Musings on Photography

Tension

Posted in process, the art world by Paul Butzi on May 17, 2007

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I confess to a high degree of ambivalence between thinking that looking at the work of other photographers is a good thing for me to do to improve my art, and thinking it’s the worst possible thing.

Looking at other photographer’s work exposes me to a lot of new ideas – techniques, compositions, approaches to subject matter, even new concepts of what subject matter I’d like to address.  Those things can be good. On the other hand, looking at the work of other photographers exposes me to a lot of outside influences – techniques, compositions, approaches to subject matter, even ideas of what subject matter is appropriate.  Sometimes those influences can be bad, in that they tend to cause me to drift from what I was doing before.

I have the same conflict about getting feedback on my work-in-progress, or even feedback about work I consider complete.  It’s good to have people point out things I hadn’t noticed.  Sometimes it’s good to have people point out the direction they see the work might take, and other times it’s very bad, because it causes me to skip off my own path and down someone else’s.

That’s not a very articulate way to put it.  Some of what I’d driving at is captured by the following passage, a quotation of an nearly graduated art student by Ted Orland in The View from the Studio Door:

I look back at the work I was doing before the Art Institute, and it was innocent and free.  I feel the the work I’m doing now is polluted, corrupt – and it’s more difficult to make!  I think this probably has two causes: (1) seeing the Art World and the ideas contained in it; and (2) leaving my element.

Before coming here I lived in a small town in the middle of the desert.  The desert and things and places that were in it were part of my work; an abandoned house was my studio.  When I had an urge to make art, I would.  The desert was my element – and now I’m out of it and haven’t quite adjusted.  The corruption was caused by the pressure to make art in a certain way: art with “content’. 

After quoting this, Orland comments

The underlying question is: What is yours?  When, exactly, does your heritage take root?  Every artist I’ve known has struggled – sometimes briefly, sometimes for their entire life – with striking the balance between internal and external direction, between native and foreign influences.

 So I know I’m not alone.  That’s a comfort of sorts but it’s not exactly helpful in resolving the problem.

8 Responses

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  1. seeingthedetail said, on May 18, 2007 at 3:11 am

    Do you think, also, that if you don’t go out of your way to look at a particular kind of work then there’s a danger of being subconsciously influenced by the barrage of commercial images that surround you every day? I’m currently battling that slick, polished, saturated style and I think it’s coming from the media mostly. On the other hand, I think photography is about enjoying things around us that are beautiful, and also sometimes about getting away from reality, and both of these things seem to be in contradiction to the contemporary art photography, where ‘deadpan’ is a common style and you must have depth of meaning rather than visual appeal… it’s a tricky one, right enough.

  2. Alan George said, on May 18, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    I could not disagree more with your prescription. Actually I would argue that you are doing a big disservice to artists wishing to develop a strong personal aesthetic. Emerson in the good, bad and the ugly of photographic imagery is fundamental to developing your own personal style. No man is an island, quite the contrary.

    I am reminded of an article by Frank Van Riper on a Stephen King’s book “On Writing”. The article can be found here http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/photo/galleries/essays/010104.htm

    See Mr. King’s prescription for writers and how Mr. Van Riper relates that to photographers.

  3. Paul Butzi said, on May 18, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    Let me see if I understand your position, Alan.

    I write, saying that I am ambivalent about viewing the work of others, and that for me personally, it’s both a positive and a negative thing. I observe that I am not alone in feeling this ambivalence.

    Your response is that you disagree with my prescription and that I’m doing a big disservice to artists. That might be an interesting comment if it weren’t for the fact that it doesn’t appear to address what I’ve actually written.

    Maybe you would find it more productive to read the words I’ve written and take the meaning from them, instead of coming up with a random zany meaning and then attempting to attach it my words with a power stapler, double face tape, and two full tubes of quick set construction adhesive.

  4. Alan George said, on May 19, 2007 at 7:54 am

    My response was directed at your ambivalence toward viewing others work. To my way of thinking, it is a mandatory activity and I provided a reference to others who feel similarly. And I went further to say that I felt that suggesting that it was, in anyway, a bad idea to view others work was a disservice, as you put it.

    I am not clear on how that equates “random zany meaning and then attempting to attach it my word s with a power stapler, double face tape, and two full tubes of quick set construction adhesive”. It seems very much on point to me. Now if you would like to explain your position that it might be a bad thing to view other’s work versus a personal attack, that might be useful. But if I had to bet….

  5. Paul Butzi said, on May 19, 2007 at 10:41 am

    My response was directed at your ambivalence toward viewing others work. To my way of thinking, it is a mandatory activity and I provided a reference to others who feel similarly. And I went further to say that I felt that suggesting that it was, in anyway, a bad idea to view others work was a disservice, as you put it.

    I am not clear on how that equates “random zany meaning and then attempting to attach it my word s with a power stapler, double face tape, and two full tubes of quick set construction adhesive”. It seems very much on point to me.

    In your first comment, Alan, you say that you disagree with my prescription. The problem is that nowhere in the post do I actually prescribe anything. All I do is describe my ambivalence, briefly discuss some of my thoughts on the potential downsides of viewing other people’s work, and observe that apparently I’m not alone in feeling this ambivalence. To have ‘prescribed’ anything, I would have had to suggest that other people should follow my example – and that’s something which I most definitely did NOT do. And, since I didn’t write a prescription, it’s hard to see how this prescription that I didn’t write could possibly be doing anyone a disservice.

    So, when you post a comment stating that you disagree with the prescription I didn’t write, and that I’ve done artists a disservice, that would pretty much be coming up with a random zany meaning and then attempting to attach that meaning to what I’ve written.

    Now if you would like to explain your position that it might be a bad thing to view other’s work versus a personal attack, that might be useful. But if I had to bet….

    Amusingly, Alan, that’s rather what the post you’re commenting on is doing. Since this is a subject about which I’ve been thinking a lot lately, I’m guessing there will be more posts along these lines.

  6. Jeremy Moore said, on May 24, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    Paul,

    I am with you on the ambivalence of looking at the work of others. When doing so it usually turns into a creative springboard as when a recent Peng Chen photographed sparked a thought process for a small project. Along the same lines, I find that these small projects too often turn into rabbit trails which pull my focus away from what I am currently working on.

    A topic I have been chewing recently.

  7. […] attributed to me as a result.  Let me just point out that the post that started it all is titled Tension, that if I had come to some conclusion there would be no tension, that post says that I am […]

  8. Gee’s Bend « Musings on Photography said, on December 9, 2007 at 9:26 am

    […] in daily life in our media saturated culture? That would seem to be food for thought for those who encouraged me to not isolate myself. Posted in Uncategorized […]


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