Musings on Photography

Art, Scope, and Comparisons

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on March 9, 2008

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Lately I’ve caught myself looking at other people’s photography and getting depressed. I look at their great, interesting photography, and I think to myself “Jeepers, Paul. Why are you bothering? Your photos are horrible, and theirs are great.” That’s not good, and it’s probably related to my recent dry spell, and from reading other blogs it seems I’m not alone in this particular misbehavior.

And, it would seem, it’s not anything new. Mr. Shakespeare used that exact train of thought when he wanted to describe someone in the deepest possible funk:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least…

This man’s art, and that man’s scope, indeed. These are words with which I can wholeheartedly identify. It occurs to me, not for the first time, that this Shakespeare fellow had somewhat more than a clue about the human condition.

Anyway, it seems to me that this business of my comparing my work (or you comparing your work) to that of others is a sneaky trap, lying in wait to catch us at our weakest moments. It’s a trap because implicit in the comparison is the assumption that we’re making a decision to make our art instead of that other guy’s art. That’s not the way it works.

However much we might like to, we can’t make the art another person makes. We can only make the art we make. As I’ve said before, we can’t do otherwise. We don’t get to decide whether to make our own art or someone else’s; the only thing we get to decide is whether to make our art, or not make art at all. If your artistic abilities are limited and you’re looking at the work of someone whose abilities seem unlimited, this seems like a raw deal, because it is. However, it’s still the only game in town, and we’re better off playing the game than sitting down and just feeling bad. We just have to suck it up and take Teddy Roosevelt’s advice that we should “do what we can, with what we have, where we are.”

9 Responses

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  1. Anita Jesse said, on March 9, 2008 at 9:55 am

    As is so often the case, your words inspire, instruct, and clarify. I may print this one out and put it up in my soon-to-be studio. Thank you.

  2. Paul said, on March 9, 2008 at 10:37 am

    Great post, Paul. We are our own worst critics. I frequently deal in this self-flagellation, less frequently than in previous years, though, but it’s still present. You are, of course, correct, we can only do what we can do with what we have.

    The joyous part comes when we accept who we are and love ourselves just the same. 🙂

  3. Bill said, on March 9, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Very thoughtful post.

    Excellent picture by the way, I like it’s lines and the relationship between the armrest and its shadow, against the background of the chairs material.

    Really good. Thanks..

  4. BeppeRdam said, on March 10, 2008 at 1:40 am

    I can only agree to this great words. Yesterday I posted something quite related. My only doubt is about what is art. I don’t know, I’m not an artist. Maybe art is different for everybody, so everything is art for someone? I belive what really matter is keep enjoying in what we do even if it is not called art.

  5. Rylee said, on March 10, 2008 at 10:35 am

    I can identify!

    I haven’t done any serious photography for almost a year.

    The problem is that I photograph almost exclusively wildlife and landscape, and I live in a large city without access to personal transportation. The other problem is that I work best alone – completely alone. City parks don’t have that feature. The logistics of getting anywhere that inspires me to make my art is tricky. Possible, but downright intimidating. I’m not one for making elaborate plans and am somewhat adverse to the idea.

    I imagine my best bet would be to either get a car, or move somewhere more suitable to my artistic goals. In time, I hope to do one or the other.

    Nice post! It certainly helps the mood and gets me thinking about how to solve this dilemma.

  6. My Camera World said, on March 11, 2008 at 7:35 am

    Art is a strange bedfellow in our lives.

    It amazes me, yet I probably will never be able to solve it as psychiatry is too expensive.

    I have a hard times excepting many of my images as being good. When I look at others of a similar genre I like them, but I have a hard time really liking mine. Other who view these images like them.

    My favourite images tend not to be the favourite of others. I like image that have beautiful tones and have lots of looking room and detail (where needed) through out the iamge.

    I sometimes wonder and I see this with competition judging our Pop culture of things needing to be over-the-top is not becoming to pervasive in our society.

    As an example I just posted some image for an experiment I did. I felt a bit embarrassed about posting them (I was able to find a little something interesting in a few) and yet here are people who do really enjoy some of them.

    I wish I could easily except these types of images as being good enough.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful articles.

    Niels Henriksen.

  7. Rylee said, on March 11, 2008 at 10:31 am

    My Camera World,

    Your hesitance to accept/showcase images you feel don’t make the cut yet others seem to love is something I’ve experienced as well. I think we have to be critical of our own work in order to continue to improve. I wonder, though, if one can be too critical.

    Every Christmas for a few years now, I’ve been giving 11×17 framed prints to family. This year, because they knew it was coming anyway, I let them pick a photo. The one that was selected – a rather cliche photo of a seascape at sundown with a seabird in the upper left, was chosen. I still believe it barely makes the cut to be shown publicly, and yet it seemed the most popular.

    This might warrant a blog topic of its own: how self-critical is too self-critical? It is correct to self-censor our work that we are not terribly fond of, yet others seem to love? If an artist’s work tells us something about that artist, perhaps by withholding their less favorite works, they are telling an incomplete story.

  8. Two Books « Musings on Photography said, on March 17, 2008 at 10:59 am

    […] incredible great vision to quote the very passage of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 that I quoted here, and express much the same sentiment as I did. How brilliant is […]

  9. ‘My Outcast State’ « charla.ca said, on April 16, 2008 at 8:52 am

    […] you get that quote read this post. I was in that place a while, fortunately I’m not anymore.  I just recently found the […]


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