Musings on Photography

Lots of photos

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on May 21, 2008

One of the things I learned from my SoFoBoMo experience is that, at least for right now, I’m mostly interested in exploring what happens when you make a lot of photos of something. I made some 800 exposures for the book I did. That might not be a lot of photos for some folks. It’s a lot for me.

And while I’ve done things with larger numbers of ‘final’ photos, the 43 photos that ended up in the book is a pretty large number for me as well. Editing 800 photos down to 43, sequencing them, and laying it all out with text was a hugely enlightening learning experience.

This all feels like an extension of the direction I’ve been heading photographically for a while now. More and more the individual photos seem to matter less and less, and I’m increasingly interested in the way sets of photos work as a whole, and in how making a lot of photographs (and more particularly, sequences of photographs) lets me discern things that are hard to detect when you make just a few photos.

So I was really interested to read this post on George Barr’s blog, where he writes

These days, many editors require photographic projects, a unifying theme to the images, some times even to the point of accepting weaker images just because they fit with the theme, even when the photographer may well have dozens of stronger images at home which will remain unseen because they aren’t part of a project.

I certainly understand why an editor would do this. The publication looks better when all the images from one photographer are from a single project or at least theme. The ability to produce dozens of strong images on a single topic says a lot about the abilities of the photographer.

I would point out however that many of our greatest photographers did not work this way much or all of the time. Pepper # 30 is much loved. Ever see Peppers 1 – 29. I suppose you could include Edward Weston’s other vegetable images but I have only ever seen fewer than a dozen vegetable images from him – ie. good enough to be published. That won’t even get you in the door of Lenswork, for example.

I understand what he means. You take a book, cut out the pages, and start going through the images one by one, and some are images that stand on their own, and others are images that don’t. We tend to think about images that stand on their own as ‘strong’, and images that don’t as ‘weak’.

And I’m increasingly unsure about that. Sure, if you’re going to take that image, and hang it alone on a bare wall with nothing else around it – just that one image – then this is a good metric for image strength. But if you’re an artist and you’re putting together a book length photographic project, it seems to me that insisting that every image pass this test is sort of like composing a sonata and insisting that every beat of every measure stand alone. The art isn’t just in the individual notes, it’s in the relationship between the notes as well. And so for a longer photographic project, the art isn’t just in the individual photos, which happened to get gathered together as a publishing convenience. The art is also in the relationships between the photos. In that sense, talking about strong images and weak ones seems beside the point. It makes a lot more sense to talk about images being successful in advancing the effort of the project.

There was a time when the idea of assembling, say, 100 photos as part of a single project was beyond my imagination. I worked with a view camera, and film and processing costs alone made such efforts prohibitively expensive in both time and money. One of the things I did when I switched to a digital camera was to embark on a project where I deliberately set out to photograph much more profligately – to go out and just let it rip. And at the same time I tried to let go of the idea of making every image stand on its own, and instead just made the photos and then afterwards tried to sort through them and see what I ended up with.

That project was experimental for me in a lot of different ways, but one of the things I was trying to touch on was how the relatively low per exposure cost of a digital workflow might affect not just how we work but what sorts of projects we can tackle and what different forms of artistic expression become achievable. In the end the project sort of drifted to a stop after some 2500 exposures and some 90 images in the ‘in’ category.

Part of that project was to deliberately let go of worrying about how good individual images were and instead focus on thinking of images as successful if they seemed to lead to new understandings of things or led to ideas of where the project might go next. That is, rather than consider a photograph successful if people looked at it and said “Wow, I want to buy a print”, I felt that an image was successful if it seemed to help me move toward making the next image.

5 Responses

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  1. gordonmcgregor said, on May 21, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    I’m not so musical, but the comparison that springs to mind is more literary. I don’t expect every paragraph of a book to be equally important or powerful. In fact, such a book would be a heady rush of experience, quite possibly lacking proper pacing and time for reflection.

    Certainly it should be edited down to remove the cruft and filler, but balance is still needed, not all loner, powerful lonesome pictures, but an ebb and flow to the relationship of the images.

  2. Martin Doonan said, on May 22, 2008 at 2:38 am

    This was the sort of thing I was exploring in putting together my “Kristiansund” book – sequences, matching, flow etc etc. The thing that got me, wasn’t just that a few weaker shots need to go in, and then work well as part of a whole but also that some really good stuff had to go. If it didn’t fit with the flow or themes or format etc then a stand-alond hit could actually detract from the whole.
    That has led me to think a little differently about how I now approach shooting for projects I have on the go. I don’t just look for the good stuff, but the stuff that fits with the given theme. Like you, that tends to mean a whole lot more frames exposed.

  3. rvewong said, on May 24, 2008 at 8:58 am

    Very nicely put Paul, your words bring to the front many of the things I’ve been doing for a long time without knowing it. Now that I’m conscious of it maybe I will do it better or worse we’ll see.

  4. […] May 24 by rvewong I’ve been following Paul Butzis’ experiences with his SoFoBoMo project partly because he seems to be able to put into words some of […]

  5. Sean said, on May 24, 2008 at 10:01 am


    This is possibly off-topic, but one thing that I’d love to see you add to the SoFoBoMo site is a section on self-publishing. Specifically, a roundup of what are good PoD outfits, which have the best quality, which are easiest to use, etc. I find this to be the most confusing part of SoFoBoMo.

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