Musings on Photography

The Model, the Map, the Landscape

Posted in art is a verb, landscape, motivation, process by Paul Butzi on August 23, 2007

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At the end of the first lecture by one of my favorite professors, the professor asked “Are there any questions?” I raised my hand, and when he pointed at me, I asked “Is there an objective reality?” (the course was not a philosophy course, it was a course on finite mathematics and formal languages.) Amazingly, the professor did not kill me outright.

Anyway, I’ve spent more than my share of time pondering whether there’s an objective reality. I think the answer is yes, but with qualifications. The qualification is this: we stumble through this existence, and because understanding how the world around us works is a key to survival, we’ve got a large part of our brain dedicated to figuring it out. You don’t have to be highly capable at coming up with symbolic solutions to differential equations to catch a thrown object, because there’s a big chunk of your brain that’s figured out how to do ballistics. We go around, constantly building a mental model of the world, and we run this model forward in real time, and we use it to make useful predictions like “After I fire this arrow, that bird in motion will continue to move, so I’ll aim such that the arrow and the bird end up in the same place at the same time, and henceforth I’ll call this situation ‘dinner’.” That is, we use this model as a map to navigate through life.

The problem is this: we start out life with very simple maps, full of large gaps. Even worse, our ability to model things in our head is strictly limited, and reality is comparatively unlimited. So our maps start out not very accurate, and slowly improve, but they will always contain errors. Cartographers (and explorers, and hikers, and in general all users of the cartographic arts, as well as the followers of Alfred Korzybski) remind themselves of this problem by stating “The map is not the landscape”. In any disagreement between reality and the map, the map loses. In other words, maps always contain errors. The landscape never contains errors, it just *is*. Maps have gaps where there’s no information; reality does not.

To make what is turning out to be a longer story into a shorter one, I’ve concluded that one of my reasons for making art is that it’s a way for me fill in the gaps in my map. I went to the coast, and I made a lot of photographs there, and in the process I filled in a lot of the gaps in my map of ‘beach’. My map of ‘beach’ now has more information about beaches, and is more accurate. I’ve made thousands of photographs of the area where I live, and as a result my map of the area is far more detailed and interesting than it was.

(those of you interested in maps, models, and utility will find this article in Wikipedia to be a pretty good overview. Just remember that a wikipedia article is, in a sense, just a map, and not the territory.)

2 Responses

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  1. Ed Richards said, on August 23, 2007 at 11:45 am

    While I would use model rather than map, I have been working on the same problem back to college years as well. I like the notion that photography fills in the map/model, it expresses what I have had a hard time explaining about my Katrina image project – by taking the pictures in an area I already knew something about, I think they are different from those of folks who passed through as journalists. By revisiting and reshooting the area for the past 18 months, I have learned a lot about it, which I hope also shows in the images.

    Thinking about beaches – I know a lot about beaches from biology and hydrology and fishing. I suspect that knowledge works with the photography, so that I am more comfortable taking beach pictures than I would be had I not had non-photography knowledge of beaches.

  2. Martin Doonan said, on August 24, 2007 at 1:33 am

    Interesting analogy. Not sure I agree, though. In map making terms, I see my experiences as the surveying and the photography as the cartography. For me, I go around experiencing the world and through photography bring that experience to tangible form. Certainly photography has enhanced the way I look at the world but it is not, or me, the way in which I experience it.


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