Musings on Photography

Ambiguity

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on May 10, 2007

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When I was growing up, I learned that words (and thoughts) are squirrely things – a moment’s inattention and, like a poorly designed tool, they twist in your hand and the result is something other than your intent.  I always felt a little thrill of triumph when I managed to write a sentence that allowed only one interpretation.  That attitude (and the skills that came with it) were pretty handy during my career writing software – a pastime where it’s heartbreakingly easy to think one thing, write another, and have it mean seventeen different things all at the same time.  Software, like law, is mostly an exercise in attempting to foresee every eventuality and make provisions for handling it correctly.

For me, photography is an enterprise that falls at the opposite end of the range.  I enjoy photography the most – I put the most into it and get the most out of it – at those moments and with those photographs where I’m least clear how it’s going to turn out and why.

This is not about the random results you get when there’s a lack of technical control.  You would think that as a photographer’s technical skills progress, and there are fewer uncontrolled variables, this not knowing what the result will be would happen less and less.  But that doesn’t seem to be the way it works.  As the technical stuff gets cut away and the logistic uncertainties diminish, we discover there’s a deeper underlying mystery which was there all along but was obscured by the technical fluff.

5 Responses

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  1. Sebastian said, on May 10, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    I feel like I want to contribute something to this post but as you explore the underlying mystery of it, it becomes harder to put into words. Like explaining to someone why you like that certain song, the one that touches your soul, without them hearing it. Its a very personal thing, to be able to make your own sense of the deeper meanings I think. Even though I think that it’s subjective, I believe that there might be a common underlying framework of understanding. I could be wrong though, but I do enjoy looking for it.

  2. chuck kimmerle said, on May 10, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    In my view it’s almost the opposite. I cannot cut out the “technical stuff” anymore than I can cut out the creative stuff. They’re too intertwined, too integral.

    Instead of obscuring, I actually find that the technical “fluff”, as you put it, adds to the meaning and mystery and allows me almost painterly control over the image. That, to me, is a power that should not be wasted.

  3. Photo Buffet said, on May 10, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    I’ve only recently discovered your Photomusings. Interesting reading and always a dessert.

  4. paul said, on May 11, 2007 at 5:30 am

    As a software developer myself, I think that you hit the nail on the head in your description. 🙂 I would certainly agree that photography is on the opposite end of the spectrum, for the most part; however, sometimes, just like software development, photography takes planning and thought.

    Sometimes I approach my photography like my software development. I decide what I want to do, sit back and think about it for a while, then go out and do it, test it, do it again, test it, do it again, until I think that I have what I thought I was going after. Iterative development, if you will. This is akin to visiting a place over and over again until you get the shots that you want. Sometimes, as in software, you get it right the first time, but more often than not in my case, it requires lots of rework. An interesting comparison.

  5. sjconnor said, on May 13, 2007 at 8:31 pm

    Once upon a time, I took lessons in Chinese watercolour painting (a risky business for a guy who’s mildly (or is that “wildly”?) colourblind) from a very nice, and very good, Chinese painter. My teacher occasionally talked to me about the differences she found between the way she was taught in China and the way North Americans wanted to be taught. When she was learning, she had to draw lines, just lines, over and over again. Then, if she was good at those, she was taught how to draw circles. Which she was forced to do over and over again. Eventually (and feel free to put that in italicised block capitals), she was allowed to draw an actual “thing” – a flower, a bit of bamboo. It’s not that she was a slow learner – everyone learned that way. It was only once you’d mastered the technical stuff, once it had become an unthought-of reflex, that you were actually allowed to try to draw something real. North Americans, of course, wanted to paint “real pictures” now.

    Which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m with Paul. Get the techical stuff down to the point that it’s automatic so that you can get to the photograph. One of these days, I’m actually going to manage to do that.


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