Musings on Photography

There are no insignificant places

Posted in landscape by Paul Butzi on August 7, 2007

 Imgs 5D-051202-1208-600

Not much posting going on here, sorry. Partly that’s because I’m undermotivated, partly it’s because I have plenty of thoughts running around in my head but no thoughts that have gelled to the point where they can be articulated. I’ll settle for drawing a connection between two blog posts.

The first post is Paul Lester’s post here, about photographing people. At the end, Paul writes:

There are happy faces, sad faces, proud faces, and angry faces. I saw faces of love, faces of hope, faces of contentment, and each one of them brings me joy.

There are no insignificant moments.

The second post is this one by Colin Jago, in which he writes

I’m interested in pictures of the ordinary.

This creates an immediate tension. If you are interested in pictures of the extra-ordinary then the drama of the subject (war, location, sexuality, event) can pull a picture above the mass and make it interesting. However, without that edge, pictures of the ordinary can be, well, pretty bloody ordinary.

Unlike Paul, I don’t generally make photographs of people, and I don’t generally engage in street photography. I’m not so much interested in people as I’m interested in places. But if I were to translate Paul’s words into my field of interest, it would probably come down to “There are no insignificant places.” And, it turns out, that’s a view I believe very strongly.

And, like Colin, I’m very interested in pictures of the ordinary.

We tend to divide places into categories. There are exciting places, like Yosemite, or Victoria Falls, the Galapagos Islands, and so on. And there are places that are not exciting – the street in front of our house, our back yard, the parking lot where we park the car when we go to the office.

Exciting places are exciting primarily because they’re exotic. That is, we go to a place like Yosemite, and we want to make photographs of the place because we are amazed at what we see, and we’re amazed because we don’t see it every day. The places which are not exciting are generally so because they’re not exotic – we see them every day. But what I’ll call ‘The Lester Principle’ as applied to landscape photography tells us that there are no insignificant places. As Annie Dillard observed “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” and thus it turns out that although they might seem boring and ordinary, the places we see every day are probably more significant to us than exciting, exotic locales that we visit rarely if ever.

I strongly suspect that if I want to ensure that my art matters to anyone else, I must first ensure that it matters to me. Yosemite is exotic and gorgeous and stupendous and epic, but it is also a place where I spend zero time, and so although it might be important in some global sense, it doesn’t matter so much to me.

The forest that surrounds my home and the valley over which that forest looks are where I am, day to day. The forest and the valley are not exotic nor stupendous nor epic on the scale of Yosemite. They are ordinary, quotidian places. But because I spend nearly 100% of my time in those places, they have tremendous significance to me, and so they seem like the natural focus of my photography.

That probably limits the audience and appeal of my work, as well as pretty much killing any prospects for wider recognition. I suspect, though, that this is true of nearly 100% of all the art that is ever made.

14 Responses

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  1. Gordon said, on August 7, 2007 at 11:47 am

    I’m not so sure I’d agree that the attraction of places like Yosemite is that it is exotic, compared to my backyard. I think if you lived there and saw it every day (in fact, particularly if you got to experience it every day) that it would become even more impressive/ beautiful/ visually exciting.

    There’s a difference in the grandeur, skill and expanse that makes mostly virgin landscapes beautiful. It may be interesting to many because it isn’t part of their day to day existance, so it is actually exotic – but it isn’t beautiful or appealing because of this.

    I grew up on the edge of the Highlands of Scotland. I used to pass Loch Lomond several times each week. It was beautiful each and every time – usually in a uniquely different way.

    Certainly people travel from all around to experience the exotic difference of the Scottish Highlands – but that isn’t what makes them special – they already are special. The fact that they aren’t right here just adds to that (and makes me homesick more often than not when I think about it)

  2. Gordon said, on August 7, 2007 at 11:48 am

    as an addendum, I’m going to Yosemite for the first time in a couple of months – so I might have a different opinion after that holiday…

  3. Gordon said, on August 7, 2007 at 11:50 am

    last comment – feel free to merge/ delete/ hide. I do also believe that the thing you need to do to photograph a subject well is to have access to it, return to it over time, work through the first cliches and get try to move beyond. So the access and locality you describe is vital. I’ll take some pictures in Yosemite I’m sure, but I’m not going to do anything interesting. Perhaps if I lived there for several years, shot it through the seasons and changes in light I’d come to understand the place and make interesting pictures. The same is true for your backyard, wherever it is.

  4. Svein-Frode said, on August 7, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Paul, I really liked this post and I’ll be pondering over it in my sleep tonight.

    I think you are on to something fundamental, which is both good news and bad news at the same time. As Hurn/Jay wrote in “On being a Photographer”: To make extraordinary photography you have to live an extraordinary life… Sad, but true.

  5. JohnL said, on August 7, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    Well said. I find the majority of the very small number of successful photographs I have taken over the last few years are the every day sights and objects close to home that are simple and definitely non earth shattering in the strict photographic sense. Of these someone described my photographs as calm, soothing, etc etc – that will do me fine!

  6. Guy Tal said, on August 7, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    Paul, I have to cautiously disagree (cautiously because my disagreement is primarily based in semantics which may be distorting my interpretation).

    You use the terms “significant” and “exciting” interchangeably, as well as “insignificant” and “ordinary.” To me the terms hold much different meanings, speaking in a purely emotional sense. Exciting/ordinary indicate a response based on sensory stimulus while significant/insignificant to me describe a more complex (perhaps also more subtle) response based on emotions, values, and personal life experiences.

    There are places that are significant to me where significant events in my life have taken place, and the mere sight or memory of them can bring me to tears. These are not places I (and likely anyone else) would consider exciting, yet they are far from ordinary. Neither are they necessarily beautiful.

    I believe the excitement you describe is one of visual appeal, weighted greatly in favor of a sensory response to color, scale, or other dramatic conditions, rather than a personal/emotional one relating to meaning or interpretation.

    Ordinary, to me, is by definition devoid of ulterior/emotional meaning. If it evokes any kind of interest or response, it is not ordinary. Perhaps what Colin is referring to is nor ordinary images but rather the creation of significant images from what some might consider ordinary subject matter?

    We both live in the West, close to natural scenery that inspires us, and for good reason. While there are perhaps no completely insignificant places, for each of us there are places that are much much more significant than others. The difference lies in values we associate with the place, and keeping in mind that “place” is a multi-dimensional concept. Visual appeal is but one of them.


  7. Sean said, on August 9, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    When I first started out with a camera, it was like I was putting notches in my belt. Once I had photographed a place, I considered it “done” and wanted to move on. I’ve since discovered that one of the great joys of photography is to revisit an old haunt and find new ways of seeing it. That’s exotic in its own right…

    Beck Homestead:

    Old Dodge:

    Ford Truck:

    Collapsed Building:

    In the right light and the right weather, the insignificant becomes incredible.

  8. […] other day, Paul Butzi wrote about there being no insignificant places. Heck, he even gave me my own principle, “The Lester […]

  9. Mark said, on August 10, 2007 at 6:26 am

    I would call the parking lot of a Walmart an insignificant place. I don’t visit there, yet it holds nothing new for me to see. I certainly hold the value of my own yard far above it. I don’t think it is a crime to hold one place of greater value over another.

  10. Sean said, on August 11, 2007 at 7:51 pm

    “I would call the parking lot of a Walmart an insignificant place.”

    Not if you’re into candid photography. Some pretty funny stuff can happen there. Especially in the section where the retired seniors clump with their RVs. 😉

  11. Mark said, on August 12, 2007 at 6:18 am

    Sean, but from a nature photographer’s perspective, it IS pretty insignificant.

  12. Photo Buffet said, on August 13, 2007 at 11:41 am

    I visited Yosemite last March. It was my first visit there, and the approach into the Valley Floor was breathtaking. However, I tend to agree that those grandiose places don’t excite me as much as discovering surprises in my own backyard. Ansel Adams probably wouldn’t have been happy exploring my flower garden, and I’m sure I didn’t do those massive rock cliffs justice, either.

    There are no insignificant places or moments. So true.

  13. Wall said, on August 13, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    […] think Paul Butzi put it best when he wrote that “There are no insignificant places“. But it’s hard to communicate the […]

  14. […] I’m not trying to say that more going on is better, just different, check out Paul Butzis’ words on “There are no insignificant places”. […]

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