Musings on Photography

Happy Accidents

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on June 20, 2007


Colin Jago has an interesting post about an Ernst Haas quote over on Photostream, in which he writes

It isn’t just that our personalities affect our photography. The causal channel runs deeper than that. Our personalities affects what we see, and happy accidents aside, we can only photograph what we see.

To me this is a very interesting post, not just because I think Colin has yet again hit the nail on the head, but also because it highlights the interesting case.  That is, I think that, ignoring the rare exceptions, we can only photograph what we see, and what we see is limited by our personalities (or understanding, or advancement of our soul, or intellect – pick the phrase that most appeals to you).  But, as is often the case, it’s the rare exceptions – the cases when by happy accident we manage to make a photograph of something that exceeds our understanding – it’s those exceptions that make all the difference. 

In my view, what’s fascinating about photography is that the process can teach me how to see things I couldn’t see before, and I think this happens when I make a photograph that is what Colin neatly describes as a ‘happy accident’.  I make a happy accident photograph in some place, and somehow the very act of making this photograph, printing it, and looking at the print seems to connect me to the subject of the photo in a way that I don’t get just by looking at the subject.

I can look at a tree multiple times every day for years, then when I start to make photographs of it, all of a sudden I apprehend details I didn’t see before.  Look, the edges of the leaves are not just serrated, but each little tooth of the serration is twisted just a teeny bit.  Look, you thought all the leaves were the same color, but the ones at the top are almost all red, and the ones underneath are red and green.  Look, rain doesn’t cling to leaves with serrated edges the same way it clings to leaves with smooth edges.  It’s as if the camera is like a microscope but instead of magnifying the subject, it magnifies my ability to attend.

The disappointing thing is that the photos that trigger this are, as Colin points out, infrequent happy accidents.  You might have to make hundreds of boring normal photos in a spot before you get the happy accident that gives you a new insight.  That’s ok, though, as long as we understand that the more we photograph, the more happy accidents we’ll have.

5 Responses

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  1. Colin Jago said, on June 21, 2007 at 1:56 am

    I guess that my typo counts as a less happy accident 🙂

    I was thinking of a more completely accidental result than the idea that you’ve picked up on. I’ll probably expand on this when I post later today.

  2. Doug Plummer said, on June 21, 2007 at 9:20 am

    I like to think of this as “Shooting ahead of ourselves.” We often don’t know that we’re even paying attention to something new until enough of those happy accidents accrue, or that a pattern and a new inquiry of interest begins to reveal itself over time. It is rare when we can identify the beginning of any interval at the time. We understand only by looking backward, but what is going to become important is usually affecting us far before we realize it. Photography is an unusual window into this process.

  3. Mike said, on June 21, 2007 at 9:21 pm

    I suppose taking a “good look” at our surroundings is what we’re talking about here. This can be done without taking a picture — which is just a reminder for our visual memory of the event, place, person, etc.

    It’s a matter, I believe, of rekindling that sense of wonder we had as children when everything was new and strange and wonderful.

  4. Frank said, on June 22, 2007 at 5:55 am

    Oliver Gagliani once said to a group at one of his workshops that you can’t photograph anything that you know nothing about. I’ve always thought of it as a dialogue, the photographer ask question and his/her images are the answers.


  5. […] the comments to Happy Accidents, Mike wrote: I suppose taking a “good look” at our surroundings is what we’re talking about […]

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