Musings on Photography

Just looking

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on June 22, 2007

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In the comments to Happy Accidents, Mike wrote:

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.

This comment originally got accidentally deleted in my argument with the spam filtering software; Mike graciously rewrote it.  I really wanted to respond to this comment, so I’m glad Mike took the time to post it twice.

The reason I so wanted to respond to this comment is that it seems like such a sensible comment.  It would seem that, at the core, what’s happening is that when I get out the camera, the camera is just an excuse to take a really good look at the world around me.  According to this theory, the camera is enabling, but not necessary.  It could all be done without making photographs, and without using a camera. But that falls into the category of ‘really appealing theories that don’t match the reality’. 

Take the example of the Japanese Maple which is by now familiar to you.  It’s next to the breezeway, and so I pass it each time I enter or leave my house.  It’s a tree I like a lot, in a place where I see it every day.  Before I started photographing it, I had examined it closely.  So I’d given that Japanese Maple a good look.  I’d given it dozens of good looks.  And yet… when I got out the camera, and made photographs, I learned things about that specific tree, and about trees in general, that I hadn’t learned by giving it a ‘good look’.  I learned different things at different stages of the photographic process – making exposures, making prints, looking at the prints.

It comes down to this: the learning experience I have when looking is different from the learning experience I have when photographing.  There’s something about the ‘looking mode’ that’s different from the ‘photographing mode’, and it seems that I can learn things in the photo mode that I can’t in the look mode (and, presumably, vice versa).

That makes me think that ‘taking a good look’ and ‘photographing’ are closely related activities but they’re not interchangeable.

3 Responses

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  1. Mike said, on June 22, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    Good point “photo mode” and “look mode”.

    I think looking precedes photographing.

    Look mode is when something catches your interest.

    Photo mode is when you choose which views of your subject you will keep for review later. This review is then a closer inspection than you will have undertaken on site — a look at your leisure, enabling you to see details you may have missed while on site, like Muybridge’s horse in motion. Or your Japanese Maple.

    What you have described as learned in photo mode seems to be more procedural and photographic than botanic. Or maybe you just did take a much closer look at that maple when making those exposures.

    Though it’s all quite wonderful, isn’t it?

  2. Ann said, on June 23, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    I think it has to do with mentally making the visual transformation from the object’s 3D space to the image’s 2D plane. Some of my best photographs come when I “see” the subject shift to 2D in the camera. Usually requiring time and patience, like one of those visual illusion games, to get the brain to shift.

  3. Mike said, on June 23, 2007 at 9:42 pm

    Sometimes I’ll just take a picture to see what things will look like in the print (Winogrand’s “in the frame”). This is not my only reason though. I think I’m often like a “butterfly collector”, picking and choosing what I like from the visual stream in which I find myself, or being drawn in by what’s out there. Oftentimes both motives (“gee, let’s see” and “gotta have this”) occur simultaneously.


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