My father was a master of illusion. Early in his career he was a photoengraver. He etched images in copper plates to run on mechanical presses. Later he worked the large camera in a newspaper’s composing room. He was an expert at creating half-tones, those images newspapers use that are made up of variously spaced and sized dots. Given enough distance from the surface, you don’t see the dots, and your brain’s pattern recognition system creates a meaningful image.
Dad enjoyed the process, the technical challenges, and the end result. He was a stickler for quality, frustrated at younger workers who didn’t want to learn the subtler nuances of the craft, didn’t see the point of excellence in daily details.
On Friday evenings when I was in junior high, I would stay downtown and wander from pinball arcade to Chinese restaurant to street corner with friends and then around 11:30 I would head to the newspaper office to get a ride home with Dad. If I got there early I sat on a stool inside the doorway to the composing room and watched the last minute hubbub before the press deadline. After the plates were delivered to the press, Dad would show me his work. At the time, making half-tones didn’t interest me, but I tried to understand because it was important to him.
Fast forward 35 years to me as a manager. I value personality tests, and have used various ones to understand team members. People are fairly consistent if they take the same personality test over several years. Our underlying preferences and values are fairly fixed. On values sections, I always show a preference for beauty and excellence. Just like my dad.
Every personality test I have ever taken pegs me as someone fairly uninterested in financial success or competition. Not completely uninterested. I want success and esteem, but for me it is about doing my best. I want the admiration that comes to those with a long obedience towards excellence. I’m interested in masterpieces. But more and more in everyday life, quality is passed over for quantity. I love my life, surrounded by technical marvels and functional comforts. But I feel a tug for the satisfaction that only comes in moments of brilliance. I that satisfaction when I capture a moment with artistic competence. Seeing quality and producing quality.
Seminal works on quality are the enigmatic, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” and “Lila’s Child: An Inquiry Into Quality.”
“Dynamic Quality cannot be defined. It can only be understood intellectually through the use of analogy.” – Dan Glover, Lila’s Child: An Inquiry Into Quality
The author, Robert M. Pirsig, spent much of his intellectual energy on the question of if quality could be defined, and concluded that it could not.
Like Wabi Sabi, understanding and/or appreciating Quality arrives directly through perception and, as quoted above, indirect comparison with other things. Simile, metaphor, and analogy. This is all we have in the end, our own sense data, and comparison.
The more I think about this, the more I conclude that all understanding arrives this way. All appreciation and comprehension, slightly ineffable.
I use, and perhaps over-use the word quality. I talk about the quality of the light, the quality of a tonal range, the quality of and also the qualities of a lens.
Recently I purchased a lens that was criticized by one of my favorite you-tubers, Michael Widell. Michael’s points were valid. The lens is heavy, wide open it is not as sharp as others, and it is manual focus only lens. But the quality of images is special.
How do I put into words the quality. The bokeh is creamy, but not remarkably so, the depth of field is fairly standard, the light gathering capacity is about average, but the images it produces are beautiful.
It took me several days to get the hang of the lens, part of the fun is overcoming the newness of a tool, integrating it into muscle memory, becomeing one with it.
Part of the “quality” of the images produced by this lens is the fall off from focus to blur. Even when very thin, the transition from focus to out of focus is pleasing.
It is a challenging lens to use, but rewards with the way it captures the light, the way it imparts a signature look. It works in some ways like those half-tones. You have to stand back a bit, let your brain work with the image.
On the morning I took these images the light was coppery and subtle, the lens took effort to focus, post processing required creating a new tone map. I was left feeling stretched and surprised; and a little closer to understanding “quality.”