Musings on Photography

What kind of photographer are you?

Posted in motivation, process by Paul Butzi on January 16, 2007


That’s the question that Mark Hobson asks in this post on The Landscapist.  And then he goes on, as in his usual way, to discuss the taxonomy of photographers first in the context of Roland Barthes, and then Hans Durrer’s Reading Photographs, to assess exactly what kind of photographer he is.

And so we find, at the end of the line, that Hobson is not just a “Fine Art Landscape Photographer” (complete with capital letters and emboldened font), but he’s one who is captivated by the idea that

Documentary (photography), however, is not only about form, which is exactly why sincerity and biography do matter. As Stott says: ‘The heart of documentary is not form or style or medium, but always content.’ Furthermore, documentarists stress feelings, ‘… they believe that a fact to be true and important must be felt.’ This is not to say that form in documentary is without relevance, this is only to say that documentary aims, primarily, at being true, not at being beautiful. Yet what is true is often beautiful.

From that I infer (and believe – always have, always will) that intent matters. Point In fact, I believe that it matters very much. Almost to the point that I believe it is a photographers (artist’s) responsibility to state his intentions.

That said, the question that came to my mind after reading this excerpt was, “Am I a documentary photographer”?

And, of course, at the very end, he asks the reader “What kind of photographer are you?”

In the past, on the occasions when I thought about labels, I’ve thought of myself primarily as a photographer.  In other words, when someone asks what I do, I say “I’m a photographer”.  Now, naturally this leads inevitably to the next question, which is either “Will you photograph my wedding for free?”, or (if the questioner is already married) “What kind of photographer are you?”  And, for the past few years, my answer has always been “I’m a landscape photographer.”

But lately, I’ve been pondering this stuff, and I’ve realized that my view of what I do has undergone a sort of slow transformation.  Part of this change is a result of my somewhat out-of-the-mainstream views on art and process, I’m sure.  My focus on process and on photography as a tool to figure things out has always been there, but lately it seems to have become far more sharply defined.  I’m still a photographer, to be sure.  But it’s more ‘photographer’ in the sense that I’m a person who uses a camera and the process of photography to figure things out, and less ‘photographer’ in the sense of being a person who make photographs.

The other part of this transformation has come about because I’ve been spending time looking at non-photographic landscape art (mostly painting, but also sketches and quilts and rugs and stuff like the artwork of Andy Goldsworthy  where the distinction between the art and the landscape actually starts to blur, and planned gardens, where the artwork IS the landscape).  Over the past couple of years, I’ve started less and less looking at landscape art and considering it in terms of composition, form, line, value and color, and more and more in terms of looking at it and considering it in terms of what I’ll call “understanding of the process and significance of place”.

And, when I think about influences on the photographs I’m making, I’m starting to get the feeling that the impact of books like Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language (a book ostensibly about architecture but really about how people’s perceptions of of place) and Winifred Gallagher’s The Power of Place are more important than books on photography and art.

I’m not entirely sure I understand where that leaves me.  I guess maybe I’m a student of landscape/place who happens to use a camera  and the photographic process as a tool to explore places and get a better understanding of them. 

In any case, labeling can be useful because by labeling ourselves we seem commit to the label and thus shake off things that aren’t part of the label.  But that same power of labeling can be a double edged sword – if we mislabel ourselves we risk discarding things that are actually essential to us.

And, of course, I’m pretty certain that “student of landscape/place who happens to use a camera  and the photographic process as a tool to explore places and get a better understanding of them” won’t fit on a business card, and it doesn’t actually roll trippingly off the tongue when someone at a dinner party turns to you and asks “So, Paul, what do you do?”

2 Responses

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  1. Ed Richards said, on January 16, 2007 at 11:41 am


    Another book, if you have not seen it:

    The Geometry of Environment: An Introduction to Spatial Organization in Design (Paperback) by Lionel March, Philip Steadman

    A bit old, but very interesting.

  2. Mark Hobson said, on January 17, 2007 at 7:35 am

    I am beginning to think that I am simply an Observationist, which makes the dinner party thing easy – when asked “Mark, what do you do?”, I can answer with my favorite Chauncy Gardener-ism, “I like to watch.”

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