Musings on Photography


Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on January 4, 2009


I’ve written before about ‘flow’, the idea that we find pastimes most enjoyable and rewarding when they meet certain criteria, one of which is a balance between our ability and the challenge we’re tackling.

This balance between ability and challenge can be difficult. We tackle a subject, and as we continue to work on photographing it, we come to grips (slowly, if you’re at all like me) with the challenges it holds for us. And then, as the sense of challenge drops off, we tend to feel less satisfaction, and so the project tends to drift to a stop. Or at least, that’s what I suspect happens to me.

We start out as beginners, and there’s a huge raft of challenges ahead of us. As we gain some mastery of what we’re doing, the raft of challenges diminishes, and the challenges become bigger and harder, and so we lose that balance that makes things rewarding.

The interesting thing from my point of view is that often a change gets thrown into the mix (or we can deliberately introduce a change), and suddenly everything becomes fresh again. We’re back to being a beginner, in a sense. Just as I was starting to feel like I had a bit of a handle on photographing the gardens around my home, the seasons changed, and I had a fresh challenge. Flowers wilted and disappeared, leaves fell, and I was left with barren branches. Just as I started to get a grip on bare branches, snow fell, and everything changed again. I’ve gone nearly full circle with the garden, and I expect that when the leaves start to emerge this coming spring, I’ll feel like a beginner again. And, surprisingly, this has kept my photo garden photography immensely rewarding. The photos might not amount to much, but I’m having a heck of a good time.

It would seem that constantly being set back to being a beginner would be frustrating. There’s no Elysian field where we can rest photographically, experiencing the reward of making great photographs but never feeling challenged. With every change of subject, sometimes with every frame, we’re back to being beginners. The good news is that the experience of reward doesn’t come from results, it comes from the process of tackling those challenges. That’s true whether it’s the first time we’ve ever made photographs, or we’ve got many tens of thousands of photographs in our portfolio. We feel a little thrill every time we push past our current limits. That little thrill is what keeps us coming back.

And the curious thing is that if we suddenly managed to expand our skills so that nothing is a challenge, then the reward we experience would be gone as well. Robert Browning wrote “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” The curious thing is that unless our reach exceeds our grasp, we get no reward, and by my thinking, we’re not in Heaven. Heaven isn’t when there’s no challenge. Heaven is when we’re constantly being nudged to confront fresh challenges that are sized just right.

Dredging up that Browning quotation from the cluttered box of random stuff that’s stuffed into my head for no apparent reason, I was a little uncertain of the exact wording. So I consulted that great resource for such things, the www, and came up with another Browning quotation I’d never seen before:

The aim, if reached or not, makes great the life. Try to be Shakespeare, and leave the rest to fate!”

This Browning guy, I think he had a clue.

10 Responses

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  1. Chris Klug said, on January 4, 2009 at 9:17 am

    One of the things, to me, that marks your blog as unique is your thoughts and perspectives on the Art Process. I have fascinated with this by this for years as I observed my process as a playwright and now as I have returned to photography after a hiatus of close to thirty years. I observe the differences and similarities between how I create as a writer and how I create as a photographer. One maxim I keep coming back to is this: Have fun with it! You will only create your best work, you will only be able to fully access your Creative Self (wherever that comes from) if you are in flow, if you are losing yourself in the process. Thank you for this post.

  2. JH said, on January 4, 2009 at 11:56 am

    You have great way to see possibilities where others might see just a loss (of previous skill).

    In the end, how much of us is the same human being as a year ago? And who of us can take in 2009 the photos which we did not take in 2008?

  3. Martin Doonan said, on January 4, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    I’m like you in that I constantly need something new to keep me motivated.

    On the stick pictures, I’m finding those that have foreground elements oof (like the one here) rather unsettling. The one on “don’t discoun yourself was even worse. Not necessarily a bad thing, just challenging to look at.

  4. Martin Doonan said, on January 4, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    That’ll be “Don’t discount yourself”. I hate typos & unclosed quotes.

  5. Paul Butzi said, on January 4, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    On the stick pictures, I’m finding those that have foreground elements oof (like the one here) rather unsettling. The one on “don’t discount yourself” was even worse. Not necessarily a bad thing, just challenging to look at.

    Yep. Strange, isn’t it?

    You’ll probably see a few more of those float past as I fiddle around with that.

    Sorry if it’s off-putting.

  6. Byrle, aka:ssgmoore1369 said, on January 4, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    I have been lurking in and around your blog for several months now and with the new year, I would like to say thank you, for what you have created and continue to build and develop. Looking forward to 2009 and sharing of your visions both in word and image.

  7. Martin Doonan said, on January 4, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    No need to apologise. I wouldn’t say it’s off-putting. How can one be distracted by the photographs on a photography blog?

  8. Gordon McGregor said, on January 5, 2009 at 9:24 am

    I’m reminded again of the book ‘Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard’

    George uses his experiences learning martial arts to describe his process of learning. He describes something of a wavy staircase of times of struggling uphill, learning things and improving, then plateaus where everything is easy for a while (but you aren’t really learning anything new)

    The interesting part of that is that really all the learning happens when you feel you aren’t doing anything good or interesting and the flat parts of no real growth are probably when you feel you are doing your best work.

    I don’t know that I’d describe it as constantly feeling like a beginner again, but maybe finding new levels of achievement to strive for.

    I’m also reminded of looking back at earlier work, that I was very happy with (have printed etc) and seeing what are now glaring flaws, over sharpening, bad handling of tonality etc, that I simply wasn’t even able to see at the time. Totally unaware of the issues, hadn’t even learned enough of the language to be able to express it. That concept is something I find interesting – that the awareness of some of the problems only comes when you learn that the problem or feature is there.

    I had a similar experience with SoFoBoMo, when I learned a little bit about typography and suddenly a hidden world opened up in all of the books I was reading – it had always been there, right in front of my eyes, but I’d never seen it before.

    To Martin’s point, he probably wouldn’t like one of my most favourite pictures of the year, either, shown here: The comments were interesting on that post – it might have given me an idea for some future shooting.

  9. Hugh Alison said, on January 5, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    the New Year is probably a good time to thank you for a consistently thoughtful and interesting blog.
    Best Wishes,

  10. Rakesh Malik said, on January 9, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    I’ve experienced the same sort of stairstep pattern in my learning. When you’re struggling, the hard part is to persist; when you’ve reached a new plateau, the hard part is to find another way to challenge yourself. As long as you can do those things, then you can continue to grow.

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