Musings on Photography

Taking the photos that are there

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on November 6, 2006

I can remember my first photographic visit to the Washington State coast. It was just after I’d started using a 4×5 camera, and as I drove from my home to the coast, in my mind I was seeing lots of wonderful photos of rugged coastline with clear, beautiful weather and Ansel Adams style big, photogenic clouds decorating the sky.

But when I got there, I found that the weather was overcast and the light was flat, and instead of the clear view of things, I was confronted with mist, fog, and rain. I took some photos, sure, but there was a keen disappointment that the weather was just not cooperating. In the end, I headed home, feeling that I’d gotten my butt whupped by the weather.

My first night home, I had a very vivid dream. In the dream, I was back on the coast with my camera, in a little grove of twisted trees that I’d ignored completely when I’d been there. The grove of trees was filled with fog, and I was finding beautiful compositions of the fog and trees, one after another. In my dream, I was capturing all the wonderful photos that had been there but which I’d ignored completely because they just weren’t the photos I expected or wanted.

Since then, I’ve been back to the coast countless times. Each time, I try to make a conscious effort to let go of my expectations, and just work on capturing the photos that are actually there in front of me. The beach is changing constantly; it’s never the same from visit to visit. Weather is upredictable and changes rapidly. The only constant is that with each visit my understanding of how the place works improves, and although each visit is essentially a visit to a new, fresh spot, the underlying structure and process of the beach are the same. Ironically, the conditions which seem to be most productive for me are the ones I felt stymied by that first visit.

Time and again as photographers, we arrive at a spot with expectations of what we’ll find and the photos we’re going to make, and time and again those expectations are shattered by the realities of the spot. Our only response can be to let go of our plans, show some adaptability, and work on capturing the photos that are actually in front of us.

This was driven home again this weekend, when I read Colin Jago’s excellent writeup of his Bernera Beach Project. The whole thing is an excellent read, but this part really caught my eye:

it has been interesting comparing the months that I’ve struggled with the months that have been easy. A significant factor has been whether I’ve known in advance what I’m going to photograph. The more sure that I’ve been before I got out of the car, the worse the photos have been. June’s experience with the yellow flag irises is a good example of that. Reality (or, perhaps photographic ability) just hasn’t matched my imagination. At the other end of the scale, one of my most productive times came after an argument with a landowner meant that I had to abandon my intended plan for the day. In a somewhat bad mood (you would have thought not conducive to producing good work) I wandered off to see what else there was to see.

There’s so much excellent stuff in Colin’s writeup that it’s a shame to focus on just one minor item like I’m doing. But I think it’s very interesting that Colin found that his most productive times in this spot (which, coincidentally, is also a beach!) happened when he was forced to abandon his preconceptions of what he was going to see and photograph.

In the same vein, Doug Plummer recently had a wonderful description of finding photos when his expectations were not being met, on this post on his blog. Only when he accepted that he wasn’t going to find the photos he expected to find, and relaxed and took the time to just be present in that spot, was he able to open his eyes and see the photographs that were before him.

It seems the photographs are there, all around us all the time. Finding them is often a matter of letting go of our preconceptions and ambitions and just being at that spot, open and alert to the flow of the photographic possiblities that streams past us all the time.

3 Responses

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  1. John Keyes said, on November 6, 2006 at 12:38 pm

    Well put Paul. I think we can all relate to that feeling of disappointment that the photographs we imaged taking were not “there.”

  2. Colin [] said, on November 6, 2006 at 12:40 pm


    Thanks for the link.

    A quotation you might like if you have not seen it before:

    Henry Wessel. Soft Eyes

    “Part of it has to do with the discipline of being actively receptive. At the core of this receptivity is a process that might be called soft eyes. It is a physical sensation. You are not looking for something. You are open, receptive. At some point you are in front of something that you cannot ignore.”

    This was part of a mixed interview and review published in The New York Times on May 21st 2006. The byline author was Philip Gefter.

  3. birgit said, on November 8, 2006 at 6:28 am

    I am tired of the drama in Ansel Adam’s pictures

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