Quote Origin: There’s No Point in Having Sharp Images If You’ve Got Fuzzy Ideas

Jean-Luc Godard? Ansel Adams? Richard Roud? Apocryphal?

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Blurry image of Sydney, Australia from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: When you create a photograph or film your intentions should be well defined. Here are three pertinent statements which may be grouped together:

(1) There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.
(2) There’s no point in having a sharp image if intentions are blurred.
(3) There’s no point in having sharp images if you’ve got fuzzy ideas.

This notion has been attributed to French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and U.S. photographer Ansel Adams. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1963 the French journal “Cahiers du Cinéma” published a review by Jean-Luc Godard of recent works by the British documentary director Richard Leacock. Godard criticized Leacock’s style of cinéma-vérité because it did not embody a viewpoint or attitude. The following excerpt in French is accompanied with one possible English translation. Boldface has been added by QI

Privée ainsi de conscience, la caméra de Leacock, malgré son honnêteté, perd les deux qualités fondamentales d’une caméra ; l’intelligence et la sensibilité. Rien ne sert d’avoir une image nette si les intentions sont floues. Son manque de subjectivité conduit d’ailleurs Leacock à manquer finalement d’objectivité.

Thus deprived of conscience, Leacock’s camera, for all its honesty, loses the two fundamental qualities of a camera: intelligence and sensitivity. There’s no point in having a sharp image if intentions are blurred. Indeed, Leacock’s lack of subjectivity ultimately leads to a lack of objectivity.

Godard’s analysis of Leacock’s films also included the following statements:

On peut l’expliquer facilement en disant que l’équipe de Leacock met en scène au niveau d’un Gordon Douglas, même pas d’un Hathaway ou d’un Stuart Heisler. Avec en plus ce défaut qu’ils ne savent même pas qu’ils mettent en scène, et que le reportage pur n’existe pas.

This can easily be explained by saying that Leacock’s team directs at the level of a Gordon Douglas, not even a Hathaway or a Stuart Heisler. With the added flaw that they don’t even know they’re directing, and that pure reportage doesn’t exist.

In 1968 U.S. film critic Richard Roud published “Jean-Luc Godard”. Roud was a movie enthusiast who co-founded the New York Film Festival. In his book about Godard, Roud discussed cinéma vérité, and he included a germane quotation in English attributed to Godard. No citation was specified for the commentary, but the likely source was the “Cahiers du Cinéma” passages presented previously in this article:²

The implication, of course, is that cinéma vérité does not give us the truth. It, too, is a kind of counterfeit passed off as the real thing . . . Or like Godard’s view of Richard Leacock:

“There’s no point in having sharp images if you’ve got fuzzy ideas. Leacock’s lack of subjectivity leads him ultimately to a lack of objectivity. He doesn’t even know that he is a metteur en scène, that pure reportage doesn’t exist.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Ansel Adams participated in a series of interviews with Ruth Teiser and Catherine Harroun in the 1970s as part of an oral history project. Adams said the following on May 14, 1972:³

When I see a kid come up with a portfolio and he has a nice print protected by a slipsheet, the chances are that the work is good. It may not be; it may be a great shock; you might find some awful, tasteless things. I always say, there’s nothing worse than a clear, sharp image of a fuzzy concept. [Laughter] You get a terrible concept it might be physically sharp, but it’s just empty or in bad taste.

In 1975 Louis D. Giannetti published “Godard and Others: Essays on Film Form”, and the first chapter included a quotation attributed to Godard. The footnote pointed to Richard Roud’s book:⁴

In discussing Richard Leacock, the American cinéma-vérité documentarist, Godard criticised the lack of commitment, the “moral vacuum” of many of Leacock’s films:

There’s no point in having sharp images if you’ve got fuzzy ideas. Leacock’s lack of subjectivity leads him ultimately to a lack of objectivity. He doesn’t even know that he is a metteur-en-scéne, that pure reportage doesn’t exist.

In 1978 Ansel Adams published with Robert Baker the book “Polaroid Land Photography” which included the following:⁵

The 8x10-inch prints of Edward Weston give the impression of extraordinary sharpness and clarity because of his use of small lens openings and his contact printing on glossy paper. But it is certainly wrong to equate his greatness as a photographer with the mere sharpness of his prints. He achieved his extraordinary images through his ability to “see” in a total sense. Great photographs certainly can be technically sharp; conversely, there is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept!

The 1978 book above was a revised edition of the 1963 book “Polaroid Land Photography Manual” by Adams. QI has examined this earlier edition, and the quotation was not present.⁶

In 1984 the obituary of Ansel Adams in “The New York Times” contained a variant quotation using the word “brilliant”:⁷

In many writings in the postwar period, he stressed the importance of vision, as distinct from gadgetry. “A picture,” he liked to say, “is only a collection of brightnesses,” and, he would add, “There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.”

In 1997 “Reader’s Digest” magazine published an instance on a page listing miscellaneous remarks under the title “Quotable Quotes”:⁸

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept. — Ansel Adams

In 2000 “The Observer” newspaper of London published a set of remarks attributed to Godard including these three items:⁹


‘There is no point in having sharp images when you have fuzzy ideas.’

‘I don’t think you should FEEL about a movie. You should feel about a woman. You can’t kiss a movie.’

‘Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self.’

In conclusion, Jean-Luc Godard deserves credit for the comment he wrote in “Cahiers du Cinéma” in 1963. Ansel Adams deserves credit for the comment he spoke in 1972.

Image Notes: Blurry image of Sydney, Australia from Lubo Minar at Unsplash

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Yoel Greenberg whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Greenberg had already located a source for one of the Ansel Adams quotations.

[1] 1963 Décembre to 1964 Janvier, Cahiers du Cinéma, Topic: Situation du Cinéma Américain II (The State of American Cinema II), Tome XXV, Number 150–151, Review Essay: Richard Leacock by Jean-Luc Godard, Start Page 139, Quote Page 140, Cahiers du Cinéma: les éditions de l’Etoile, Paris, France. (Verified with scans)

[2] 1968, Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Roud, Appendix A: Shorts and Sketches, Quote Page 138 and 139, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)

[3] 1978 Copyright, Conversations With Ansel Adams, An Interview Conducted by Ruth Teiser and Catherine Harroun, Interview III Conducted on May 14, 1972, Topic: Taste, Perspective, and Distortion, Quote Page 58 and 59, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, California. (Verified with scans; accessed via digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu on July 7, 2023)

[4] 1975 Copyright, Godard and Others: Essays on Film Form by Louis D. Giannetti, Chapter 1: Godard’s Masculine-Feminine: The Cinematic Essay, Quote Page 27, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Madison, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)

[5] 1978 (1963 Copyright of first editon), Polaroid Land Photography by Ansel Adams with the collaboration of Robert Baker, Revised Edition, Part 2: Visualization and Craft, Chapter 8: Image Management, Quote Page 84, New York Graphic Society, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)

[6] 1963, Polaroid Land Photography Manual: A Technical Handbook by Ansel Adams, Note: Target quotation is absent, Morgan & Morgan, New York. (Verified with scans)

[7] 1984 April 24, New York Times, Ansel Adams, Photographer, Is Dead by John Russell, Start Page A1, Quote Page B6, Column 3 and 4, New York. (ProQuest)

[8] 1997 May, Reader’s Digest, Volume 150, Number 901, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 37, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)

[9] 2000 November 26, The Observer, Review: SCREEN: Godard only knows: For decades he was regarded as a genius and a revolutionary, but Jean-Luc Godard — 70 years old next week — has spent the last 20 years alienating everyone, Quote Page 11, London, England. (ProQuest)



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