Musings on Photography


Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on January 3, 2008

Lately I’ve been doing some reading about image permanence. If we believe the results that Henry Wilhelm is publishing, the prints I make on my Hp Z3100 will last 200 years before visible fading. 200 years is a long time.

Anyway, that got my thinking about how my feelings about photography change as we make the lifespan of prints vary dramatically. How would you feel about your photographs if you knew that the prints would last forever? How would you feel differently if the prints you made would only last a month? A week? Five minutes? Thirty seconds? I don’t think I’d feel too much differently about photography if my prints lasted forever. They last longer than I’ll be alive already. Extending the time beyond my death doesn’t make much difference to me.

At first, I thought that if my prints would only last a few seconds, I’d not be very interested. But suppose I could make a print, put it in an envelope, and send it to someone. When they opened the envelope, the print would last 30 seconds. Would I make prints and send them to people? I very well might.

There are lots of art forms where the artwork gets made, and the instant it’s made, it’s gone. Musicians perform live, and unless some step is taken to preserve the performance, when it’s done, the only thing left is in the memory of the audience. Likewise theater, and dance. And yet, somehow, music, theatre, and dance are all vibrantly alive.

Those art forms are such that, to a large extent, the rewards of artmaking as artmaking, are in this ephemeral performance. Sure, if you’re a playwright, there’s the completed script – but that’s mostly interesting as a mechanism to reach the performance – a play can be viewed as literature (e.g. Shakespeare) but it really isn’t the same as a live performance. And, in some cases nonimprovisational theater is made without a script (see the works of Mary Zimmerman, who develops play during the rehearsal process, starting without a script – I’ve seen a number of her plays, and her work is so incredibly good that I recently traveled to Berkeley, CA just to see a performance of Argonautica. It was well worth the trip.)

Back when I was learning to use a view camera, I burned up a lot of Polaroid material. It was great fun. Because I typically didn’t bother to coat the prints, the prints have all faded horribly. But that doesn’t change how much fun and how much I learned from making those photographs.

There’s no conclusion here. It just struck me as interesting.

2 Responses

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  1. paul said, on January 3, 2008 at 10:21 am

    Paul, I think that you touched on the central point here when you said: “But that doesn’t change how much fun and how much I learned from making those photographs”.

    For me, photography is strictly about fun. If I sell a few prints, that’s cool. If those prints last 200 years, which greatly exceeds my life expectancy, that’s cool too; however, the one thing that remains is the fun that I had shooting. As in many things, it’s the journey that is exciting, not the destination.

  2. Mike said, on January 3, 2008 at 10:23 am

    A thought surely. I make and mount prints, have them framed and hang them on my walls. I find art is there to decorate, too, and the effort I put into the work should be reflected in its longevity.
    (I aldo believe we should each decorate our caves ourselves.) I’ve pieces hanging in bright areas that are 20+ years old and still look good. I don’t think a faded print would give me much pleasure. Having said that, polaroid photography is a real gas — whether or not you coat the prints!

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