By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS ARE NEGOTIATIONS between primary, secondary, and even tertiary levels of information, and how they will be arranged in a frame. You either feature or mute that information in order to direct attention to the primary story you’re trying to tell. The simplest example of this process is the selective focus engineered into many shots, with important details being rendered in sharpness while the rest of the competing data goes soft to help isolate the main message of the picture. In its simplest application this means a clearly focused foreground and a blurred background.
The blur used to be the eye’s clue that the information in that part of the picture was not a priority. Thinking in terms of portraits, for example, your subject is clearly defined, with the space behind it dulled or diminished. You make that choice by selecting your depth of field and shoot accordingly. However, recent trends in the making of a photograph have elevated the status of the blurs themselves to something that needs to be chosen, or shaped for artistic purposes. In other words, the part of an image that is inherently unimportant, by virtue of being out of focus, is now a source of attention as to what kind of blur is being created. This formerly fussy concept of bokeh is popping up in more and more advertising copy for the sale of lenses. A given piece of glass is now touted as having great bokeh, which somehow makes it more desirable than some other piece of glass.
Bokeh is really nothing more than the quality of the shapes that occur when a particular lens breaks up light in its non-focused areas. Some people use the terms “buttery” or “geometric” or “dreamy” to describe the work of a given optic, and some lenses are actually marketed based on how this texture is rendered. I can only speak to this fascination from my own viewpoint, and so you have to plug in your own approach to photography, and whether the non-essential part of a picture is now, strangely, important to you.…important enough to influence your purchase of one hunk of gear over another. I admit that some bokeh acts as a beautiful backdrop to a foreground subject, but I also contend that, as seen in the above image, some lenses can actually render it in a way that is distracting, even irritating. However, whether I admire the swirls and ellipses of some forms of bokeh, I don’t see it as anywhere near as important as what I’m trying to feature in front of it. If all things in a frame are of equal importance, why not just shoot everything at f/11 and make sure it’s all recorded at the same sharpness?
I think that, in photography, as in many other art forms, we can become fascinated with effects rather than substance, and that, if you don’t know what you’re trying to get a picture to say, you can become more interested in how cool something looks instead of what a picture’s narrative is supposed to be. Bokeh can be lovely, but giving it too much prominence is a little like sitting in a theatre and intensely watching what the third Roman to the left is doing with his toga while Marc Antony is at center stage delivering his big speech. Things in a good picture must be arranged in a hierarchy, some priority of intentions, in order to communicate effectively. And if I have my choice between a bird and a blur, I will unapologetically choose the bird every time.