Musings on Photography

A Sort of Experiment

Posted in art is a verb by Paul Butzi on June 11, 2008

Long ago and far away, Gordon McGregor suggested that an interesting exercise would be to go out photographing, and at the end of the session, just discard all the images without looking at them. I’m not necessarily agreeing with Gordon that this is the logical extension of my Art is a Verb idea. I’m just saying that Gordon had this idea, and that perhaps you might want to go and reread that post so as to refresh your memory.

I am still puzzling over Joe Reifer’s validation ideas. Part of my struggle is that in many ways, I agree with Joe, and the rest of my struggle is that in many ways I most definitely don’t. The good news is that Joe’s excellent post has me thinking hard about this stuff, I guess.

When I first read Gordon’s post, I was all excited. I was going to try it, I told myself. I’d just have a cup of tea to warm me up, and then I’d grab the camera with a big CF card and recharged batteries, and I’d head out and take a lot of photos, and then I’d just wipe the card.

But by the end of the cup of tea, my naturally retentive nature had reasserted itself. I’ve articulated in the past what I think are persuasive reasons for never deleting anything, ever. Storage is cheap. You never know what the value of something is until much later. And so on, and so on. In the end, Gordon’s proposal remained firmly in the realm of Gedanken Experiment.

Nevertheless, last night as I was falling asleep, my mind fused Gordon’s ideas and Joe’s ideas, and I wondered what it would be like to go out, make a lot of photos, and commit to never showing them to anyone. You can look at them as much as you please. You can make prints. You just can’t show the work to anyone else, ever.

How is this different from Gordon’s ‘delete the images without looking at them’? For me, there’s a lot of work that happens with images after I make the exposure. I learn a lot from images while I’m selecting which ones to print. I learn a lot from each image I run through my editing workflow to a final print. I certainly learn stuff while I’m making exposures, but I also learn stuff while making prints.

And in fact, lately it seems that I’ve been getting most of my payoff from photography before I share the images with anyone else. There was a time when I routinely shared a large portion of all the photography I did with a small group of people, every other week. But since that group and I diverged, I’ve been more and more doing it on my own. That’s been a big adjustment, and motivation is definitely a lot harder.

But it seems to me that performing this little experiment would tell you a lot about where you’re getting the payoff in your photography. If you make a bunch of photos with the commitment that you won’t share them, and you feel the same as you usually do, you’re pretty much generating your own rewards. If you make a bunch of photos and you feel a significant loss when you want to share them, then you’re probably getting a lot of validation from others.

I’m not saying that one way is good, and the other way is bad. I’m just observing that we don’t seem to all share the same motivations, and often when that happens it’s helpful to be clear with yourself about what it is that’s generating the rewards for you. If nothing else, it can save you from burning a lot of time, energy, and money on activities which aren’t going to feel very rewarding.

12 Responses

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  1. Sean said, on June 12, 2008 at 10:45 am

    A couple of times a friend and I have gone out and made images. At the end of the shoot we swap memory cards and each takes possession — permanently — of the other’s images. It’s a fun way to see how someone else follows your creative lead.

  2. Sean said, on June 12, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Follow up note…

    Here’s a sample image. My friend Ray created the images, I looked at them and saw Alfred Hitchcock. Literally. So I composited the images:

    Ray didn’t see anything like this when he captured the images and he was disappointed with them. He figured I would just discard them. He was pleasantly surpirsed to get one image he liked back.

  3. Joe Reifer said, on June 12, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Deletion would really be a tough test for me, too. How about shooting, not reviewing at all, and having someone hold the memory card for a set period of time. I can work on more details of turning this exercise into reality if anyone is game.

  4. Derek said, on June 12, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    The way I see it, if you bring a camera with intentions of deleting your pics, you can always chicken out at the end and keep them.

    So, sometimes I practise an “extreme” version of Gordon’s challenge… I leave the house with no camera whatsoever!

  5. Doug Stockdale said, on June 12, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Reminds me of my early photo days when film and processng was relatively expensive with our limited budget, so I would ‘dry’ shoot, e.g. use the camera as though I had film in it.

    Which leads into seeing and looking, camera or not.

  6. Frank Armstrong said, on June 13, 2008 at 3:25 am

    All this talk about setting task to “test/question” yourself as if you are trying to find out if your are making meaningful images seems like idle hands talk. Like Derek, I leave the house all the time without a camera and feel no hint of nakedness. I learned long ago there are more images to made than I will ever get around to making. Hell, my finger won’t go up/down on the shutter button any more long before I run out of images. And this devising exercises to test you “Photoing*” ability bring to mind Jim Brandenburg’s 90 day experiment: only one image each day (pushing the shutter button just once) for 90 days, and having it be a meaningful image. His book, “Chased by the Light, A 90-Day Journey” is pretty interesting.


  7. Frank Armstrong said, on June 13, 2008 at 3:29 am

    * — Photoing — a term devised by my friend, Billie Mercer, meaning any and all thing having to do with photography.

  8. Ed Richards said, on June 14, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    > I’ve articulated in the past what I think are persuasive reasons for never deleting anything, ever.

    Is this just images that you save? Is there a really big ball of twine somewhere?:-)

  9. julie said, on June 16, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Paul – I did the same thing, in february. Resolved not to show anyone what i was shooting for four weeks, and I enjoyed it that much, it lasted a few weeks longer! I don’t think it changed how I shoot, but it changed my perspective slightly – I should have a bit of a think about it in more detail and post a post-mortem report…

  10. Gordon McGregor said, on June 17, 2008 at 8:38 am

    I did mention this was a thought experiment, didn’t I?

  11. Bryan Willman said, on June 18, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Actually, I did a version of this very thing for many years, with great consistency and at great expense.

    I shot *lots* of film, which had processed, and then stored (and still store) in a hyper disorganized way all over my house.

    I would have to say that this is not nearly as good an exercise as shooting lots of frames, and then looking at them on a big monitor. Whether things get better after that (printing, showing, etc) depends on lots of other issues.

  12. Gordon Fraser said, on July 31, 2008 at 3:40 am

    When I first read Gordon McGregors idea I kept thinking of Garry Winogrand who died with thousands of rolls of film undeveloped and even more unedited pictures. This is really in line with your thoughts Paul. OK he didn’t throw the film away but it seems he never had any intention of developing, let alone showing them. Watching interviews and video clips of him you can see that he got his kick out of pressing the shutter button, he openly admitted that he didn’t understand why people bought his work and it was only really to put food on the table that he showed and sold his work.

    Other famous photographers display a similar nonchalence to showing their work, listen to interviews with Henri Cartier-Bresson and he too couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about and seemed to be totally focused on making and capturing the image with complete disregard for showing it afterwards.

    Surely it is only this sort of selfless, care free mentality that allows us to be truly original.

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