Musings on Photography

Process and Artifact

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on October 26, 2006

In the comments on this thread, I said that as a photographer, I was concerned with process and unconcerned with the resulting artifacts. Arthur responded, saying

As for process and artifact, I’m not sure that you are doing enough to
de-emphasize the latter. Why do you archive work on your blog? Isn’t the process of photography generally aimed at creating an artifact worth perserving?

First, I’d point out that being unconcerned with the resulting artifacts doesn’t imply that I should de-emphasize them. Taking steps to de-emphasize them is being concerned, too.

I archive work here on my blog because otherwise it would vanish, and the links people make to it would vanish. Arthur also asked why, if I’m unconcerned with the artifact, I have my work on the web at all. It’s a good question. My work is on the web so that people can see it, of course. That helps me handle situations like people who ask “So, you’re a photographer. Can I see some of your work?”, even when the person asking the question lives in a distant place. It helps me sell my work, too.

Does that make me concerned with the artifact? No, it means I’m willing to invest a modicum of time in leveraging the result of the effort I’ve made. Selling prints gives me money to invest in the materials and equipment I need/want to make new work. It means that although I’m not immune to the charms of sharing my work with other people, getting positive reviews and getting sales aren’t the big rewards, they’re minor rewards.

That’s different from making the artifact the goal of the process. I don’t work at photography because the result is prints I can show in a gallery, or sell, or give away, or display on the web. I work at photography because the process of making photographs is rewarding in a host of ways.

The next question Arthur asks is the biggie: Isn’t the process of photography generally aimed at creating an artifact worth perserving?

I’d answer both “yes”, and “no”. There are plenty of photographers for whom the final image is the only goal. Photography, as they practice it, is all about the artifact, and the process they follow to get the photograph is strictly a secondary consideration. If the goal of your photography is the print, I’d guess concerns about how your work compares to the work of others are a big issue. Likewise critical aclaim, positive reviews, high print prices, and lots of print sales; those would be big issues for artifact focussed photographers.

But for me, the process of photography is not aimed at creating an artifact worth preserving. That’s the ‘commodity art world’ view that I dislike so much – the idea that the goal of the art-making process is to crank out a stream of artifacts that the ‘art world’ can consume by analyzing it, critiquing it, buying it, selling it, coveting it, hating it, categorizing it, arguing about where it falls in the vast panorama of art history.

For me, the goal of the artmaking process is that it affords me an opportunity to engage in the art-making process. From before the moment of exposure until the print is made, it’s an interesting, challenging and rewarding process that helps me be more engaged with the world around me.

My observation is that when I focus on the print sales, getting shows, worrying about how my work compares to the work of others, and worrying about what others will think of my work, my enjoyment and satisfaction diminish, and not surprisingly, the quality of my work goes down, too.

In what seems like a paradox, if I want my work to be the best it can be, I have to let go of worrying about how good it is, and focus on the process instead. What things am I enjoying? I try to do those more often. What things am I not enjoying? I try to arrange my photographic life so that I do those things less. What things do I care about, what things am I interested in? I try to make sure that I photograph those things. In general, those practices seem to both make me happier and result in better work.

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