Musings on Photography

Understanding and Attentiveness

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on November 20, 2006

In one of the books I read recently, the author describes going on a mushroom hunting walk with a mushroom expert. As they walked through the woods, the author couldn’t find ANY mushrooms. Yet, around every turn in the trail, the mushroom expert pointed out likely mushroom spots, and sure enough, in each spot, there were mushrooms.

What was the difference between the author of the book and the mushroom expert? It wasn’t attentiveness; both were actively looking for mushrooms. But the expert has one added tool – understanding of the structure of the place – that combined with her attentiveness. Using both understanding and attentiveness, the expert was able to pick up the subtle patterns that determine where mushrooms will grow. The result is that the author looked at the woods, and it was just that – undifferentiated woods. To the mushroom expert, though, the woods was a highly detailed, structured place. And once you understood the structure, finding mushrooms was pretty easy.

When I first started photographing on the beach, I didn’t understand the beach. I didn’t understand about sand, and gravel, and water flow. I didn’t understand about waves, or tides, or rocks. That lack of understanding made it really, really hard to find photographs. But the more photographs I made, the deeper my understanding became, and not only did finding the photographs get easier, the photographs got better. As with mushrooms in the woods, if you understand the structure and process of the beach, it’s a lot easier to be in the right place at the right time with the camera ready and the shutter cocked.

I’ve mostly stopped photographing on the beach, now, and I’m doing almost all my photography in the valley near my home. It’s taken some time, but I’m slowly coming to understand the structure and process of the place – how water affects things, how the hills on either side shade the valley at different times of day, even how human activity changes the way things look at different times of day and different seasons of the year. Slowly, that understanding is starting to show up my photographs, and the photographs are getting easier to find and getting better as well.

The delightful thing, from my point of view, is that going out with a camera is the best way I’ve found so far to come to understand a place. It turns out that not only does understanding help my photography, but photography helps my understanding, too. There’s a delightful symmetry and synergy to that.

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  1. Anonymous said, on November 20, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    Another great quiet water image. I think quiet water is what unifies your work, even the fog pictures are really quiet water pictures. Given the pervasiveness of water in your environment, maybe that is what are understanding about the valley that you eventually understood about the beach.

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