Musings on Photography


Posted in process by Paul Butzi on May 24, 2007


Some folks have leapt to the conclusion that I’ve come down firmly on the side of “Looking at the art made by other folks is bad”, and all sorts of weird ideas have been 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 ambivalent about looking at the work of other photographers.  People who are unclear on this may want to read the definition of ambivalent.

So much has been written about the importance of looking at the work of the photographic masters, looking at the work of other photographers in general, and just looking at art (all art) already: broader roots, feed the creative process, cultural relevance, stand on the shoulders of giants.  That particular drumbeat doesn’t need my help.

But the idea that all this looking at art might have an artistic downside is essentially unexamined. And, as someone who not only routinely turns things over to see what the other side is like but often turns things over just to confirm that, as predicted, there actually is another side, I find that a curious state of affairs.

Let me try to enumerate some of the problems I have: 

  • I’m easily distracted.  When I look at work done by others, I think “Oh, that’s interesting”, and suddenly all my energy is diverted from what I was doing into something else.  New things are fun and interesting, but it’s not fulfilling to just brush the surface of twenty million things.  Occasionally I want go deeper on something.  In order to do that, I have to consciously shut distractions out, and I have to carefully manage how and when I spend time looking at the work of others.  Yes, I know that there are people who are not like this, and if you happen to be one, bully for you.  But I am, and it seems improbable that at my age I’m suddenly going to change. 
  • I am trying to make photographs to explore reality.  I understand that some people consider mass media reality, but I am not interested in making photographs of that.  Nor am I interested (for now) in exploring the way mass media impacts our lives.  I’m interested in making photographs of the actual, physical world.  So looking at highly conceptual art that makes supposedly profound statements about various political, social, religious, or philosophical ideas is not helpful, it’s just a distraction.  Likewise, art that is about art, or art that is about the plight of artists, or art that is about artmaking – distraction.  Art that is about generating in me desire to own things, or patronize some service, or otherwise engage in commerce – likewise, distraction.  You will note that I have just ruled out all but a vanishly small portion of the modern art world. 
  • Some of what I am trying to figure out lies just outside my grasp.  It’s hard enough for me to pick out the signal from the noise as it is.  So telling me that instead of isolating myself from the mainstream art world I should embrace it in all its noisy glory is about the same as telling someone who is trying to hear a very faint noise that instead of working in a very quiet place,  they should instead do their listening at a huge party with the music so loud that it makes their ears bleed.

So for me, at least, viewing art is a two edged sword.  Looking at art done by others all the time is suboptimal, because it leaves no time for making art.  Never looking at art done by others is suboptimal, too, because although it avoids distractions it also avoids good ideas.  Rolle’s Theorem tells us that the optimum lies somewhere in between these two extremes.  The optimum for me is probably not the optimum for you, and the optimum for me today is probably not the optimum for me next year.  It seems to me that it makes sense for nearly everyone to spend at least a little time thinking about where their personal optimum might be.

3 Responses

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  1. Doug Plummer said, on May 24, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    As one who has unfortunately contributed to your conundrum of late, let me offer you my heartfelt support. You are one of the most articulate writers out there on the process of engagement with reality for an artistic end. This is a great post.

  2. Frank Armstrong said, on May 25, 2007 at 6:53 am

    Ya’ know? Looking at the work of others, most of the time confirms my belief I make better images than they do. Make of that what you will, but as a teacher and student of photography, I see bunches of work from the “others.” And I don’t see all that many I like.


  3. chuck kimmerle said, on May 25, 2007 at 8:52 am

    Not to get too far off topic, but Frank’s post seems, at least to me, to show the somewhat risky attitude of superiority. If, as an artist, you place yourself on such a pedestal as to stand far and away above most everyone else, that gives little incentive to grow. That’s especially dangerous for educators, as objective critiques of students work will be near impossible. Unfortunately, I’ve seen that happen all too often.

    Sure, there are some artists who deserve their place on a high and mighty pedestal, but those few were placed there not by themselves, but by the test of time.

    As for the topic at hand, I think there may be a great many people who would do better by shooting more, and studying less. Sure, there is definite value from studying the work of others, but that value is, at least for me, primarily inspirational rather than the instructional.

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