Is a Photograph Ever Finished?


In 1958, Ernest Hemingway admitted to The Paris Review that the final words of A Farewell to Arms was rewritten 39 times before he was satisfied. Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even (otherwise known as The Large Glass) took him eight years until he decided that he didn’t want to work on it anymore. At this point, he declared it “definitively unfinished”. Four years later, when the piece was on its way to a collector’s house, it suffered damage that resulted in cracks. This was said to have thrilled Duchamp who at that point considered the piece to be complete. In 1990, writer, journalist and essayist, Mario Vargas Llosa, had told The Paris Review, “I think what I love is not the writing itself, but the rewriting, the editing, the correcting… I think it’s the most creative part of writing. I never know when I’m going to finish a story. A piece I thought would only take a few months has sometimes taken me several years to finish. A novel seems finished to me when I start feeling that if I don’t end it soon, it will get the better of me,” and “When I’ve reached saturation, when I’ve had enough, when I just can’t take it anymore, then the story is finished.”

On the other hand, Leonardo da Vinci was an absolutist towards his art. Described as being relentlessly inquisitive, art critic, Holland Cotter, in his essay titled What Leonardo da Vinci Couldn’t Finish, wrote, “Before Leonardo did anything he had to know everything: how his paints and varnishes were made, how the human body was internally structured, and what creating art might mean in the cosmic scheme of things.” In the same piece, Cotter mentions Giorgio Vasari, the 16th century art historian, who had said of the artist… “Leonardo’s profound and discerning mind was so ambitious that this was itself an impediment and the reason he failed was because he endeavoured to add excellence and perfection to perfection.” Amongst his many unfinished paintings is the Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness. No one knows why he never completed it. Then again, Leonardo believed that “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

This thought resurfaces repeatedly when photographers are asked about their pictures… How or when do you know a body of work is complete? For the most part, the response dwells on the innate gut feeling that surfaces towards the end of a project, whether in a couple of weeks or months, or as illustrated earlier, years or even decades. However, there are divergent ways of looking at this. Some of the greatest photographers believed that an image was complete once the shutter was released. What took place after that—editing, processing, printing—didn’t matter to them as much. Others felt that a photograph was complete once it was realised in the mind’s eye. The pressing of the shutter was simply a formality that led to the creation of a tactile representation of the idea. Then there were those who considered a photograph(s) complete once it was mounted on a wall or presented in the form of a book. The context that emerges from the systematic arrangement and presentation of images was what defined whether a body of work was complete or not. “The essence is done very quickly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine. I think too that photography is editing, editing after the taking. After knowing what to take, you have to do the editing,” Walker Evans had said. And then there were also individuals who used a variety of media to further propagate their thoughts onto the image. This is something that I’ve been particularly interested in of late, using my iPad to create repeating lines, patterns, even text to change the nature of the still. The possibilities are truly infinite.

However, the question of whether photography is ever finished, can it be finished, or does it subscribe to Leonardo’s notion, is something to think about. It is my personal understanding that no work of art is ever finished. I suppose it’s because of the finality that is ascribed to the word finished that makes it a dreadful term to use for a genre that is so expansive and ephemeral. A piece of art can be complete at any given moment, but like Duchamp, (although it wasn’t deliberately intended), one should leave some room for it to breathe and mature. It is the same subtlety that differentiates the making and taking of a picture (one always creates an image as opposed to stealing it) or for that matter, seeing and looking (one is all encompassing as opposed to the other that is related to a discerning eye) at the world around you.