Musings on Photography

That’s not what we do.

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on May 1, 2008

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Andrew Ilachinski has an interesting post on his blog, Tao of Digital Photography, about this podcast from Brooks Jensen’s Lenswork podcast series.

Andrew summarizes:

Brooks Jensen, editor of Lenswork, recently posted a humorous podcast entitled “That’s Not What We Do” in which he recounts an incident while shooting in a park with a friend. He and photographer Joe Lipka were photographing at Fort Warden, WA. At some point, Joe went to the tourist center and got noticed by the woman at the service counter, who inquired about what he and Brooks were doing. Upon explaining that they were both photographers, the woman suggested they talk to the park manager, who was interested in buying some tourist shots to sell. Joe politely explained that neither he nor his other photographer friend take those kinds of pictures. Seeing that the woman was puzzled by his answer – after all, he is standing there with a bunch of camera equipment; what would all that gear be used for if not “taking pictures”? – Joe offered a the following line (that I suspect is familiar to most fine-art photographers placed in a similar situation): “We make pictures that don’t look like pictures of what we’re taking pictures of.” I only wish I were there to see the look of confusion on the poor woman’s face!

I guess it’s funny. I’ll admit I’m not so sure the joke isn’t on the photographers, though.

Here’s the deal from my point of view. I see three points that Lipka made:

  1. We’re artists. We do stuff that doesn’t look like what you expect. That’s what makes it art.
  2. You and the park manager aren’t artists. We know what you want, and you don’t want art, and you wouldn’t understand what we do because we’re artists and you’re not supposed to understand it.
  3. We think the fact that our behavior confused you demonstrates that you’re an inferior person. (if you listen to the podcast, note that Jensen called the worker at the customer service desk a ‘gal’ and listen for his patronizing chuckle.)

Wow. Even more amazing to me, Jensen seems to think the entire episode is funny, which given Jensen’s views on making art at Real People Prices strikes me as hard to understand.

Is art photography really limited to photographs that don’t look the things they’re photographs of? Is it really true that that’s not what we do? I don’t think so.

Why did Jensen’s friend think that the park manager wouldn’t be interested in their art? If I were a park manager, and people were making art in my park, I would want to see the art. I might want to display the art in the visitor center. I might want to have a permanent collection of the art, at the park. If I were a park manager and liked the park I managed, I might want to buy art made in the park or about the park in my own art collection.

But no. Jensen’s friend decided (and Jensen apparently agreed), without any evidence at all, that the art they made wasn’t what the park manager wanted. It’s as if they’re defining art as “stuff nobody would want”. And they view this attitude, constructed entirely in their minds and quite probably wrong, as a good reason to laugh at the confusion they generated in this park employee who was, perhaps, trying to clue them in to the fact that the park manager might want to look at their art.

No wonder people think artists are a bunch of arrogant jerks who look at the rest of humanity with sneering condescension. People think that about artists because, in fact, some artists are arrogant jerks who look at the rest of humanity with sneering condescension.

No wonder there’s no market for art, and the general populace doesn’t care about art. Artists have defined what they do as ‘stuff no one would care about’.

Jensen and his friend had the chance to take the artistic risk of being understood. They chickened out. All they did instead was confirm everyone’s worst stereotype of the arrogant artist. Everyone came out a loser.

It just makes me want to say bad words.

12 Responses

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  1. Steve Carl said, on May 1, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Paul,
    I don’t know about Brooks Jenson but I have made a living from art photography for 30+ years and I NEVER turn down the opportunity to show my work to someone who asks to see it. I carry “leave behind” cards with a photo and my contact info at all times, just for opportunities like that.
    The last time I was asked about my work by a park manager it resulted in a show and a article in the local paper. Why anyone turn that down just to be able to exercise their inflated ego and make another individual feel like less of a person I do not know.
    Steve

  2. Mike Mundy said, on May 1, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    There are two disparate worlds at work here, which can (loosely) be categorized as the world of the “gallery” photographer and that of the “art fair” photographer.
    The “gallery” photographer, based on the target audience, really needs to be seen as original above all else. Taken to the extreme, it results in the works of Sherrie Levine. From the NYT:
    –As she does in her work, Ms. Levine most often answered questions not directly but by analogy and reference to writers and artists other than herself.
    –When asked, for instance, how one of her signature works, a photograph of a photograph of a Dust Bowl Depression family by Walker Evans, was any more original than a writer who sits down and copies ”Moby-Dick” line for line, she quickly brightened and referred to a story by Jorge Luis Borges in which a writer named Pierre Menard rewrites ”Don Quixote” line for line.
    (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DE6D61631F931A2575AC0A961948260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all)
    The “art fair” photographer, on the other hand, is presumably more empathetic towards his or her target audience. This is not a question of the visual sophistication of one’s market, just, I think, of the attitude one takes towards that market.

  3. rvewong said, on May 1, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    Well said.

  4. Chris said, on May 1, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    Brooks, and Lenswork, become increasingly irrelevant with every issue (especially around the time last year when it became the “Brooks and Friends show!”). It’s too bad, because the history of Lenswork is full of good work.

  5. Gordon McGregor said, on May 2, 2008 at 6:44 am

    I used to subscribe to lenswork, myself. Found it was becoming less and less related to my experience with photography so haven’t bothered resubscribing.

    I still listen to the podcasts, but don’t get much from them any more. It all seems to have lost its way a shade, or maybe just stayed where it has always been and I’ve moved away.

    I remember listening to that particular podcast and thinking it seemed somewhat superior and silly at the same time.

  6. andy ilachinski said, on May 2, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Whoa…! You’ve certainly managed to inject a great deal of negativity and more than a modicum of (implied) arrogance to what was meant as a whimsical (and, if anything, self-deprecatory) comment about a common photographic experience. Why all the negativity? I certainly didn’t get that from listening to Brooks’ podcast. He was pocking fun of himself; not mocking anyone. I am curious as to where you get that impression. Neither the podcast nor my little summary (nor the words I add to the story on my blog) as meant to be consumed as “deep philosophy” or meaningful social commentary. Both are – no more, no less – lighthearted attempts to inject a bit of humor in describing what we do as photographers. It may not be what the *reader* does as a photographer; it may not be what *you* do as a photographer, but that was never implied; the story was offered “as is”, a simple peek into a “funny little moment” in the lives of several photographers. Gosh, lighten up people…its a story, not a diatribe about how anyone who “does not do what we do” is somehow not a photographer. I am truly bewildered as to how anyone would come to that conclusion reading this. In all seriousness, the ugly negatives drawn from such a humble, sincere little story have got me thinking about whether I want to even continue with a blog (seriously). My intent is to inject a bit of humor and have some fun with what I consider I wonderful, beautiful artform. The world is filled to the brim with negativity already. If innocent vignettes such as this can be interpreted in this light (as apparently they can, and have been), I submit that its just not worth it (for me).

  7. Paul Butzi said, on May 2, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    Why all the negativity? I certainly didn’t get that from listening to Brooks’ podcast. He was pocking fun of himself; not mocking anyone. I am curious as to where you get that impression.

    Well, I got that impression from listening to the podcast. I got that impression overwhelmingly. I still get that impression after reading your comment and going back and listening to the podcast again. Judging from the email I’ve gotten from folks who felt the same way about that podcast, I’d say that a fair number of people felt the same way.

    Can different people listen to the same podcast and come away with different interpretations? I’m absolutely certain it happens all the time. You have your view. I have mine. That’s the way it is in the real world.

    In all seriousness, the ugly negatives drawn from such a humble, sincere little story have got me thinking about whether I want to even continue with a blog (seriously). My intent is to inject a bit of humor and have some fun with what I consider I wonderful, beautiful artform. The world is filled to the brim with negativity already. If innocent vignettes such as this can be interpreted in this light (as apparently they can, and have been), I submit that its just not worth it (for me).

    I think unless you’re open to the idea that people will disagree with you, sometimes strongly, you’re going to find putting your opinions out in public view frustrating.

    I read your comment, thought “Ok, maybe he’s right and I’m wrong. I’ll go listen to the podcast again.” And I listened to it (twice), and decided “Nope. I still feel the same way”.

    Want me to change my mind? Tell me WHERE I’m wrong. Telling me that I’m wrong and you’re right is unpersuasive. Telling me that it’s not the odious condescending story I interpret it to be without offering evidence to support that assertion is unpersuasive. Telling me that my disagreement with your position makes you feel bad, adds negativity to a world already supped full with horrors, and makes you want to quit blogging – likewise unpersuasive.

    One question – you wrote “I only wish I were there to see the look of confusion on the poor woman’s face!” Perhaps you could explain why you wish you could have been present to revel in this woman’s confusion – and how your desire isn’t based on wanting to enjoy her discomfort in a situation caused by the deliberately unhelpful, condescending, and sneering response Lipka gave to her suggestion, when she only wanted to be helpful. If you want to talk about negativity, I think we might profitably start right there.

  8. Derek said, on May 3, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Lenswork is becoming irrelevant? I don’t know where you’re coming from but around here in our photographic community it is the most commonly referenced as the place that people want to get exposure in.

    I just took a look at Waddingham’s photos from Ethiopia in Extended #73 last night and was blown away. I certainly don’t agree with every choice Jensen makes about who’s portfolios deserve to be published, but he most consistently finds stuff that amazes me more than any other publication out there.

  9. Robert Hoehne said, on May 4, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    For me the podcast did not seem negative until I read this post and thought, well maybe Paul is right.
    On listening to the posdacst and reading this and Andy’s post again I still feel the story was meant as a light hearted one but I do agree that a moment to explain and possibly show work was sadly missed.

  10. Martin Doonan said, on May 6, 2008 at 5:19 am

    Hmmm, haven\t listened to Brooks’ podcast but have read Andrew’s post. My take: Brooks friend missed a potential commercial opportunity with what does appear to be an arrogant attitude. I also get a similar feeling (maybe not as strong as arrogance) from Andrew: some subjects are beneath him, apparantly. I hope in years to come he isn’t disappointed he missed capturing family moments with the shots that are “too sissy” for him.

    I agree with you, Paul, photographers with this sort of attitude are missing an opportunity to connect to others. It might have been better if Jensen & Lipka had tried to explain a bit more straightforawrdly. There seem to be so many less condescending means to approach this situation than that taken.

  11. andrew ilachinski said, on May 6, 2008 at 9:27 am

    Arrogance is (in part) presuming to know what motivates others to act, or what others “intended” to convey with their words and other forms of expression, and then stubbornly clinging to the erroneous opinion even when the “true” motivation is revealed by the author. I cannot be more sincere when I assert that my “motivation” in posting my blog entry was nothing other than to inject a bit of self-deprecating (mocking even) “humor” into what has for me) been an all-too-common experience. When *I* wrote at the end of my entry, “I only wish I were there to see the look of confusion on the poor woman’s face!” my intention was not to poke fun of the woman, but to *poke fun of myself (had I been there instead of Joe Lipka)*(!) from the point of view of the woman. By “poor woman” I was not making fun of her; I was asserting my own emrassment that she was, in fact, put into such an awkward situation in which a “pictures that don’t show the place they are taken”-attitude comes face to face with an innocent real-world expectation of “seeing pictures of a park.” BOTH people were obviously in their own respective worlds. The “humor” (what little of it reamins at this point) derives from taking detached view of those two worlds momentarily colliding. Neitehr individual is “right” or “wrong,” of course; they are both sincerely reacting to the social/artistic context within which they are most intuitively comfortable. What upsets me (about the meta-dialog) is the nasty tone predicated on the belief that Jensen (and, by implication, I) are somehow out to “make fun of the woman.” Speaking for myself, I can say that was the furthest thought from my mind. Indeed, as I’ve indicated above, my intent was to poke fun of the “photographer” (imagining it to be me), NOT the woman. Finally, to Martin, who writes, “some subjects are beneath him [meaning ME], apparantly. I hope in years to come he isn’t disappointed he missed capturing family moments with the shots that are “too sissy” for him.” Please don’t assume to know what photographs I take and do not take, or otherwise assert my activites when it regards taking pitures of my family. Obviously, you have no clue. And as for my “sissy” comment, exactly what do you think that little “wink” at the end of my blog entry meant if not “take this as a joke.” As I wrote up above, lighten up people. (Don’t worry, that’ll be the last comment you will see from me on this subject.)

  12. Paul Butzi said, on May 6, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    Arrogance is (in part) presuming to know what motivates others to act, or what others “intended” to convey with their words and other forms of expression

    Agreed. That’s why I think Lipka’s presumption of what is motivating the lady behind the customer service counter to suggest that he speak to the park manager, and Lipka’s presumption of what is motivating the park manager to look for photos of the park are both arrogant presumptions.

    For all Lipka knows, both the lady behind the customer service counter and the park manager are both working artists and are working to integrate art into the visitor center. If you think that’s not possible, I’d point out that when I mentioned that I did landscape photography to the folks at the local Starbucks, it turned out that all the Starbucks employees were eager to have me bring in a portfolio, and TWO of the employees in a chain coffee store in a small town in rural WA state were art students (one at Cornish, one at some other place I don’t recall) and were thrilled to have an extra chance to talk art. And when I brought in a portfolio case a little while later, it turned out that one of the customers I saw all the time was a watercolorist and we had a wonderful chat about lighting in the valley. And none of that would have happened if, when the barista said “You’re a photographer? Can I see some of your work sometime?” I had responded by saying “Oh, you wouldn’t really be interested. I don’t make photos that people would like, I’m a fine art photographer.”

    By “poor woman” I was not making fun of her; I was asserting my own emrassment that she was, in fact, put into such an awkward situation in which a “pictures that don’t show the place they are taken”-attitude comes face to face with an innocent real-world expectation of “seeing pictures of a park.” BOTH people were obviously in their own respective worlds.

    You see, this is where we disagree. My point here is that you STILL assume you know what this woman was looking for, and you STILL don’t see that it’s perfectly possible that both the woman and the park manager were interested in photos in general and not just in photos that met the criteria of ‘photos that look like the things they’re photos of’. That judgement, made by Lipka, by Jensen, and by you, has absolutely no support in the story as told by Jensen or retold by you.

    So not only do we not know if there were really two worlds colliding, here, but even if there were, one of the participants (the woman) appears to have been genuinely trying to be helpful and build a bridge between those two worlds, and the other participant (Lipka) was steadfastly and arrogantly rejecting that effort.

    When *I* wrote at the end of my entry, “I only wish I were there to see the look of confusion on the poor woman’s face!” my intention was not to poke fun of the woman, but to *poke fun of myself (had I been there instead of Joe Lipka)*(!) from the point of view of the woman.

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it. If that had been your intention I suspect you would have written something more along the lines of wishing you’d been there to witness Lipka’s confusion and inability to come up with an articulate response because you have felt the same embarassment he did. But that’s not what you wrote. What you wrote was that you wished you’d been there to witness the woman’s confusion.

    Even more to the point, if you’d written in amused sympathy that you wished you’d been there to witness Lipka’s confusion and inept response, I’d have written quite a different blog post in response.

    Neitehr individual is “right” or “wrong,” of course; they are both sincerely reacting to the social/artistic context within which they are most intuitively comfortable.

    Nonsense. You have absolutely no idea, none whatsoever, of what social/artistic context the lady behind the customer service counter finds most intuitively comfortable. For all you know, she’s a practicing abstract artist. And the fact that you think you know, a priori, what ‘social/artistic context’ in which this woman is most comfortable is the very thing that makes me think that my assessment is correct.


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