Musings on Photography

Subtle

Posted in art is a verb, process, the art world by Paul Butzi on August 20, 2008

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I’m fundamentally a mystic. That is, I believe that we perceive only a very shallow, flat projection of a very deep and rich reality. At the same time, I’m very much a pragmatist; I believe that things which cannot be detected are, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. If it doesn’t have any impact on you, then you may as well act as if it isn’t there.

In my mind the resolution of these somewhat opposite viewpoints lies in subtlety. I think that much of the richness and depth to reality is hidden to our direct observation, and that in order to appreciate it, we need to use non-sensory tools like reason to help us pick things apart so that we can apprehend them in terms we understand. I’ve talked before about how one of the reasons I’m coming to feel that making a lot of photos of something is that in making lots of photos you start to discern things you’d otherwise miss.

Subtlety, it turns out, is a topic which Doug Stockdale tackles in his recent post. In that post, he points to a review of a show which says:

Among the most haunting and beautiful photographs are Belgian Bart Michiel’s present-day images of World War I battlefields, now cleansed of all evidence of the horrors that went on there.

Pumpkins grow in furrowed rows in the tiny Belgian village of Goudberg, where thousands of soldiers died in the mud in the battle for Passchendaele.

The image is one of three in the show from Michiel’s “Course of History” series, picturing battle sites dating from before the birth of Christ up to Omaha Beach. The Nelson’s selections all focus on World War I.

Although nature has reclaimed these sites, Michiel is on the alert for ghosts. By his own account he seeks out “happenstance traces and features on the land that refer metaphorically to combat.”

The tractor tracks that cut through the mist-shrouded field shown in “Verdun 1916, Le Mort Homme” (2001) evoke the tanks that rolled through the area during the Battle of Verdun.

Subtlety is one of this exhibit’s strong suits.

Now, I’m a fan of subtlety. It’s part of my world view. For me, photography as a pastime is all about using photography as a tool to pierce the veil of subtley and come to grips with that deeper, richer reality that we can’t connect with in more direct ways.

So you’d think I’d be enthusiastic about these photos. I don’t know; I haven’t seen them. But there’s something that makes me wary, and it’s the question of where the subtlety is coming from.

Did Michiel go to these battlefields knowing the history of the place, and look for traces and features that refer metaphorically to combat? Or did he go to these places and make photographs, and after having made the photographs come to find that many (or most, or the ones he liked) contained these features, and upon examining the features come to some understanding that the features were in some sense references to the combat that occurred on that spot?

From a photographic object point of view, I can’t see that it much matters. There’s no objective test you can apply to a photograph that will allow you to discover the photographer’s intent. At that point, there’s just the photograph, and the viewer having the experience of seeing the photo. The experience of the photographer, if it’s presented at all, is boiled down to some elliptical text in the artist statement.

Nevertheless, from the photographer’s point of view, it’s a world of difference. It’s the difference between going out into the world with a camera, hoping that by using the camera you can (if you’re quite lucky) tease some understanding of things out of a cunningly subtle world, and going out into the world with a statement in mind, planning to hammer reality into the shape needed to express that statement.

It turns out that as time goes on I’m more and more interested in the former and less and less interested in the latter. I’m not saying that’s the right way to tackle things. I’m just saying that it seems to be the way I’m put together, and the more I come to accept it instead of change the way I am, the more contented I am. And I’m also saying that if you happen to put together in the same quirky way, well, you’re not the only one.

6 Responses

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  1. Juha Haataja said, on August 20, 2008 at 11:31 am

    Thanks for pointing out this deep writing by Doug Stockdale. I feel there are indeed big differences in how we approach the world of discoveries – either hammering it into a preconceived frame, or being open to question everything.

  2. matt said, on August 20, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    Taking and assembling many photos on a subject is not unlike doing deep research in the library; you often just have to read and read and read and read and read, until, one day, something coalesces, form emerges from the void, trumpets blare, etc etc etc. It’s often the bits that didn’t seem important at the time that turn out to be crucial to the epiphany.

    I would not necessarily put that approach on either end of Doug’s discovering/hammering continuum. There’s a way of having an idea, and looking, but also letting your mind wander. Very zen, but useful nonetheless.

  3. Bryan Willman said, on August 20, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    I don’t think it’s that binary Paul.

    M. Michiel might have gone to these places (quite a list since sadly there have been many great battle fields) looking for “signs” – ghosts, metaphors, etc.

    And one might ask “if I didn’t *know* this was a picture from Verdun, or the Wheat Field, or …” would I still see it as haunted?

    So one might well go looking for something, but yet have an open mind and discover much. That’s probably the norm.

    The real ‘test’ would be “are these images haunted if you don’t know what they’re of?”

    (Mind, if they’re only haunted in context, they could still be really great work. Don’t know, haven’t seen them. Would like to.)

  4. Frank Armstrong said, on August 21, 2008 at 8:47 am

    I think I’m with you on this, Paul. For me it’s all about trying to render some understanding of the world I walk through each day. It has always been about what is, not what if. It may be the failing of our society, but so much of the past is not on the radar of the younger crowd these day. I bet if I put this question — what and were was the battle of Verdun 1916? — to my next photo class all I would get is blank stares and rolling eyes. Seems to me without context there is little or no understanding or even recognition that an image is all about subtlety.

    P’taker

  5. Ed Richards said, on August 21, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    It is also characteristic of many of the most successful photographers. AA worked the same territory most of his life, Weston kept shooting the same images, Atget, etc. I think photojournalists and street photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Winograd did the same, in that the core subject matter was the same them, even if the places and people changed. Maybe even successful travel photographers do the same, in that they have are looking for the same sorts of shots where ever they are.

  6. Subtlety assessment « Singular Images said, on August 22, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    […] I continued to chew on this whole subtlety question (and thanks to Paul Butzi to developing in a little deeper), and specifically to how I am developing my photographs for […]


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