Musings on Photography

The Birdman Corollary

Posted in ethics, process by Paul Butzi on January 26, 2007


Charlie Parker, one of the founders of the bebop style of jazz, once said “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”  He meant, I think, that it’s difficult to get things into your art that aren’t in your life. Maybe it’s impossible. 

A corrollary to this might be “if it’s in your life, it’s going to show in your art”.  Who we are is encoded, sometimes subtly and sometimes very obviously, in every artwork we make.  As Robert Adams put it, “There is always a subjective aspect in landscape art, something in the picture that tells us as much about who is behind the camera as about what is in front of it”.  (from Beauty in Photography, for those who care)

If you’re not sure you agree, try the following experiment – go out with your camera, and try to make photographs in the style of another photographer.  It’s surprisingly hard to do even a mediocre job of it, it’s incredibly difficult to do well, and it’s impossible to do perfectly.  It’s considerably easier to do when the photographer you’re imitating is someone you know closely and personally. 

What you find is that the stamp of the photographer you’re imitating isn’t just a matter of subject matter, or compositional style, or camera choice or lenses or film choice or printing technique.  If you manage to capture those aspects, what you end up with is photographs that, when compared to the work of the artist you’re imitating, seem almost but not quite like the real thing.  They’re mechanical, not expressive.  They’re what you get when you follow a set of rules instead of engaging in a creative act. 

(as a side note, I’d observe that this exact phenomenon is a trap into which nearly all landscape photographers fall into at some point, and one from which many landscape photographers never escape.  Often, but not always, the photographer being imitated is the iconic Ansel Adams.)

The implications of this are far reaching.  The bad news is that you can’t make someone else’s art.  You can only figure out what your art is, and make that.  The good news is that by extension, there’s only one person who can make your art, and it’s you.

Aristotle advised us that “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”

If we cut off tree limbs to to get the photo, we become the kind of people who cuts off tree limbs just to make a photo, and our callous disregard for the places we photograph will show in our photos.  If we violate other people’s rights and sow discord when we photograph, we become the sort of people who think their photography is more important than other people’s rights and feelings, and it’s going to show up in the photos we make. 

3 Responses

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  1. Alan George said, on January 30, 2007 at 10:03 am

    OK, if I “hear” you correctly, you are saying that who we are fundamentally, morally will unavoidably be reflected in the photographs we make. On the face of it this seems plausible and I have heard similar from many other contexts. Art (photography or otherwise) is a form of self expression. So it seems logical that through the act of expression some of “you” has to leak through. But on a practical level I am not so sure that the viewer can discern the underlying artist morales simply by viewing the artist’s work. There is also the idea that art is a mirror as much as anything else. The viewer’s morales, experiences dictate the viewer’s reaction more than the artist’s. And that successful art is art that is able to be interpreted by different viewers on a personal level never envisioned by the artist. Let the viewer create their own “story” which will undoubtedly be more personally powerful than the artist’s. But I digress, let’s but your position to a practical test. Using your premise, we should be able to view a body of work and deduce something about the artist. So I will volunteer as guinea pig:) Some of my work can be found at Let’s see what can be deduced about me from my work. Am I white as the driven snow or am I writing this from death row (obviously not, I at least have access to these landscapes, but you get the point)? No points for “deducing” I get bored easily:)

  2. Alan George said, on January 30, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Nice. Censorship. That makes perfect sense.

    Well, good luck with your show and hopefully no one else like me will stumble onto your safe, sanitized little corner of the web.

  3. Paul Butzi said, on January 31, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Alan, your comment was caught in the Akismet comment spam filter.

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