Musings on Photography


Posted in process, the art world by Paul Butzi on June 15, 2007


Rosie Perera commented on the photo for this post, observing that it’s related to this photo of hers,  and that this photo of Japanese Maple leaves might have been influenced by this photo of hers.

I think that’s an interesting theory, because I do read Rosie’s blog, Space for God, and I do look closely at her photos.  So I took a look at the dates on the original exposures, to see if I could figure out something about the influences that might have been at play.  Once I figured out the influences, it got even more interesting, because the answer touches on themes I explored in my post on Originality, and also in my post on Copying.

First, the broom photos.  It’s tempting to find an causal arrow here, but the facts don’t line up.  My photo of the broom was made on December 7, 2006 (the 2007 copyright was tacked on when I generated the jpg).  But apparently it sat on my hard disk, untouched, for months before I went browsing through the backlog, found that one exposure I’d overlooked, and processed it and put it in the stream to use here on the blog.  So prior to June 4th, Rosie couldn’t have seen my broom photo, and until April 8, I couldn’t have seen hers.  So apparently this is ‘independent invention’ at about the same time.  (by the way, I like Rosie’s photo better than mine.)

The Japanese Maple photos (of which I have more) are even more interesting.  I’d made (and used) photos of the leaves of that particular Japanese Maple multiple times in the past – here, here, and here, as well as probably some others that I can’t find easily.  That particular tree stands right next to the breezeway between my house and the garage, so I see that tree pretty much every time I go outside, and every time I come home.  I see it in all kinds of light, and it always looks different to me, so I’ve been photographing it a lot.  So we might think there’s no influence connection between Rosie’s photo and mine.  But, it turns out, if we did that we’d be wrong, although the connection is not direct.

The influence I can see is through this post by Doug Plummer on Art and Perception, in which he writes about his daily photo process, and how he photographs his Dogwood tree.  Doug wrote “I like the density and layering I can make happen by shoving my lens into the leaves and making little gaps where something else goes on.”  It turns out I’d been struggling with that darn Japanese Maple, and when I read Doug’s words, I stood up, picked up the camera, and started making photos by just sticking the camera into the interior of the tree.  Wow!  Backlit leaves! 

And the connection is that Rosie’s Japanese Maple photo is part of a post in which she points to this post of Doug’s, in which he also writes about his daily photo process.  So my more recent Japansese Maple photos are part of my experiments with copying Doug’s process, and Rosie’s photo is part of a post pointing at Doug writing about that process. 

Those are interesting connections, and what I find most interesting is that the easy impression of influence was wrong, and even a somewhat more careful examination also turned out (in the Maple case) to be wrong as well.  I wonder how much of the ‘tracing of influence’ done by Art Historians is equally wrong.

9 Responses

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  1. poodlecake said, on June 15, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    as far as copying – I have a pic of both a broom and japanese maple leaves, as do many many photographers who have never heard of her…the photos you took and the ones she took couldn’t really be more different in most ways. Hell, on her terms she is copying thousands of flickr members even more directly than you are copying her. There is only so much to photograph and many similar ways to see the things in our world. I am pretty baffled by her comment actually. I don’t know her, have never looked at her pictures before, but wow, thats a sure stretch for me.
    Surely in my thousands upon thousands of pictures someone is saying now “oh, she copied that from me” when I don’t know who or where they are.
    And for me I am not that easily influenced by photography, more other arts. Most of it is pure speculation on influence anyhow. Who knows why I saw it that way that day? It was there, I was there, the time was right, I looked up…

  2. Andrew Brittain said, on June 15, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    I’m pretty sure Perera copied off this guy

    Of course he didn’t copy it off anyone elses photo (paintings etc excepted)

  3. Rosie Perera said, on June 15, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    Hey, people! Paul read my original comment, and I read his current post in light of understanding the full history of the dialog between us on this subject. But you readers of his post obviously didn’t.

    Paul and I are friends; we know each other in person. We have a good relationship photographically speaking. I have probably been more influenced by him in the long run than he has by me (I’ve taken a photo class taught by him, and his blog has a longer history than mine and is better than mine, I think).

    Paul was not claiming that I said “he copied that from me,” since he understood perfectly well that I was making no such claim. Influence is much different from copying. And the tone of my comment was teasing at the beginning anyway. Note the “Heh, heh” which is as good as a wink in cyberspace.

    Furthermore, far from being upset with him for “copying” my work (which poodlecake’s comment and Andrew Brittain’s sarcastic one imply they thought I was), I said I was “flattered” that a photographer whom I admire so much would be reading my blog regularly (which he does) and might possibly have seen a photo which influenced him to select one of his on the same subject within a couple of days of seeing mine. His explanation of why he probably didn’t do that is quite sufficient for me. I was only speculating anyway. I find his current post extremely interesting. Paul, you’re probably right that Doug Plummer influenced me (and as I pointed out in that post, you influenced me to even know about Doug Plummer). But there’s also the fact that Japanese maple trees are pretty darned interesting to photograph, and they are ubiquitous here in the Northwest, where both you and I live. And I explained in my post why I chose to photograph it that particular day.

    I’m also flattered that Paul thinks my broom photo is better than his. Coming in close on a subject often makes a better photo, which I think is a factor operating aesthetically in this case. It’s also the reason I think that all of Paul’s Japanese Maple photos that he links to in his post are better than mine.

    Just for the record, here is my comment in its entirety (minus the links; they’re the same links that Paul provided anyway):

    “Speaking of Originality, as you were a few days ago, looks like somebody is getting inspired by my blog. Heh, heh. I’m flattered. I thought it was just a coincidence at first when your photo of a broom leaning up against the outside of a houseshowed up a few weeks after my similar photo. But now the red Japanese maple leaves so soon after I posted mine. Just a coincidence? Perhaps not. I know you’ve been visiting my blog. I like the way photos by different photographers can play off each other and inspire each other. You and I have different takes on our subjects, and there are seemingly endless different ways to portray brooms and Japanese maple leaves. Knowing how you usually draw from your archives when posting, I’m guessing you didn’t go out and take these photos after being subconsciously triggered by seeing mine. But perhaps you chose them for your blog because of having seen mine recently.”

  4. Rosie Perera said, on June 15, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Paul writes: “My photo of the broom was made on December 7, 2006 (the 2007 copyright was tacked on when I generated the jpg). But apparently it sat on my hard disk, untouched, for months before I went browsing through the backlog, found that one exposure I’d overlooked, and processed it and put it in the stream to use here on the blog. So prior to June 4th, Rosie couldn’t have seen my broom photo, and until April 8, I couldn’t have seen hers. So apparently this is ‘independent invention’ at about the same time.”

    I agree it’s ‘independent invention’. But I could still be right that sometime between April 8 and June 4, you were perusing your hard disk for photos you hadn’t posted to your blog yet, saw the one of the broom and still had my one of the broom fresh in your mind, so yours jumped out at you, and you chose it to process and put in the stream to use on the blog. I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but so what. It’s no biggie to me if that wasn’t the case. Like I said in my previous comment, I’m only speculating, and not at all annoyed if that’s what you did. I think it’d be kind of cool if you did, but it’s not earth-shattering one way or the other.

  5. Paul Butzi said, on June 15, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    Folks – Please read Rosie’s response above. I know Rosie, Rosie knows me. I certainly interpreted her earlier comments about influence as good-natured friendly ribbing.

    The point of my post was not to debunk Rosie’s suggestion of influence, but to point out that it’s a) actually pretty interesting to examine it closely, and b) surprisingly hard to really sort out with any finality.

    Case in point: I thought I’d put to rest the issue of influence with the broom images, just by checking the capture dates. But as Rosie points out above, it’s perfectly possible that I passed over the image before, and only noticed later because I’d seen Rosie’s broom image on her blog. Good point!

    Proving or disproving influence – or even knowing what has influenced your own work – is apparently not such a simple thing as it might appear.

  6. Doug Plummer said, on June 15, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    Let me expand the topic here. So what? Of course we riff off each other and steal and mimic and appropriate. That’s how you build a vocabulary–by hearing a lot of language. It’s why I try and expose myself to as much influence as I can stand, hoping that a little bit of it is going to bend and grow my process and my images into something more complex than I now know how to make.

  7. Rosie Perera said, on June 16, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks, Paul, for coming to my defense.

    One other response to an earlier comment: I think it’s pretty arrogant (or at best naive) of any artist to say that they are not influenced by what they see. That’s like saying we can be totally immune to the influence of advertising. The reason advertising works so well is that images are powerful communicators and they do influence people. Even I, who have a great resistance to advertising, recognize that it does work its subtle influence on me nonetheless. And even when I’m extremely aware of seeing it, and defiantly choose to not buy the product that it’s about (even if it would otherwise have been something I might have bought were it not for the annoying advertising), that is still influence, though in a negative way. A small anecdote to illustrate this: I make a point of averting my eyes from advertising as much as reasonably possible (e.g., I don’t own a TV, I skip the ad pages in magazines, I try not to notice billboards, etc.). I was very annoyed with myself once when, while I was walking down the street, a big poster caught my eye. I think it was of a baby or a dog (they’ve done two versions of it, and I can’t remember which one I saw first) wearing sunglasses. When I looked up to take it all in, I noticed the text in the middle of the ad: “Made you look!” It was an ad for an advertising firm. Uggh! They got me. Very clever. The worst part is, I fell for it again a second time when they changed the ad to something different. But at least they didn’t completely succeed in their mission. I don’t remember the name of the agency, though I do (vaguely) remember their ads.

    Paul, while influence is certainly difficult if not impossible to prove by simply looking at the works themselves, I think a certain quantity (though perhaps not the majority) of the statements about influence in art history (and music history, and philosophy to a certain extent) have to do with who studied under whom. I think a fair case can be made for influence from teacher to student, but it’s definitely not unidirectional.

    And I also agree with Doug that borrowing and riffing and appropriating from other people’s work is how we develop our own art vocabulary. Ditto for music. There is a very legitimate tradition in visual art, music, and literature, of quoting another’s art as a response to or comment on or elaboration on the original. Think of all the great musical compositions with titles like “Variations on a Theme of Paganini.” And even the obvious quotes and allusions that are not called out in the title. It’s part of a grand dialogue through time that all artists working in all media are involved in. If we all had to be isolated entities not communicating with each other in our works, then the art world (and the whole world in general) would be very impoverished indeed. Thank God for influence! The dialogue can go across art forms, too, by the way: Here’s an example of a jazz musician creating variations on a theme of some visual art.

    So let’s not get too hung up on whether we’re doing “Variations on a Theme of Paul Butzi” or “…Rosie Perera” or whomever. And no need to give credit unless the variations are an intentional tip of the hat to someone else. And let’s not deny that we occasionally are influenced by the works of others that we see.

  8. Bryan Willman said, on June 16, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    What is “influence” and what is “context”.

    That is, how much is artist A saw something artist B did (or heard artist B tell them about it!) and that changes artist A’s work


    The air is thick with maple trees, or the air is thick with brooms, or the air is thick with homeless people holding signs. If *I* go make photos of the maples in front my house, does that mean I’m somehow influenced by Paul or Rosie (or whomever), or does it mean I’m lazy and stopped at the prettiest trees in the yard to have something to take to print meeting Monday night?

    Paul and Rosie work in a pretty similar context (pacific northwest). Now, if Rosie bought a ride into space on Virgin Galactic Rocket plane, and tooks photos of butterflys she released in the cabin just for that trip, and then Paul did the same thing, well, be hard to argue that isn’t influence.

    But trees? Trees near at hand to one’s dwelling? In the Pacific Northwest?

    (I admit I assume Rosie still lives in the PNW, she could have moved, it’s been quite a while since I spoke with her.)

  9. Rosie Perera said, on June 16, 2007 at 11:29 pm

    Bryan Willman writes: “the air is thick with brooms.” I don’t know what air you’ve been flying through lately, Bryan. Run into Harry Potter much up there? 😉 (big wink and smile)

    Hey everyone else: I know Bryan Willman, too, and I seem to recall he has a pretty good sense of humor, though he might have lost it for all I know, as I haven’t seen him in years, unless you count the time we randomly ran into each other in Glazer’s in Seattle a year or so ago, but we didn’t have time for much of a conversation then, and I’m doing this run-on sentence on purpose to be silly, OK? Bryan’s comments about releasing butterflies in a Virgin Galactic Rocket plane in order to photograph them tell me he’s still got his sense of humor. But I’m sure some dimwits reading this don’t, and will think I’m denouncing Bryan as a witch. (Just came from seeing Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath this evening, so denouncing people as witches was on my mind, but of course that didn’t influence me one iota; it’s totally a coincidence that I made a joke about it here. [Caution: SARCASM ALERT!])

    Yes, I do still live in the Pacific Northwest, at least if you think about that term continentally as opposed to nationally. I’m just over the border to the north in BC. And despite my teasing above, the air really is thick with broom (sic) here, as it is in Washington. Notice I said “broom” and not “brooms.” We in the PNW have a huge infestation of Scotch broom, which is a non-native plant and spreads like a weed, and is virtually uncontrollable. It’s kind of pretty, and nice to photograph, but it causes problems with other (native) plants and destroys animal habitats. And it just so happens I recently took a lovely photo of some visiting relatives of mine, among an ocean of Scotch broom, with vast sweeps of Pacific Northwest scenery in the background. And that, my friends (and strangers), certainly did influence my mind to think up the pun on “broom”. So there. 😉

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