Musings on Photography

Don’t discount yourself

Posted in process, the art world by Paul Butzi on January 2, 2009

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Mike Johnston (he of The Online Photographer fame) writes about the best-selling books among those he’s mentioned on TOP this year. I was not particularly surprised to see him wax enthusiastic about Frank Herzog’s Vancouver Photographs, because I would pick that book as the best of the crop of books I’ve bought in the past year. I’m very sad that the book is now out of print.

Most important, though, was Mike’s closing paragraph:

And don’t forget—no matter where you live, you could do a similar project in your own town or neighborhood. Someday, everything that is ordinary and unremarkable to you will be distinctive of this time period, and many of your pictures of things we take for granted today will be of things or people that have changed or gone. No one will ever take a photograph in 2008 again, for instance—think of that.

Beyond the Omar Khayyam quality (“‘the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on, nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line…”), what occurs to me is that there are a lot of photographers out there, working steadily on long term projects. Some of those projects will go nowhere. Some will produce great art that will go unrecognized. And some will produce great art that will bring fame to the artist.

The thing of it is this: you can’t say “Oh, I’d work on a project like that, if I knew it would go somewhere and get recognition.” If you take that view, you never start. Every single project that ended up a big success started out as a project where some people would have thought “Why in the world would anyone waste their time doing that?” Of course, that’s true for projects which went nowhere, too. There’s no knowing without actually doing. It would be nice to know when we start out on a project if it was worth pursuing, but that doesn’t seem to be the way the world is put together.

What I think is remarkable was that Herzog plugged along, building this work, more or less separated from the mainstream of photography because of his working methods. There’s a lesson there, I think – trends come and go, certain kinds of work are in fashion for a while and then vanish forever. Anyone else remember the period when it seemed everyone was going out into the desert and making flash photographs of isolated bushes? Slot canyons, anyone?

The good news is that you don’t need a license to start. You don’t have to have paid your dues to start. You don’t need an art degree to start. All you need to do is pick up the camera, and start.

In the end, it seems, the only certain satisfaction there is in working on something long term like this lies with finding contentment in the process. There’s no predicting success and failure, and so it doesn’t make much sense to vet projects in advance based on whether you think the project will pan out. About all we can do is go, make the work, and let the chips fall where they will.

And if there’s a lesson to Herzog’s book it might be that a large collection of photographs of quotidian scenes can, in the end, make for a mighty compelling body of work even if it doesn’t seem to fit the mainstream conceptions at the time it’s being done.

5 Responses

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  1. Markus Spring said, on January 2, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Thanks for the reminding and encouraging words. It pretty much hits my weak spot: to get myself going and understanding to get satisfaction out of the way, not (only) the goal. I should get movin’ now…

  2. Rob Ferguson said, on January 2, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Vancouver Art Gallery Store has “lots” (their words) of copies of Vancouver Photographs in stock.

    http://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/visit_the_gallery/gallery_store.html

    - Rob

  3. Gordon McGregor said, on January 3, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Other things required, in addition to a camera and starting:

    Courage of your own convictions

    An ability to tune out what ‘everyone else’ is doing and just do your own thing

    A burning interest in something, anything.

    That last fascination is probably the key. Something that drives you to do it day in day out for long enough to do something interesting to you.

  4. Martin Doonan said, on January 3, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    “…it might be that a large collection of photographs of quotidian scenes can, in the end, make for a mighty compelling body of work…”

    Seemed to work out pretty well for Frank and Eggleston, too.

    The thing that perplexes about such work: is it about place or time?

    I’ve not seen much of Herzog’s work but is it something distinctly Vancouver, or could it be scenes from any city in N. America? Certainly I look at both Frank and Eggleston and get much more of a sense of a period in time, rather than any particular location.

    And that comes to the point about doing something such as that. Are we, as photographers, generally more interested in a sense of place, rather than a sense of time? Does this then lead to a mentally paralysing tension?

  5. Gordon McGregor said, on January 5, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    There’s also maybe a trick to seeing what’s infront of you and realising what is interesting about it.

    I moved to the US about a decade ago. At that time, everything was new – and I mean everything. I had to re-learn how to wire a plug. (haven’t done that for years now!)

    Gas pumps were strange and odd – they didn’t work the way they did in the UK and they looked totally alien to my eye.

    Washing machines loaded from the top (I’d never seen that before), cars were backwards inside and drove on the wrong side of the street. Servers wanted tips (what’s that? how much?) and there were a bewildering array of choices for a sandwich – (what, I can’t just pick ‘ham’ and walk out?) I’d go to the grocery store and not know what any of the brands were, or even what quite a few things were – (can I buy bread that doesn’t taste sweet, anywhere?)

    Everything was odd or different. I wish I had a camera then, because I’d have taken pictures of them all, trying to understand just what was there. And from people who come from where I come from, it still looks like that here. But I’ve adjusted, acclimatised and mostly lost that wonder at the mundane. I wish I could get it back.
    Oddly enough last week in New Zealand, (which is much more like home than the US) I was experiencing reverse culture shock. Couldn’t remember the ‘protocol’ for buying gas where there isn’t somewhere to slide your card, couldn’t understand why people were so rude serving us, even in very expensive restaurants (had forgotten the protocols)


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