Musings on Photography


Posted in landscape, motivation, process by Paul Butzi on May 21, 2007

Cornus canadensis 'Bunchberry'

This weekend it got quite windy, and during the period of high winds on Saturday morning one of the big bitter cherry trees let go and started leaning low across our driveway.  So I got out the chain saw and I cut the tree  down, and then I cut off all the branches and bucked the trunk up into pieces.  And then I got out the chipper, and fed the branches through.  All the while, the foreground part of my mind was concentrating on things like not cutting off my foot, and not having my hand dragged into the chipper while it was running – your basic high priority stuff if you happen to be fond of your extremities. 

Meanwhile, the background part of my brain was chugging along thinking about why I worry about outside influence on my photography.  That generalized into pondering about the mass media onslaught that’s such a problem for so many folks – not just artists who find it makes for a bad influence on their work, but a lot of folks who feel that the mass media aren’t a positive factor in their lives.

And then I stumbled across across the following quotation:

As long as I assume that the world is something I discover by turning on the radio … I am deceived from the start.

-Thomas Merton

I think this touches directly on the problem.  When we take in the world through radio or TV or magazines, we’re not getting a direct view of the the world, we’re getting a view provided by an intermediary who, no matter how good the intentions will always add interpretation. When I’m looking at the photography of other people, I’m seeing the world through their eyes.  That can be good, or it can be bad, but no matter what it amounts to experiencing reality through an intermediary.  When we watch the mass media, it’s even worse, because the various interests in the mass media aren’t interested in just presenting reality, they’re interested in advancing their agenda.  (I’d note that photographers and other artists often do the same thing).

One of the things about making photographs myself, as opposed to viewing photographs made by others, is that for me to make the photographs I do, I have to actually contend with reality directly.  I don’t mean this in the sense used by Mary Chase’s character Elwood P. Dowd, who remarked “I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state that I finally won out over it.”  When I say ‘contend with reality’ what I’m saying is that to make a photograph of what the forest looks like in the rain, I must actually be in the forest in the rain.  Unless, of course, I take a page from Jeff Wall’s playbook and construct a fake forest in my studio, filled with fake plants, and then contrive to dump fake rain on it while I make photographs.

Mass media, the internet, books – all add to the reach of our experience at the expense of including an intermediary in that experience.  In order to make photographs of reality, though, we must have a direct experience – no intermediary.

There is a real world out there – an objective reality that can be photographed.  Interestingly, the process of making photographs of that reality immerses us in it, and the process of looking at the photographs we’ve made moves us one step away from it. 

11 Responses

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  1. Rory said, on May 21, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    A lesson learned. Thanks.

  2. Doug Plummer said, on May 21, 2007 at 9:04 pm


    You’ve been contending with this issue of external influence for awhile in your posts, and you seem to have come down definitively on the side of, “really bad idea.” I would respectfully like to offer a different take.

    As I understand you position, you’re saying that in order to protect the integrity of your experience, you have to deliberately isolate yourself from stimulus that might become a mediating influence, because it deters and inhibits the sense of being in the moment.

    My retort is twofold, one about artistic influences, and the other about mass media (we won’t talk about the intersection of these two sets, which is an interesting arena that a lot of artists use to make some important work, and always have). I contend that isolating yourself from other artistic influences is a big disservice to one’s own process.

    My feeling is, that the more I know about what has gone on before me, the more roots there are to feed my own work. I visit museums and galleries whenever I travel, and I make it a priority. I have arenas of art work that I like to look at and that I respect, and large swaths that I pretty much ignore. But I don’t prohibit it from feeding my process. Even work I argue with grows me.

    Allowing Italian Renaissance art into one’s process is one thing. Mass media is harder to defend. But much of the art I adore was the mass media of its era. I am writing this while I am watching my guilty pleasure, “Dancing With The Stars.” I’m working on a dance project. I’m interested in the popular culture take on dance, and I love that this show highlights and rewards a kind of (well, vulgur) virtuosity. Because I make a living with my artistic process, I pay attention to the trends and patterns in how the media mediates our culture back to ourselves.

    I don’t like a lot of what I see, of course. That’s beside the point. Anyone with a lick of self respect is going to be majorly frustrated with the culture we live in. The way I inoculate myself from the media onslaught is to pay attention to it. I deconstruct how it works, what it’s trying to say, and the meta messages within it. But some of the production values speak to some of the best artistic output of our era. Or at least, it informs me about what is the visual vocabulary of our time.

  3. Mike said, on May 22, 2007 at 6:33 am


    Does this mean you’re doing us a disservice by including images in your postings?

  4. Paul Butzi said, on May 22, 2007 at 8:13 am

    Does this mean you’re doing us a disservice by including images in your postings?

    No. It means that when you look at the photographs I include, it’s not the same as seeing the same scene for yourself.

  5. Bryan Willman said, on May 22, 2007 at 8:41 am

    Of course, sometimes, the interaction with the intermediary *is* the reality. People often say they are “watching TV” as though some comedy and a news report from a war zone are somehow the same. In a sense they are – in both cases one “interacts with the media” by watching it. And the media itself may be the reality.

    So there’s a bit of an argument here for picking how much of your life you devote each reality. Which I suppose means I should get up from my computer and go outside…

  6. chuck kimmerle said, on May 22, 2007 at 9:29 am

    “…the process of making photographs of that reality immerses us in it, and the process of looking at the photographs we’ve made moves us one step away from it.”

    I’m not sure I can agree. I think that looking at my own photographs moves me CLOSER to the “reality”, not more distant. The image content brings back memories of the location, the weather, my feelings at the time, the excitement (or lack of it) of finding a particular image. Some of those things may not even consciously register until after the image is finished.

    I do agree that looking at an image is no substitute for actually being at a particular location at a particular time but, again, I just cannot see how images can distance us from a reality, especially when we may not have known that reality existed in the first place.

  7. […] The vast majority of comments are on topic and present interesting points of view, and I want to encourage folks to continue with such comments, even when (perhaps especially when) they take a point of view contrary to mine (such as this comment by Doug Plummer). […]

  8. Doug Plummer said, on May 22, 2007 at 11:18 am

    I’m re-reading your post, and the most interesting bit is the last paragraph. I think that any act of imagemaking, either from “reality” or imagined, is a mediated event, and that as artists our task is finding a comfortable relationship with this paradox. There are a gazillion solutions to that task.

    If I were more enlightened, I might not need a camera as the intermediary. Direct perception and experience of that perception might be sufficient. But I’m not enlightened, and it’s not been the goal I’ve chosen for my life’s work. Understanding the complexities of my mediated perception has been a lot more compelling.

  9. Mike said, on May 22, 2007 at 11:48 am

    Well — it’s true that the image is not the thing. However a fine image is a joy to behold as itself and there are images of the world which make me think: “Gee, I’d like to be there, too.” Those, to me, are the best ones.

  10. Chuck Kimmerle said, on May 22, 2007 at 1:50 pm

    Regarding Doug’s second comment, I don’t really consider it a paradox to have our image making be a “mediated” event, but rather a necessity. How we find a “comfortable relationship” – as Doug put it – with this mediation is what makes each photographer unique, because it’s not just the camera that acts as an intermediary, but also our own personal moods, biases, experiences, and talents.

  11. […] Plummer’s excellent  and insightful comment on a recent post was the core of one of Doug’s posts over on Art and Perception.  There are […]

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