12. Jay Hurray January 10, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    One of my favorite un-moment photos of all time is the innersleeve photo of the Rolling Stones’ album Sticky Fingers. Especially Mick Jagger yawning.
    When I make a picture of people I always try to bring back that photo in my mind.

  13. stephan mantler January 10, 2012 at 11:09 am #

    grit works because you need friction to make something stick. a polished, surgically clean image is nice to look at for a moment, but it doesn’t offer anything to hold on to and get into the picture.it just drips off your mind, leaving no trace.

    then of course, sometimes it’s just the opposite.

    the art of photography is finding out why.

  14. Mark Newhouse January 10, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    Life is primarily made up of un-moments, finding the right one to capture – the “Decisive Un-Moment” – is the tricky part. I think it is easier to look for the glossy, or try to create it, than it is to wait for the gritty, or learn to anticipate and see them before they happen. As least that’s how it is in my photography. But now that you have pointed it out, Chase, the images I find myself returning to over and over (both mine and others) are decidedly un-moments.

  15. Al Graham January 10, 2012 at 11:39 am #

    Good aesthetics can make up for bad technique, but good technique can never make up for bad aesthetics.

  16. Dominique January 10, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Chase, I’m a big fan, and I love a lot of your work, and love what you’re doing with Creative Live as well.
    I disagree with you on this topic though. First of all, it’s ironic that a couple of the sample photos you include in your post are on perfect white backgrounds and obviously shot in studio. Which points to what I disagree with most on the piece. The “un-moment” is very important, and I agree it’s as if not more important to capture than the “manufactured” moment, but it’s best when it’s a “spontaneous” moment, not when it’s a “caught off guard” moment right before or after I spent a lot of time setting up a shot. That whole “shooting in a studio” is a “non spontaneous” setup anyway.
    The same way that people used to idealize the “perfect”, “glossy” shot (and spend a lot of time setting them up), I think people are now doing it for “grungy” or “natural” shots, i.e. idealizing them and spending a lot of time setting them up. That can lead to beautiful results, just as the “clean” look can as well, but I just don’t think it should be mistaken for anything truly “spontaneous” or “un-moment”.

    Cheers,
    Dominique

  17. Brian January 10, 2012 at 11:51 am #

    Love it. I shoot a lot of “gloss” looks for actor’s headshots and modeling books here in LA but I love, love, love to capture the essential essence of someone in those “un-moments”

  18. Bradles January 10, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    @Domnique, I think you’ve confused a couple of concepts. If I’m right an un-moment is one that is not COMPLETELY manufactured. As such studio moments can create un-moments. Un-moments are not about going out and photographing just anything as it happens with no interference, they are about being willing to allow things to happen in any environment – particularly ones where you might be expected to have control.

    • Dominique January 11, 2012 at 8:42 am #

      @Bradles, great point. I agree that allowing for some “spontaneous” moments within whatever environment/setup you are can lead to very nice photos, and is something important for all of us to be open to.

  19. DanielKphoto January 10, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    As always, great post. Really triggers my mind to think about it. Thanks :)

  20. Dimi January 10, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    Great post, this should make for a great experiment that helps break artists out of their comfort zone and start experimenting with moments.

  21. tom January 10, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    Oh those awful perfect pictures …

  22. Idea January 11, 2012 at 4:28 am #

    Je suis une adepte du “non-moment”, et je pensais bêtement m’être résignée à ce genre de clichés à cause de mon”non-professionnalisme” et l’équipement réduit qui me sert à “voler” les instants de la vie! Je suis contente de savoir que des “Grands” révisent leur opinion sur la “perfection”…c’est quoi au juste, la perfection? ;)

  23. Jacob Härnqvist January 11, 2012 at 5:51 am #

    Yeah, I agree with Chase. You connect better with gritty stuff because you see gritty stuff everywhere, gritty is what you know. Glossing stuff out is creating emotional distance. Which is why some people like it so much.

  24. RobyFabro January 11, 2012 at 7:26 am #

    Isn’t it what the difference is between real life and a set-up situation…what we think something should be or look like?
    In our society “image” always played a bigger role, somehow we seam to be attracted to that polished patina, Isn’ it what advertising is all about, selling an image? Nothing wrong with the glossiness as long as we don’t take it for the real thing!

  25. Dan Kaufman January 11, 2012 at 8:53 am #

    >>> “…this sliver of time that captures the spontaneous and the genuine and pierces through the façade of a conventionally “perfect” portraits does so in a way that more accurately reveals the truly human…”

    It’s also called BLINK. See Malcolm Gladwell at http://www.gladwell.com/blink/

    I live by it too! Keep up the good work, and keep BLINKING Chase.

  26. TIm McLaughlin January 11, 2012 at 10:03 am #

    Very thought provoking post. But I disagree with your formulation of these ideas. Perhaps it is because “Gritty” and “Glossy” are pretty slippery terms and you have set them up in the title as absolutes. Also I’d say that you are not claiming anything about the “Deceit of Perfection,” but rather the opposite. You are encouraging perfection. Avadon (who’s image from “In The American West”) you have included, shot for a number of years and went through thousands of images to get a little more than 100 finished photos. That is a complete striving for perfection. Cartier-Bresson is known for “the decisive moment” ie the one perfect moment. These are not “un-moments.” They are, by your own terms and description of your editing process, very very specific moments. Perfect moments. Don’t get me wrong. I love the photos you have show, both yours and Avadon’s. But I think you have set up a contradictory way of thinking about them – especially given the history of photography.

    Avadon, for example, received a commission to do street photography in Harlem in the late ‘60s. He ended up returning the money. He was uncomfortable taking pictures without engaging the subjects and felt other photographers were better at it. It was not until he could bring the “glossy” studio into the field that he could make the work he wanted. Perfect work – glossy work – very controlled work. The subject may be gritty, but the photography is highly polished.

    In contrast Geoff Dyer has written a wonderful book called “The Ongoing Moment” which sets up a way of thinking about photography which stands in opposition to “the critical moment.” Well worth the read. Interestingly, Dyer is not a photographer.

    But, thought provoking post, and I tip my hat to you for starting engaging discussions.
    Tim

  27. eddiebaba January 11, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    Regardless of the “-moment” the image should force the viewer/audience to explore the content within the frame. Look at some of the images that Gregory Crewdson makes which are very polished and thought provoking. He strives for perfection. It’s the content of the image, polished or gritty, combined with preparation, spontaneity, timing, luck, etc. that have a lasting value on the viewer. Yes Chase, there are “exceptions” and making gritty images is my first choice. But putting it into the right context that many of the polished images we see are manufactured to sell us something and that’s what helps the photographer pay the bills. Great thought provoking and gritty post, thanks Chase!

  28. Alan Matthews January 12, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    For me, this is the main reason why I am not excited about frame grabs from HD Video (like the RED or other upcoming video cameras) because where’s the art in dragging slowing through a video time line to find that “magic” un-moment? That’s not magic to me nor is it interesting.

  29. andrew January 20, 2012 at 12:50 am #

    Chase

    I think the real point to take away from this post is that you prefer genuine photographs, not ones that the subject “fakes” for the sake of the camera and then returns to their “normal” after the shot is taken… i still think that the decisive moment is what you are after, however i think the decisive moment you are after is not the one that we would think of as the decisive moment. it’s not the perfect smile, it’s not the most beautiful shot of a person, but the most true, genuine and honest expression that the subject gives.

    thanks for the thoughts got me thinking!

  30. Maui January 22, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    I have been experiencing this phenom of the un-moment myself. I do enjoy the look of a polished portrait. However, the moment pre/proceeding such moments are always my favorite. Sometimes I find my subjects don’t enjoy them as much. It seems that the vulnerability in these un-moments may be a bit more then they wanted to show to the world, which I can understand. To me though, they will always be the treasured ones.
    Cheers for the post

  31. shaun January 25, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    just the words that i need! im trapped with the rules of this art. thank you chase. :)
    im gonna include the “un-moments” in my frames from now on. thank you!

  32. doug stremel January 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm #

    This might be one of the best posts you’ve put on your blog. And your ‘unfocused’ section in your portfolio is terrific. I’d love to see many, many more images in that section. Cheers.

  33. Cam Cope January 31, 2012 at 3:41 am #

    Great post. I’m sure if we all go through our collections we could find a bunch of hilarious and interesting un-moments to post here. Do you feel another user contrib project coming? Something ala the snapshot NYC project?

  34. Jason Lee February 3, 2012 at 8:00 am #

    Even a modest imperfection generates the warm understanding that what you see was made by people for people.

  35. kuhler February 9, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more. I think perfect images are a novelty and make great attention grabbers, but not necessarily attention retainers – ideal, but not compelling, screen-savers. Humans are not drawn to over-produced “perfection”, we are drawn to stories, human connections and experience. Perfection is fantasy and is thus not authentic. What you here call grit allows for viewer interpretation, interaction. It leaves room for the viewer to participate and identify with the art.

  36. kuhler February 9, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more. I think perfect images are a novelty and make great attention grabbers, but not necessarily attention retainers – ideal, but not compelling, screen-savers. Humans are not drawn to over-produced “perfection”, we are drawn to stories, human connections and experience. Perfection is fantasy and is thus not authentic. What you here call grit allows for viewer interpretation, interaction. It leaves room for the viewer to participate and identify with the art.

    Having two shooters can help with this as one can work on the classic shots that everyone wants and one can work on the creative and honest portraits that happen in between.

    • kuhler February 10, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

      ps: one great short-cut to get totally candid expressions on demand is to use a trampoline. this usually loosens a subject up real quick, if the situation is right. another thing that works really well for us is shooting in a natural, peaceful environment – the negative ions in nature are powerful stress relievers and everything about the outdoors helps people relax (except freezing cold!). giving people space and not shooting all up in their face is helpful too. but in the end your people skills will be the greatest factor in how comfortable people are and how much they will reveal of themselves.

  37. David Leland Hyde March 5, 2012 at 12:07 am #

    A very well expressed post and applicable to landscape or any other kind of photography as well.

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