Hateley Heath, 1981

Imperfect photographs hold magic, according to Heather Greenwood Davis.

They do not require technical perfection and composition. Instead, they capture a mood, an emotion, an ephemeral moment. The photographer Jay Maisel believes that ‘gesture is the most important element’ of a photograph. With the easy availability of software such as Photoshop and Lightroom – and Instagram filters – images have become super modified and flawless, a reflection of unreality.

Instead, we might call this the imperfect moment, for this particular photograph surely hides more than it reveals. What it does depict is a child (whether a boy or girl we can’t determine), running across a patch of grass, who is seemingly about to collide with whomever is holding the camera (possibly a child of a similar age and height). His or her face is obscured by an oversize hat. It evokes memories of my own childhood, the sheer joy of being outdoors on a warm day, the sun on your skin.

We do know, thanks to documentation, that it was taken one summer morning in 1981 and that the place is Hateley Heath, a large council estate on the edge of West Bromwich town centre, in Sandwell. It captures a moment of a dressing up relay race, where children run back and forth changing into different old clothes. This game was an activity as part of ‘The Bus Project’, a mobile resource for creative play with children and young people.

The identity of the photographer is not known. Community artists then worked (mostly) outside the institutions of official culture, and were open to the appreciation of all kinds of activity.  These might include Human Chess, Contest to find the Most Destructive Vandal and Pigeon Racing. The participants in the activities often took the images, the camera handed around, the Bus later used as a gallery to share back the pictures once they had been printed.

Sandwell was a borough which at that time fell into all categories of ‘deprivation’ – where, well into the 90’s, less than 50% owned a car, and fewer people owned a camera. Out of some random 64 local people invited to photograph ‘Sandwell in Black & White’ in 1990, it turned out only seven of them possessed a camera. Contrast that with today.

Writing about Rikyū’s theory and practice of tea and the design of tea rooms, Rumiko Handa noted that by applying ‘the strategy of the intentional imperfect to both the physical and ephemeral surroundings he succeeded in enticing participants to aesthetic and ethical engagements.’ This might also be used to describe this kind of vernacular photography and the work of community artists.

Of course, many contemporary artists use the found image and the snapshot as a source of inspiration, many mining and recycling the past, in a process of self-reflection. And there is a greater regard of the value of these images within museum and archives, partly perhaps due to the decline of analogue photograph itself and the ubiquitous disposal nature of the manipulated digital apparition. Is it real or a fable? As an unfiltered shot of life, they simply remind us that we don’t need to curate the perfect virtual self.