Musings on Photography

Wide or Deep

Posted in landscape, process by Paul Butzi on April 4, 2007


Colin Jago’s post on Getting to the end of the block, about the merits of ‘going wide’ and ‘going deep’, has had me thinking.  Like Colin, I’ve recently had another photographer comment that I’m very fortunate to live in a wonderfully photogenic place.  And yet, just recently I had an artist look over the work I’ve done in the past year, and comment “I never see the valley looking like this.  I mean, I know it looks like this.  But I don’t see it looking like this.”  His house is about 2.5 miles from mine; his drive to get into the valley is shorter than mine.

The different approaches of ‘go wide’ and ‘go deep’ aren’t a new idea to me; I wrote about this in  Hunter-Gatherer or Farmer? years ago.  And I certainly agree with Colin that time constraints make it so that we can’t go really wide AND go really deep. But when Colin posits that those who go deep don’t get more out of it than those who go wide, I think he’s on thin ice.

I don’t think it’s so much that folks who go wide (the ‘hunter/gatherers’) don’t get as much out of it as the folks who go deep.  I think it’s that they get different things.  And I think the difference shows in the photos they make.

I think this might be at the core of some confusion I’ve had recently, caused by two books of photographs.  The first book is Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces.  The second book, which couldn’t possibly be more dissimilar, is David Plowden’s Small Town America.

In the introduction to American Surfaces, Bob Nikas writes

Who took these pictures?  The drifter in the bathroom of the bus station in Oklahoma city; one of the hippie boys watching thesun go down at the Grand Canyon; a tourist visiting cape Kennedy for the launch of the Skylab space station?  From one desolate motel bed to another, from one unmemorable meal to the next, from town to town, east to west, they can clearly be seen as a visual diary recounting the path of someone passing through the world, recording nearly everything he sees and does, and almost everyone he meets along the way.  Together, the pictures fo a portrait, and even though we never actually see the man behind the camera, he’s there, present and anonymous.  He could be almost anyone.  But these pictures weren’t shot at random by someone on vacation or simply adrift; we know they were made by Stephen Shore.

What I find confusing about the book is that Shore traveled across America in 1972 (a period I remember clearly) taking photos like mad, and somehow he came away with not so much a depiction of the places he’d been as much as photographs that highlight the superficiality of his interaction with these places.  We’re treated to six photographs of toilets, two dozen photographs of food.  I don’t think the title American Surfaces is an accident – I think this book is just that – a view of things that never gets deeper than the surface.  Sure, Shore went broad, and saw a lot of stuff.  And his life consisted of seedy motel rooms, greasy unappetizing meals, and toilets.

In contrast, Plowden’s Small Town America, although spread wide geographically, presents photographs taken across the spread of two decades.  No toilets, no greasy meals, although surely in the traveling needed to make these photographs Plowden encountered plenty of both.  This book is not about Plowden’s summer trip experience, it’s a ‘go deep’ look at the aspects of rural town life that Plowden feels are vanishing before his eyes.  What we can read of Plowden’s life from these photos is that much of his time was spent looking closely, not at his own experience but at the places he visited.  Unlike Shore, he didn’t go to these places to experience (and photograph) nothing more than surface appearance.  He visited these places to go deep, to get at the underlying essence of the places.  And I suspect strongly that his experience reflects that.

7 Responses

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  1. Colin Jago said, on April 4, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    “I don’t think it’s so much that folks who go wide (the ‘hunter/gatherers’) don’t get as much out of it as the folks who go deep. I think it’s that they get different things. And I think the difference shows in the photos they make.”

    I agree with this (all the points). The trap I was trying to avoid was saying that the ‘deep’ crew were somehow getting something ‘better’ out of life. Just because I don’t want to photograph my supper, or a sunset, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a fulfilling activity for somebody else.

    When you look at the resulting photos from the viewpoint of a consumer of photos then the deep will usually win out over the wide (although that’s not guaranteed, given the value of novelty). But that is from the point of view of a consumer. From the producer’s point of view, who is to say but them who gets the most out of it. So, I’m not sure I’m on thin ice.

    Take an example from a different field – bird watching. Plenty of bird watchers want to collect sightings of species (= wide). Others like to observe a limited number of species in lots of detail (= deep). I don’t want to chase around the world to view a rare woodhen that only lives on one Pacific island, but I can’t say that those who do are getting any less from the experience than I get from our local birdlife.

  2. Guy Tal said, on April 5, 2007 at 5:29 am

    To me diversity is part of the challenge that keeps me passionate about what I work. Wide one day (or year), deep the next, and everything in between – color, B&W, intimate, extreme wide angle – it’s all exciting. My muse is the subject matter and I enjoy studying and molding it into both familiar and new shapes.

    I think about it in terms of the “interest curve”. All too often portfolios and exhibits go out of their way to show a so-called “body of work”, neatly arranged and strictly confined into a little proverbial niche. The curve starts high with a “oh, this ie very interesting”, then maybe “ooh, this is a nice one too”, but quickly enough it’s “yeah, that kinda looks like the other” and finally about half way through – “ok, I get it, it’s another . Let’s go get some dinner”.

    Maybe this says more about my own attention span than anything else but I like to be challenged and surprised. I spend long hours outdoors not because I’m obsessively looking for something to fit in a pre-determiend category but because I’m always wondering if I’m missing something by not going further, by not trying something different, by not looking closely enough etc.

    I really don’t get people who try to pigeon-hole themselves and sum up their creative style in a single word.


  3. Mark Hobson said, on April 5, 2007 at 7:30 am

    One man’s ‘wide’ is another man’s ‘deep’ and, of course, vice-versa

    In concentrating his ‘view’ on the ‘wide’ surface of things – his referent (subject) – Shore has, IMO, opened up a very ‘deep’ level on the conoted – the inferred – in his views.

    In the postmodernist tradition, I don’t think that Shore’s visually obvious referent is his intended ‘subject’ matter. Without going into great detail, I don’t think Shore is commenting on the state of American toiletry. Rather, toilets and greasy food are metaphorical vehicles for his true intentions- commenting on the rather shallow – residing on the surface – nature of American culture – it’s homogenized and banal nature.

    Shore did not go ‘wide’ to ‘experience (and photograph) nothing more than surface appearance’. Quite to the contrary, he went for exactly the same reason that Plowden went – to create a commentarybeyond the mere visual representation evident in their photographs – commentary on the state of American culture and life.

    They went about creating their respetive commentaries from the perspective of different art traditions – Plowden from the modernist tradition of caring much about the referent, Shore from the post modernist tradition of the detached/cold stare.

    That said, I have no doubt that both cared deeply about their ‘commentary(s)’ (the conoted), which I don’t see as all that different from one another.

    Which tradition carries the ‘message’ better depends, I suspect, on one’s preferences about the style of visual imagery employed to make the statement.

  4. David Grundy said, on April 5, 2007 at 7:54 am

    Colin, you may remember your discussion ( of a photo which was not universally understood. You said, “To have got the message halfway across is frustrating. Is that frustration somethng I just have to live with?”
    I guess the answer to this is, “Yes” if you want to get beyond wading depth.
    I would assume that the reason you get a different sort of picture when you go deep is that you understand the connections between, and implications of, the things you see and the things absent from the scene. But as you go deeper, I guess eventually your consumer will not understand and so will not find your photo appealing. Unless of course it also has a blue sky/sunset/dolphin/[fill in current fashion] as well as whatever you saw in it, in which case there may be plenty of consumption.

  5. Colin Jago said, on April 5, 2007 at 1:45 pm


    Oh dear. On thin ice and beyond wading depth 🙂

    Can I suggest Karl Blossfeldt as somebody who went deep, loved his referent (in Mark’s language) and who brought his audience along with him (to the extent that 80 years after his death he has books in print, international exhibition showings and is actively traded on eBay). Deep doesn’t necessarily mean no audience.

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