Musings on Photography

Measure for Measure, Act 1, scene 1

Posted in art is a verb, Blogroll by Paul Butzi on June 10, 2008


My mind has been spinning lately, and one particular subject has been at the center of the thinking. It all hinges, I suppose, on a question asked by Joe Reifer in a post I’ve already linked to. In that post, Joe was going on about how most of us, when we write our photography blogs and post our photos online, are just seeking the validation of having someone look at our work. Joe sums it up thus:

What many of us are really selling is artistic validation. If a photograph falls in the woods, and there’s nobody there to see it, does it make a sound? The answer to the great zen koan of why we make websites and blogs and post photos online is simply that we want people to say that they like our photos. This isn’t a great revelation, but I feel like nobody wants to say it out loud. Getting a pat on the back for something you created feels good. The Internet gives us a way to get that pat on the back. Some of us need it more than others.

(side note: I hope I was not the only one amused that Joe, a resident of Berkeley, California, would phrase his assertion by paraphrasing a question usually used to describe Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy of subjective idealism, namely “If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one to hear it fall, does it make a sound?” We will here not further diverge into a discussion of subjective idealism. Maybe later.)

Anyway, mostly my musings on this seem to do an end run around the Berkeley question, thus: Joe asks what happens if a photograph falls in the woods, and there’s no one to see it. And my reply would be “That’s perhaps an interesting philosophical question, but as a practical matter it never, ever happens.” What, never? No, never. What, never? No, never, and by that I don’t mean ‘hardly ever’.

It never happens because someone had to be there to contrive the exposure that lead to the photograph, and someone had to be there to bring that exposure from its latent state into some physical manifestation. And that someone not only was changed by the process, but they observed the final product.

I’m torn by this suggestion that what we really seek when we make photographs is some form of validation from others. Sure, you can go and read books like Taking the Leap: Building a Career as a Visual Artist by Cay Lang, or How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist, 5th ed.: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul by Caroll MIchels. Those books tell you, quite nicely, about how to get your work out there in front of people, and get it sold (which, I would point out, is pretty much the ultimate validation activity).

And you can go to big photo events, where Important People look over your carefully prepared portfolio of prints and then give you feedback on what you need to do next to Advance Your Art Career. Indeed, a fair number of blogs seem to be centered around how to improve your art with the goal of ascending a Ladder of Photographic Success.

I’m not objecting if someone can earn a living from their artistic work – I think that’s bully for them if they succeed. I’m wholeheartedly in support of people who turn their photography into a commercial success. Financially successful artists are a very good thing. I’m not at all averse to people wanting to improve their photography for whatever reason, either.

And I wholeheartedly feel that not only should we send our good work out into the world, but that we have an obligation to do so. As one clever fellow by the name of Wm. Shakespeare put it

Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike
As if we had them not.

And yet. And yet.

And yet, I have this nagging feeling in a back corner of my brain that tells me that such sharing isn’t the entire story. I have the firm conviction that we can be successful photographers even if we hide our light under a bushel. Or, to put it more clearly, we might try to hide our light under a bushel (by, say, putting our prints in a box, and putting the box in the coat closet and never showing the prints to anyone) but in the end the process of making those prints has changed us for the better, and that even if we try to arrange things so that our virtues do not go forth of us, it is most assuredly not all alike as if we had them not.

I have made, and doubtless will make in the future, photographs which I will never willingly share with anyone, ever. And I have made and will make photographs which I will show only to certain people, and even then only with great reluctance. Those private photos are a sort of self-exploration – a sort of experiment – and I don’t think they weren’t worth making simply because only one person in the entire history of humanity will have seen them. The making of those photos was important to me, and no further justification is needed or possible. They help me be a better me. Although indirectly, those photos help make the world a better place.

So I am still steadfast in my desire to make the work not to send it out into the world, but instead to make the work so that I’m making work. Having done that, I can make a decision about whether I want to share it, or not. In some cases I’ll share. In some cases, not.

In that way, I can be the one who controls how much I’m making the photos for me, and how much I’m making them in some sort of validation seeking maneuver. And, when I share the work I’ve done that way, I find that strangely the value of the feedback I get is changed in subtle but important ways. I’m not very interested in “Wow, great photo, love those colors!!! :-)” and I’m hugely interested in feedback along the lines of “I looked at your photos and wondered if you’d seen the work of Joe Whatshisname, who is currently doing work which has a similar feel in Alberta.” For me it isn’t so much about validation as it is about connection.

And as for using special tactics to get your work in front of the right eyes, to get it into museums and such – that was once something I went after, and now it seems it isn’t. I guess my feeling now is to send the work out into the world, and trust that the right thing will happen. If it makes you famous, great. If not, well, that’s not the only validation in the world. Or, as our friend Wm. continued:

Spirits are not finely touch’d
but to fine issues, nor Nature never lends
the smallest scruple of her excellence
but, like a thrifty goddess, she determines
herself the glory of a creditor
both thanks and use.

6 Responses

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  1. rvewong said, on June 10, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    I hope the “Act 1 Scene 1” means that there is more coming.

    Joe Reifer summation definitly is only a peep.
    While your start Paul, is definitly more meaty.

    I’m positive there is more to the story of photography blogs and online photos. A couple of items that leap to mind are biography, posterity, journal, creation, experimentation.

    And then there is, It’s not done till it’s done. Just thinking it of the picture, or pressing the shutter has not completed your objective. SoFoBoMo might be an example.

  2. Joe Reifer said, on June 10, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    rvewong – another way of saying “it’s not done till it’s done” is “it’s not done until I’ve shared it on the Internet.” This statement is in no way pejorative, but you’ve unwittingly agreed with my thesis.

  3. Martin Doonan said, on June 11, 2008 at 2:24 am

    “It’s not done till it’s done” is another way of saying “it’s not donme till I have a print in my hand”, I don’t have to show it to you (or anyone else) and thus I disagree with your thesis.

    What I’m getting at is there are many subsets of “it’s not done till it’s done”, only a few of which support the validation thesis.

  4. Michael Allen said, on June 11, 2008 at 2:28 am

    Very interesting discussion. My principal interest is in writing fiction, rather than photography, and a while back I wrote a piece about ambition in writers which is equally relevant, I think, to the discussion about ‘validation’ for photography.

    In the writing field, there are a great many people who have made themselves very unhappy, to the point of inflicting psychological and even physical damage on themselves, and all in the cause of Uncle Bill’s ‘vaulting ambition’. This may not be the smartest thing they have ever done.

  5. My Camera World said, on June 11, 2008 at 7:02 am

    Paul I like your mussing today, in fact most days.

    There are all sorts of reasons that people undertake photography blogs.

    I think for most of them it is to share with other a way of telling stories.

    When I tell stories or jokes I do like to get responses from the people around me. It means you are connecting, part of the tribe.

    Images are like stories and I would believe the same would apply.

    There are those who I met, not often, who can only live by telling grandiose stories about themselves and the same should apply to images.

    For me an image is only finished when I think it is, Not all of my images are destined for print. There are a few that will now only works on a screen.

    Niels Henriksen

  6. Bryan Willman said, on June 18, 2008 at 10:36 am

    In but a few billion years, the Sun will die and the Earth will die with it.
    So in the hyper long term, there is no point to anything.

    But for this afternoon? The camera is NOT an eyeball. More like a microscope, a window, a mirror, perhaps a guide, all rolled up. One often sees things in photos that one did not “really see” in life, even though one was looking at the exact scene at the exact moment.
    (And I think stills are more powerful that video in this regard.)

    So that alone, that different and at times more powerful way of looking, that alone is enough, if one chooses, at least for this afternoon.

    As for validation, sure, all of us need some amount of it at least some of the time (money), and what could possible be wrong with seeking an audience of people who are interested in what you do? In short, maybe it sometimes is about validation of some kind, and so what, what’s less than wonderful about that?

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