Musings on Photography

New Years Resolution – stop worrying about resolution

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on December 12, 2006


It’s mid-December, so naturally my mind is turning toward New Years Resolutions. Along with the perennial ‘lose weight’ and ‘exercise more’ and ‘eat right’, I think my biggie is going to be this: stop worrying about resolution.

Here’s why – not too long ago, I visited Tracy Helgeson’s web site, and I looked at her paintings, and the experience seems to have completely redrawn my opinions about resolution. Go, now, and look at her paintings, then come back here.

Done that? No, really. You need to go look, or nothing in the rest of this post will make sense. Take five minutes. When you get to ‘November Road’, keep going. Take at least 30 seconds to look at “Snowy Fields 2005”. Look at enough of the paintings to get past that ‘right, I understand what Paul is on about, now I’m back to reading’ reaction, and when you start to think “Hey, these paintings are giving off huge waves of ‘sense of place'”, come on back. Honest, there’s a point to all this.

Here’s the thing that strikes me so deeply when I look at Tracy’s work. In terms of spatial resolution – not so much. I haven’t seen the work in person, so of course I’m out on a limb, but a quote from this article about Tracy makes me think I’m not wrong in thinking she’s mostly concentrating on form as a way to communicate the landscape experience:

“I often take great artistic license with what actually exists … , ” Helgeson said. “However, the line of the hill and the intersecting hill, or trees, remain constant as I am endlessly fascinated with its form and how the sky and trees interact with it.” Helgeson wants to show her audiences that there is more than one way to see the land surrounding us.

“I appreciate realistic landscapes, where you can see every leaf on every tree,” she said. “But I hope people can understand that you can see a hill and not see every tree on it.”

So the bottom line for me is this: Tracy Helgeson is successfully getting across something very concrete about (insert sounds of fumbling for the right word) the placeness of where she’s living. And she’s doing it with very little reference to detail. She’s painting the forest, not the individual trees. As a photographer who worried obsessively about resolution and detail and sharpness, that’s an eye-opener for me.

I understand that there are artists whose work is about detail. Christopher Burkett, for instance, does huge breathtaking prints of scenes in nature. Last time I saw one of Burkett’s prints, I was stunned. It’s just detail, all the way down. You can’t get so close to the print that getting closer doesn’t reveal more detail. And if you read an interview with Burkett, it rapidly becomes clear that this depiction of infinite depth of detail is, in fact, a religious issue for Burkett. I don’t mean that in the sense that Burkett just feels very strongly about detail in prints, I mean that in the sense that what we are seeing is Burkett’s religious convictions about how God made the world, embedded in his art. That’s good, and that’s right, and as a photographer I have some sense of the herculean effort to make Burkett’s photos.

But I keep coming back to Helgeson’s work, and looking at those paintings, over and over and over. There’s a lesson there, about a different sort of landscape experience. There’s a tremendous sense of not just being there, but of actually living there. There’s a sense of apprehending not just the tiny fractal detail, but the broader structure and process of the landscape.

If I could, over the next year, manage to get a hint of that into my photographs, I’d be mighty pleased.

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Anonymous said, on December 12, 2006 at 10:29 am

    I found a sense of this when I did a B&W series on Gardens with a Holga. I didn’t want the images to be about A GARDEN but I wanted it to be about the feeling of the garden, of space and light, any garden. With resolution and detail, the images felt like they were for a Gardening magazine. I also think that using the holga was freeing. I wasn’t worrying about a tripod or perspective.

    With the Canon 5D, I’ve tried the lensbaby, trying to step outside the resolution/detail issue but those images haven’t been as satisfactory to me as using the holga.

    I’ve tried PS manipulaton but it just feels like PS manipulation to me. I’ve wondered about trying to fit some old lens on the 5D. I’d like to find a way to do it with digital and eliminate the film steps of the process.

    Like you, I’d like to photograph more the essence of the thing, not the detail of the thing.

    BTW, I just found your blog this week and I’m really enjoying it.

  2. Dwight Jones said, on December 13, 2006 at 5:11 am

    Two questions for Billie:

    Have thought about putting Vaseline on a filter? That would let you use your 5D without spending any more money on lenses. Also, the Cokin filter system may have something that gives the result you are looking for.

    Second, I’m curious to know why Holgas and Lensbabies tend to be used by women more than men??? I’m not trying to make a sexist remark. I’m just trying to figure out why some kinds of photography are male dominated and some are female dominated. Virtually all the good Holga stuff I’ve seen was done by women.

    Paul’s recent post seems to fit with this observation. The “low resolution” art was done by a woman. the high resolution art was done by a man. Both are beautiful.

  3. Anonymous said, on December 13, 2006 at 6:01 am

    Dwight, that is an interesting question. My initial reaction is that maybe it is because men seem to see things in such concrete terms (high resolution) and women see more about the ambiguity in relationships (low resolution). But then my answer is very sexist too! LOL. I originally bought the holga because I was tired of a tripod and tired of carrying photo stuff. Could our smaller size play into this???? The Manly Men don’t seem to mind a 20# tripod and 30# backpack. I don’t know but I’ll think about it. It is a good question.

    I’ve dismissed the vaseline thing because I didn’t think it would really be Holga style but I should at least give it a try. And I’ll look at the Cokin filters. I shoot with several Holgas and they all have their quirks. I’m afraid that some of these other methods will not be as random. I also tried some software shareware program that was suppose to simulate a holga but again I found it to be an applied formula to each image and that just isn’t the way my holgas shoot.

  4. adjiliarti said, on December 13, 2006 at 9:45 am

    just take in Sugimoto’s Architecture series – or much of Terri Wiefendbach or John Gossage’s work

  5. Dwight Jones said, on December 13, 2006 at 5:15 pm

    I’ll take back some of what I wrote earlier. Billie’s blog has a link to a Helga show with photographer’s of both genders. It looks like good stuff. I plan to give it a more complete viewing when I get a chance. (Billie’s blog also looks like it would be worth spending some time reading…)

  6. Anonymous said, on December 13, 2006 at 6:36 pm

    Dwight, since I read your first comment, I found another blog referencing another woman who shoots at night with a Holga.
    gorillasites.blogspot.com/2006/07/susanne-friedrich.html

  7. Anonymous said, on December 14, 2006 at 1:26 pm

    I was in an abbey in Tuscany about a year ago. Quiet music filtered through the air, beautiful mid afternoon light from a lightly overcast sky filtered through the many windows. The interior was pretty austere, bare stone, some dark wood.

    I took a series of pictures that tried to capture some of the sense of light and shape that was there, but were at least attempting to go beyond being literally about that specific place.

    Abbazia di Sant’Antimo

    They might work for you, or might not. But for me I can look at them and be right back there, in that place. Resolution no object.

    Since I took these, I’ve also been pointed towards the photography of Uta Barth (you’ll find plenty of hits on Google)

    The default tendency with photography is to assume everything in focus or at least most everything in focus. Certainly something in focus, but there are opportunities to go beyond that a bit. Keith Carter is another fine photographer who’s work is often nothing to do with resolution, but place.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: