Musings on Photography

Receptiveness and Inquisitiveness

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on October 16, 2006

It’s easier to go to exotic places and make beautiful photos of really impressive mountains than it is to make a beautiful photo of a really boring pepper.

– anon.

Colin Jago’s photostream has become my must visit blog as I struggle to come to grips with several intertwined thoughts. In this post Colin hits the nail on the head when he writes “Seeing, it would seem, needs not just time. It doesn’t automatically start whenever we stop rushing. Seeing is an activity that requires receptiveness and inquisitiveness too.”

I’m thinking:
1. The photographs I most want to make are not the impressive grand landscapes in really impressive places, but the quotidian views of the landscape I happen to live in. I want to show (with beauty) how it looks in the rain. I want to show (with beauty) how it looks when it’s under the dull, leaden winter sky, and the branchs are all bare, and there are puddles on the street. Not the luminous landscape, but the non-luminous one, as Colin puts it. I want the landscape that I see, warts and all. That means including the power lines, and the roads, and the farm equipment covered with the ubiquitous blue tarps. If including those things presents photographic challenges, then I guess those are the challenges I want to tackle.

2. I’m increasingly of the view that the photographs that I want to make are ones that either lead me to new understanding of how the landscape around me works, or else show my new understanding in meaningful ways. And I’m more and more convinced that I can’t do that in places I don’t know. Not only am I a farmer in the hunter-gatherer/farmer taxonomy of photographers, but I’m a farmer who for right now wants to stay close to home. Not close to home in the sense Colin uses (90 minutes is close?) but in the ‘just outside my door’ sense. That means in the forest in which I live, and in the valley below where I live and across which I gaze from my kitchen windows.

3. Doing that involves what Colin calls “receptiveness and inquisitiveness” along with familiarity. The goal (and the challenge) is to show what I look at every day, often not really seeing it. I know that I drive my wife crazy with my constant habit of pointing at things (“Look at that evening light on those trees! Isn’t that awesome?”) as we go about our daily travels, but I need to not only point at it, but stop the car and get out the camera and make exposures. Doing that takes motivation, and because it’s often during a period when I’m not explicitly out photographing, it means learning to stop the car, make an exposure, and then go on about my daily life. It’s a level on integration with life that I’ve not really tried for before.

It’s not about going off on a trip to some place, and coming home with thousands of exposures. I want it to be about going about my day to day life and coming home with thousands of exposures of things that I’ve not only looked at but actually seen for what they really are, and managed to photograph that as well.

6 Responses

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  1. S. Bosman said, on October 17, 2006 at 12:22 am

    I wonder how this evolution is linked to your move to small format. I am myself in the same kind of move, but I’ll have to sell my view camera and medium format kit to finance a 5D and lenses. Needing to keep my day job, and having found that travel does not produce enough photos to justify the cost, I embed photography more and more in my regular life, with already interesting outcomes. In the process, I have noticed that the view camera stays home or in the trunk and the digicam gets used a lot.

  2. Colin [] said, on October 17, 2006 at 8:21 am

    Paul: thanks for the link. Most of my photography is done within walking distance of my house. A 90 minute car travel time takes me to the edge of my geographic region.

    s.bosman: I don’t think that the equipment type is strongly related. I’m slowly moving toward 4×5 because I want to show that landscape is something I’m standing in, not something in the far distance. The camera movements help me to do this. I think that the larger camera is suited to photographing at home. To get the best out of such a camera it helps to know the landscape really well (light, tides, weather patterns, river heights, seasons etc)

  3. Paul Butzi said, on October 17, 2006 at 3:06 pm

    I’d be interested to know why Colin feels like a 4×5 is more suitable for showing the landscape is something he’s standing in. I can think of several possibilities, but perhaps it’s better to ask him to weigh in a bit more on that.

  4. Colin [] said, on October 18, 2006 at 12:42 am

    Paul: I like to include the horizontal plane in my (landscape) photos.

    To take an extreme. Imagine a 35mm shot with a 200mm lens of the Alps (Rockies, Cuillin, wherever). The landscape is definitely over there somewhere. I’ve called this seeing a landscape as if through a car window.

    I often either have my camera very low to the ground or tilted downwards. Focus at a metre or two. People, who are not photographers, have said that they like these photos because they feel that they could step into them. This cheers me up no end as that is what I want to portray.

    The problem is that even with a 24mm lens (still in 35mm terms here) the far distance isn’t acceptably sharp. This doesn’t matter to my non-photographing viewers, but I know I ought to be able to get sharper. Hence, tilt.

    I used a tilt lens on 645 for a while, but it was Russian and of dubious quality, and the 645 ground glass isn’t big enough for a loupe. I then used ever wider lenses on 35mm but they just give you the ‘I’ve bought a super wide lens’ look.

    I’m gravitating to 4×5 with a moderate wide angle (something in the 28mm to 35mm equivalent range), and using tilt.

    The style doesn’t suit every subject, but it follows the way that I see. When I’m out for a stroll, I’m looking at the rocks and plants at my feet as much as I’m looking at the horizon. Perhaps more so.

    That is what I mean by a ‘landscape that I’m standing in’.

  5. S. Bosman said, on October 18, 2006 at 6:40 am

    Well, the same can be done with a tilt lens on small format. It will distort more than LF lenses but that hardly matters for most landscapes.

    For most common print sizes, a camera like the Canon 5D makes 35mm format quite interesting.

    I currently use a view camera, so I’m in no way allergic to them 🙂

  6. Colin [] said, on October 18, 2006 at 1:03 pm

    “the same can be done with a tilt lens on small format.”

    I can’t make the focussing decision on the small screen.

    I borrowed a Silvestri view camera at one point – it was set up for a medium format back with a 37x37mm chip (i.e. just bigger than 35mm all round). It was a lovely machine, but I lost the plot as soon as I started to tilt. Even that size is so small that you can only magnify the central patch.

    I’m learning to like the 4×5 ground glass and being able to inspect the elements that I want sharp with a loupe.

    I currently mostly use small format cameras, so I’m not allergic to them 😉

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