Musings on Photography

What Makes You a Photographer

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on September 21, 2008

This post on Mike Johnston’s TOP brought this interesting Sam Abell page to my attention.

I went to read it because Mike quoted “the unusual wins out over the usual”. Although I’m a big fan of Abell, I don’t think I agree with that statement. In my mind, it’s the details encoded in the quotidian that win out over the unusual and dramatic. I do recognize, though, that I’m different in that way.

To my thinking, we spend essentially all of our lives confronting the usual, with just a very small fraction of it spent in dramatic or unusual events. One of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard, observed that “How we live our days is, of course, how we live our lives.” Somehow the unusual and dramatic captures our attention, but what makes our lives happy or sad, contented or contentious, barren or fulfilling – it isn’t the extraordinary events, it’s the quotidian things that fill up our daily life.

I went to hear and see Sam Abell give a lecture at the University of Washington years ago, back when his book Stay This Moment was being released. He presented a lot of photos along with his lecture. The color work was for the most part stuff he’d done for National Geographic, of course, and some of it I’d seen before. I was impressed, but what took my breath away was what Abell called his ‘diary’ – black and white photos made of hotel rooms, friends, rental cars – the ordinary day to day existence of a peripatetic photojournalist in that period. I recall Abell being a little dismissive of it, although that might have been just my perception. But those black and white photos, grain and all, I thought were just amazing. Some of them are at that web page I linked – just keep hitting the ‘next’ button. What I remember looking back on that lecture was that it was the first time I’d seen what seemed like a sequence of ordinary, nice enough photos of mostly ordinary scenes that added up to something with a lot of impact.

Not long after that, I started using Leica rangefinders to make photographs of things, every day. I remember going to Emily’s school to pick her up, and she and her friend Ellen were entertaining themselves by balancing on the log posts that delimited the parking lot. Without thinking, really, I exposed several frames of them balancing, and Ellen asked Emily “Why is your Dad always taking photographs?” I was greatly amused when Emily gave Ellen a startled look and answered “He’s a photographer. That’s what he *does*.”

I had a strong sense that Emily felt she was pointing out the incredibly obvious – like the fact that if you hold a rock in your hand and let go, it will fall to the ground. It was some time before Emily figured out that not all fathers carried cameras everywhere and took photographs of their children every day.

This isn’t the point I started out to make when I sat down to write. But that memory is a bright, crisp reminder that what makes a person a photographer isn’t writing about photographs, or looking at them, or thinking about them or theorizing about their properties as Art, or even buying and owning camera gear. What makes a person a photographer is making photographs, enough photographs that the process is deeply connected to your day to day existence.

6 Responses

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  1. JH said, on September 21, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Yesterday I read elsewhere some instructions for aspiring phototographers: “be interesting” and “tell a story”. Somehow I found this kind of advice lacking depth. Your posting nicely brings up the value of the ordinary life in photography.

  2. David said, on September 22, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Making photographs after a while becomes a way of looking at the world and one is always evaluating possibilities even when there is no camera in evidence. One becomes more attuned to special moments that are hiding amongst the visual noise that fills our days. Where most people see bland moments the photographer sees exciting things.

  3. […] outside my door If you’ve not read Paul Butzi’s post, What makes you a photographer, go and read it. It’s great food for thought about the importance of the everyday moments. I […]

  4. inviting for a rest | spring2life take2 said, on September 23, 2009 at 12:37 am

    […] soft and unobtrusive colors caught me today. maybe one of the reasons are paul butzi’s post what makes you a photographer and paul lester’s the beauty of the everyday. for a balanced, full life, savouring the very […]

  5. bestmandalay said, on November 5, 2009 at 7:04 am

    I take photos too and aspire to what ? maybe I don’t know myself but when I see the stuff that comes out I know that I have something special. Maybe not that special for someone else but enough for me.
    Ur post sums up perfectly what I feel most of the times too.

    Best wishes


  6. Cara said, on January 28, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    i really don’t think you can say it any better…”What makes a person a photographer is making photographs, enough photographs that the process is deeply connected to your day to day existence.”

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