Musings on Photography


Posted in process by Paul Butzi on September 25, 2008

As I start out writing this, I realize that it begins by examining something non-photographic. I will, in the end, manage to bring the discussion around to photography. Trust me.

This morning, I read this post on Michael Silence’s blog. Silence writes:

All of them represent a relatively new style of writing. Anecdotal is out. Concise clarity is in. In these days of the Internet Attention Span, if you don’t get me in one sentence – two tops – then I’m gone. It’s safe to say George Will would not be on my aggregator. (Newpapers: hint)

I’m a big fan of concision. I greatly admired the tag line of a online writer who wrote short, insightful posts and closed each of them with the aphorism “Life is short. Be concise.” That said, I worry about the effect Silence describes – the “if you haven’t got me in one sentence, I’m gone” effect. When we face problems, it’s usually a mistake to try to solve them with glib one-liners that attempt to hook the reader in one sentence. Let’s face it, sometimes things just need to be longer. There are thoughts that can’t be properly expressed in a single sentence. That’s why people write books.

The risk, really, boils down to the fact that when we aim at ‘concise’, we often miss the mark and hit ‘terse’ instead.

The book I’m currently reading is Neal Stephenson’s newest novel, Anathem. It’s long – 930 odd pages. It’s long because the ideas with which Stephenson is trying to keep company are not simple ideas. They’re ideas that are best expressed by building them up slowly and incrementally, and letting the reader come to appreciate them at a slower pace. Thoreau commented that he wanted a broad margin to his life, a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse. Stephenson seems to want a broad margin to his more recent novels, and I’m not talking about the width of the white space – I’m talking about telling a compelling story and using it to get across some subtle points about society and human nature by constructing a believable but fictional world and letting those points be pivots on which the story turns. You don’t get that in a short story. It takes space, and a long narrative arc.

It takes attention span to read Stephenson’s novels, and he’s trying to sell them into a marketplace that seems more and more to be turning to instant soundbite gratification. I wonder about the effect on his bottom line. I wonder if he cares. I suspect, honestly, that he doesn’t, and that he’s writing novels as a means of figuring things out.

One of the things that I liked about SoFoBoMo was that it was a clever trick to get me to attend to one thing for an entire month, with rapt attention. I learned a lot about books, and pdfs, and layout, and POD publishing. I think, though, that the big win for me was the extent to which it drove home how little I’m interested in single photographs these days, and how much I’m interested in big sets of photos that are taken in a particular way.

I’m just fascinated by how your perceptions change when you change attention span. If you focus on a garden for ten minutes, you might come away with a certain sort of photographic series. If you focus on it for a month, you come away with a different sort of series. It’s not that the photos are better or worse when examined individually; it’s that when taken as a set the photos done as a result of photographing repeatedly over the course of a month can examine different and longer running processes at work.

But you need attention span to get it done. You have to keep making the photographs day after day, and you have to run on faith a bit, because you won’t see the longer period process stuff start to emerge until you start viewing this big collection of photos in aggregate. It’s not enough, even, to have the attention span yourself – you need to have a circle of critical reviewers who are willing to watch a long running effort emerge, and help you try to divine the messages that only a longer span can make clear.

9 Responses

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  1. JuHa said, on September 25, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Well written. I pondered a bit similar question a few days ago, in summary “Photography should not be about telling a story or being interesting. Instead, it should be hard, like concrete.”

    What I was critical about was that “interesting” nowadays means “popular”. But also mathematics and physics are interesting, although not popular.

    Here is a link to the posting “Towards concrete photography?”

  2. Martin Doonan said, on September 25, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Three words, particular definitions, different usage: concise, terse, succinct.

    I’m not sure it is the quantity that is important, rather the sufficiency. Verbosity is as much a problem for me as undue brevity. The presentation of an idea needs just enough material, however that is expressed. I may only need to focus on the garden for 10 minutes if my aim is to express its spring glory.

    I appreciate photography that reflects the fleeting moment as much as that which develops a long-running theme. I’m also enjoying producing both sorts of work. Sometimes that means I have to force myself to pay a little more attention and sometimes that means seizing the moment.

    One thing that has bothered me recently has come from some photographic series that have gone beyond sufficient: I don’t have patience for dragging through seemingly unnecessary extra work, material that feels like “filler”.

  3. Gordon McGregor said, on September 25, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    Pah. I can’t stand this diminishing attention span. I get annoyed at articles or posts that apologize about being ‘long’ and are only 10 paragraphs.

    Sound bites are trite. I’ve recently discovered George Will and really enjoy his writing, even though there is quite a lot we disagree upon. Neal Stephenson is another writer I enjoy, only spoiled by his inability to end stories effectively.

    I feel like about now I should apologize for this response becoming too long. As well as maybe making some cantankerously witty remark about getting off my lawn.

    I’ve increasingly moved through the same change in photographic focus that you describe – single images don’t retain my interest when compared to cohesive series of photographs. You are correct that it takes more faith to follow a particular path, but projects are more enjoyable for me.

    SoFoBoMo does prove the point that projects don’t actually have to take a long time to complete – unless we are going to claim that a month is a long time, in which case we have more attention span issues to address.

    I’ve had good projects that have come out of an afternoon’s focused search. Others that have spanned several years. The scale of the focus required is adjustable – but the intent needs to be there. I could equally well visit the same subject time and again and strive to produce entirely disconnected images.

    My current failing is that I haven’t quite worked out what should hang a project together – same subject, same technique (these both seem maybe trite) or something deeper. Then again, should a project go somewhere, explain and explore something, rather than just replicating the same concept with multiple subjects.

    No answers. Footprints on the lawn.

  4. Gordon McGregor said, on September 25, 2008 at 3:36 pm

    oh, and is Anathem any good? Could you summarise it for me?

  5. Paul Butzi said, on September 25, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    oh, and is Anathem any good?


    Could you summarise it for me?


  6. Bryan Willman said, on September 25, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Actually, attention has two parts.

    There is the getting of attention, and the keeping of attention.

    The getting must always be quick, because in the real world there is a huge cloud of stuff clamoring for attention. Hence, the one or two sentence hook. This is partly driven by practicality and biology.

    The keeping is a more subtle thing, and a rather longer thing, and of course is pointless if you or it failed at the getting.

    What the “internet attention span” is really about is that there are so many items working hard (and well) to get attention, that it’s very very hard for even important items to keep attention.

  7. Gordon McGregor said, on September 25, 2008 at 7:58 pm

    as an addendum, I went to the bookstore this evening to buy a copy of Anathem and Neal Stephenson was there. So that was quite cool.

  8. Rosie Perera said, on September 26, 2008 at 2:15 am

    See Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (Atlantic, July/August 2008). It’s about how we in the Internet age no longer have the attention span required to follow a sustained argument or read a lengthy literary work. I agreed with Carr that this is becoming a problem, but ironically, I only read the first couple of paragraphs of his article, figured I’d gotten the gist of it, and then skimmed to the end. Then I realized what I’d just done and laughed to myself and went back and read the whole thing.

    I think the same could be said for our visual attention spans. We get bombarded by so many images in any given day, that we’ve necessarily become selective about what we pay attention to and for how long. If we’re not proactive about countering this, we will lose the ability to pay attention to anything visually for long enough to really see anything. An exercise like SoFoBoMo, or the kind of slow and deliberate photographing of the places close to home like what you (Paul) engage in, can be a good antidote to this tendency.

  9. JH said, on September 26, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Thanks for pointing out Neal Stephenson, haven’t yet anything else that Snow Crash by him yet.

    There are writers nowadays whose books are hundreds of pages long (you need only to look at the bestseller lists) but nevertheless don’t require a long attention span – the are the McDonald’s version of Fyodor Dostoevsky, an extended meal of easy-to-eat junk food to entertain the brain.

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