Musings on Photography

Labels, understanding, and art

Posted in landscape, process by Paul Butzi on February 26, 2007


I’m not at all sure I subscribe to the whole ‘left brain/right brain’ paradigm of how our brain and consciousness are structured, but there’s one aspect of it that I find compelling – that part of me looks at things and says ‘book’, or ‘chair’, and another part of me looks at the same things and says ‘more or less flat rectangular thing”, or “wooden thing with four points of contact with the ‘floor’, with a pleasingly curved wooden bow that forms the back and sort of bends to become sides.”  And, of course, that seeing things as shapes and spaces is ‘artist’ mode, and the mode where things get assigned labels is ‘rational/non-artist’ mode.

That is, ‘artist’ mode is useful when you’re trying to compose an image.  You have a bunch of shapes, and you want to arrange them inside the frame of the photograph (or painting, or sketch, or whatever) and the fact that the triangle is actually a tree and the oblong is a puddle of water and the circular thing is a boulder is actually tangential to the graphic design problem you’re confronting to make this photograph.  In this case, ‘tree’ and ‘puddle’ and ‘rock’ are labels that we throw on things so that, having categorized them, we can promptly ignore them, and that means that we need to turn off the labeling process and actually look at what is before us.

The problem I see is this: in the end, if you want to make art that has meaning, instead of just being shapes on a bit of paper, then the fact that the triangle is a tree, and the oblong is a puddle and the circle is a boulder is actually central to the photographic problem.  I’ll go further, and I’ll claim that if, when you look at this scene, you see not just a triangular tree, but you see a  Western Red Cedar, and the puddle is not just an oblong puddle but standing water accumulated on exposed glacial moraine, and the boulder is not just a rock but is specifically granite, then you’ll be better able to not only understand the place and the meaning of the place, but you’ll be better equipped to make photographs of it. 

That’s because knowing it’s a Western Red Cedar growing where there’s standing water tells you something about how this particular place works.  Knowing it’s not just pebbles but glacial moraine, and that it’s not just a rock but is specifically granite tells you something about how this place came to be this place.  And that understanding is essential to the process of photographing it.

And so, paradoxically, it’s not that labels are bad.  It’s as if general labels – labels that lump things in broad categories – are not helpful.  Labels that differentiate are helpful, and good.

A little anecdote – long ago, when my daughter was small, my wife took her to the local aquarium.  They wandered through the exhibits, with my wife holding my daughter up to each tank, pointing out the different fishes, and saying things like “Oh, look at the pretty clownfish”, or “Isn’t that spiny lumpsucker funny looking?” or “Can you find the flat flounder?”  And, as they wandered through the aquarium this way, my wife noticed another mother with another little girl.  They, too, were wandering from one tank to the next.  At each tank, the mother would hold the little girl up to the tank, point, and say enthusiastically “Look at the fish”.  On to the next tank, another boost up to viewing height, and the same sentence – “Look at the fish!”

My daughter grew up, and for quite a while she volunteered at the aquarium, where she reveled in the details of the diverse aquatic life of Puget Sound.  It seems that perhaps being introduced to the subject with the details apparent was more helpful in letting her understand the subject that lumping a whole host of different animals together with one word: fish.

So it’s not that labels are bad, per se.  It’s that we need to learn to use the labels as tools.  We have to not stop when we look across a meadow to the other side and see “forest”, because it’s not just a forest – it’s trees and shrubs and birds and small animals, and perhaps deer and coyotes and bobcats and bears.  And, it turns out, it’s not just trees, but it’s specifically Douglas Fir, and Western Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar, and Cottonwood and Alder and perhaps Cascara and Bitter Cherrry.  Even beyond that, it’s old Cottonwood and Alder, and young Cedar and Hemlock, and a really, really old Doug Fir.  And that tells us a story about how this place came to be the way it is, and how it worked yesterday, works today, will work tomorrow.

And wouldn’t it be nice if, when we made a photo, it reflected all that, instead of just being a ‘forest’?  I think it would.

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. sjconnor said, on February 26, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    From the above: “The problem I see is this: in the end, if you want to make art that has meaning, instead of just being shapes on a bit of paper, then the fact that the triangle is a tree, and the oblong is a puddle and the circle is a boulder is actually central to the photographic problem.”

    Great point, and it addresses perfectly the problem with Wall’s photos – no matter what his subject is, he regards everything as shapes in space and so treats everything that way. Producing technically swell, emotionally empty, objects.

  2. Darrell Klein said, on February 26, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    Another great post Paul. I couldn’t agree more. It is about much more than just shapes on a piece of paper. To me, a good image must start with the details that evoke some emotion. If the shapes are there, all the better. However, the shapes alone do not make a good photo.

  3. tim atherton said, on February 27, 2007 at 8:13 am

    the one problem with this is you can very easily not end up seeing the forest for the tree. There’s nothing worse, for example, than reading a novel which does such things as delineate every species of tree or flower the protagonist walks by, rather than telling you he or she walked through a bluebell glade in the woods. The tipping point can come fairly early on, when it moves from story to biology text book.

  4. Oren Grad said, on February 27, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    Paul –

    Whether and how art can bear meaning is a debate for another occasion. But do you think it is possible to tell from looking at a photograph whether the photographer understood the subject in the way you argue is important? From looking at a group of photographs?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: