Musings on Photography


Posted in art is a verb by Paul Butzi on September 13, 2008

When we were in Hong Kong, Paula and I had the good fortune to get a short lecture on Hong Kong history from an American expat resident. One of the things he told us as we wandered through a museum was that we shouldn’t just read the text with the displays, but also ask ourselves what the message was, and just as importantly, who is the intended audience for the message.

We tend to read text (or view photographs) with the mindset that we are the intended audience. But that’s plainly not correct. It’s hard to remember to think beyond the message and think about intended audience, but it’s probably key to getting some grip on the film and photography of, say, Leni Reifenstahl. It’s equally true for Don McCullin (make sure to follow link, scroll down, read the quotes). Those were just the first two examples that came to mind, but it’s true, I think, for any photographer. Pick a photographer, ponder the audience.

The thing is – it is sometimes hard to get a grip on who the intended audience is. Sometimes, a photographer’s audience is others (a photojournalist, say) or even a specific set of others. Sometimes, the audience is the photographer herself. Sometimes it’s the future version of the photographer. It’s the same photographer, but different audiences at different times, or even at the same time. Sometimes a photo is made with one intended audience and is pressed into service with another.

For me this all touches on the utility of photographs that I make. I keep reading that if you make photographs, but no one else looks at them, you might just as well not have made them at all, and I think that just isn’t so. A lot of my photographs are made with the specific intent that I’m the audience. Some of those photos are seen by others, and some aren’t.

The ones that aren’t seen by anyone else aren’t purposeless. They’re filling the need of a very specific audience – me. And that’s fine, because as far as I can tell, there are very few other photographers meeting the needs of that particular audience.

5 Responses

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  1. Juha Haataja said, on September 13, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Well said! In literature, there is a saying “I’m writing for an audience of one”, and this may well apply to photography as well.

    Sometimes this saying is thought to be negative in meaning, but there is a very positive way of looking at it: you should not try to please critics, your parents, your friends, etc.

  2. Mike said, on September 14, 2008 at 1:09 am

    Sounds perfectly sane to me. Why else go through the bother? I expect everyone to decorate their own spaces and cater to their audience of one.

  3. David said, on September 17, 2008 at 6:46 am

    Enjoyed the thought very much. I know that for me most of the time my specific audience is me and if someone sees what I see in the photograph it is a bonus. Photographs can at times be complex works that speak to the viewer on several levels. Like a well written novel photographs can have structure , content , description and inference. All of these thing play out in accordance with each photographers ability to see and his skill. For me the best photographs speak ( non-verbally) to the viewer without the need of any words to describe them. Only you know the experience had at the moment of capture and ultimately you are the audience. Kindred souls know without the need for justification.

  4. Drew said, on September 17, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    I am very much encouraged by your post Paul. Lately I’ve been in an inspirational rut and I’ve noticed myself thinking that many of my photographs are pointless because no one else but myself sees them. “What’s the point?” I would think and I would get discouraged when the only answer seemed to be, “It is pointless…”

    The thought of having only myself as the audience never crossed my mind nor did I think that it would be acceptable (for no particular reason that I can explain). But I read your post and I had a boost of encouragement.

    Thanks for articulating your thoughts so well.

  5. sharaf said, on September 20, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    what a pleasant surprise to come across this morning. beautifully shot they all are. nature is amusing certainly.

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