Musings on Photography


Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on June 23, 2009


It’s been a while since my last post – I was off again, down in Ashland, OR at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Disregarding a day spent on travel, it worked out to six days and 9 plays – enough to more than keep me busy.

Just before I left, I was struck by a connection between this post by Colin Jago, and this post by Anita Jesse. I’ve been musing on the connection between them ever since.

Colin is writing on how our photography can turn, sometimes without our realizing it and often quite against our will, into a relentless and not very gratifying push for the next ‘keeper’.

Colin writes:

One aspect of this question that I think needs more prominence is that there is an audience somewhere for almost anything. If what you want is a wow reaction then you have got to go on putting the work out there until you find your audience. This is the great success of Flickr and similar sites – they are very good at connecting people with audiences. It is very easy, as a viewer, to work outwards from some random link towards work that you value. But the corollary of there being some audience for any work is that not everyone is going to like everything. You can’t please all of the people all of the time.

If we assume ‘people’ mean strangers for the moment (producing stuff for family or close friends is different), it is interesting to think why it is that we get a buzz from the praise of a small group of random strangers. I have to feel that this is something piggy-backing on a genetic trait that evolved for other reasons.

It is very easy, as Guy describes, to let this praise become a driver that sucks the goodness out of the experience as a whole.

There’s more there, and I urge you to go and read all of what Colin wrote, and punch through his links into what Guy Tal wrote.

What Guy and Colin are describing, I have felt happening to me in the past year – a shift in my goal away from using photography as a tool to figure things out and into a search for keepers. It’s something I’ve resisted, because it’s a place I’ve been before. I read Guy’s words, and Colin’s words, and boy, howdy, I know exactly what they’re talking about.

Which brings me to Anita Jesse’s post, where she wrote:

Today, I finally let go of the images in my mind and took photographs of the poppies we have: windblown poppies on a June day when the temperature probably never made it to 65 degrees. I experimented with 1/2500 shutter speed to see if I could get anything; and, even though I moved very little, the wind was blowing fast enough that I got several compositions within a few seconds. I ended up with one that was surprisingly sharp; but, in the end, it is the softness of this frame that feels right to me. Not the poppies I was waiting for, but the poppies I was offered.

Anita, I think, has found a key. The key lies in controlling our expectations. When we head out with certain expectations, it’s because we’ve planned in advance what we hope to get and we want those photographs, not the ones that are actually there. And in reality, we don’t want the poppies we were waiting for. What we really want is both the experience of finding the poppies we’re offered, and the keepers that we find that way.

I have a little story on those lines. Years ago, now, I’d arranged to photograph on the WA coast. Because I was rendezvousing with a friend who I rarely got to see, I looked forward to that trip with eager anticipation, and in my mind I saw us happily photographing on the coast, with wild waves and dramatic spray as the surf erupted off the rocks in towering geysers, and a sky filled with dramatic yet friendly Ansel Adams clouds. And, of course, when we got to the coast, the scene was of quiet surf, no dramatic spray, and not only no Ansel Adams Clouds, but solid overcast supplemented with heavy fog.

We wandered, disconsolate, up the beach, and then back, and I found nothing to photograph. I think I made two exposures – two exposures, on a hike along one of the sections of the WA coastline that I now think is one of the most photographable places on the planet. At the end of our walk, we wandered past some trees, and I lamented that it was so foggy, even the light on the trees was horrid.

About a week after that trip, I dreamed I was back on that beach. In the dream, instead of walking up the beach hoping for a sunbreak, I wandered into the trees – a small grove of trees bleached by the surf and twisted by wind, and the entire grove filled with drifting fog. In the dream, I got out the camera, and exposed every sheet of film I had. In the dream, I went back to the car for more film – twice. In the dream, when I got home, I processed the film, and had dazzling moody photographs of fog drifting through the trees. I had never seen photos like these before, but they took my breath away.

The paradoxes are these: that pursuing our expectations in the name of getting the next ‘keeper’ not only destroys our enjoyment and satisfaction, but also somehow precludes us from seeing the keepers we’re offered. Letting go of our expectations does the opposite. And, frustratingly, knowing these things does not make it easier to head out and photograph the poppies we’re offered instead of the ones we thought we wanted and were waiting for.

6 Responses

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  1. Paul said, on June 23, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Very well put, Paul. I wrote something along these same lines, today. My reason for not finishing SoFoBoMo this year. It had become a quest for the next keeper and a competition with my book from last year, rather than the enjoyable journey that it could have been.

    Your story about the coast reminds me of a story that I saw the other day in a book that I was reading. It had to do with two guys who wanted to go camping. They purchased all of the requisite gear and for days all they talked about was what they were going to see and how much fun it was going to be. When they finally went camping, their expectations were not met at all, so they stayed for a few hours, then returned home. They had sucked all of the life out of the adventure because of their expectations. When they got there, they couldn’t see anything at all, even though there was plenty to see. They could only see that their expectations were not met.

    Your story mirrors that perfectly. Letting go of expectations is pretty difficult, which is why when I go someplace, I just sit for about 15 minutes and let my ‘vision’ adjust. Most times, it works. Other times it doesn’t.

  2. Ed Richards said, on June 24, 2009 at 6:44 am

    It is the reason I stopped entering photo contests a long time ago. I was lucky (maybe not, in retrospect) to have done well in a national contest with my first entry, which put more pressure on subsequent entries. I finally realized that I am not a pro and anything that takes the fun out of doing photography is not worth it.

    But how do you separate this from photo group experiece of sharing prints? Or did you stop that because it started to also be about the keepers?

  3. Anita Jesse said, on June 24, 2009 at 8:20 am

    What an amazing dream and vividly described. I have decided to “borrow” it (meaning I plan to “recall” it often, since this business of chasing the keepers is an ongoing struggle for me. I continue to find comfort in the fact that those of you who are light years ahead of me in terms of your relationship with photography are still battling this. I need to be reminded, periodically that there is apparently no sure-fire cure for this—just an ongoing journey of discovery. Once in while, my mind clears, as with the poppies, but two days later I can forget the lesson.

    Paul Lester’s srategy is be a good one for me. I know that I tend to rush about in life, in general. I am also interested in responses to Ed’s question regarding photo groups.

  4. Gordon McGregor said, on June 24, 2009 at 8:54 am

    There’s a lot of truth in what you say here, about actually seeing what’s infront of you, rather than living in the past of what you hoped to see, or rushing to the future of what might be further down the beach or around the next corner. Photography has to be done in the here and now, not in memory or hopes for something different.

    But I don’t think it is quite as simple as all of that. Previsualisation, having an idea in mind, going out with a goal or something you want to shoot can also be a great way to find the shots. It focuses the attention and gets you going. But you have to do it with a flexible attitude that will let you adapt to what’s gets offered up, if it doesn’t meet the ideas you have.

    I had this experience shooting a garden for a couple of years, 2 or 3 weekends a month, for those 2 years. The best days I had there, I went with a simple idea in mind and followed it around. Shoot circles. Shoot lines, find yellow, etc. Picking some theme for the day made me look at things in a different way. I’d find something and start shooting more quickly. Settle in and explore and find shots that I loved that I’d have never taken the time over otherwise. Often they would have nothing much to do with the initial theme or idea, but it was the mcguffin that got me started. On the days when I went ‘just to see what I could find’ I would wander more aimlessly and never really get going.

    So plan, but be flexible. Have the expectations, but expect to change them.

  5. Bryan Willman said, on June 24, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Most of us will spend a lot of our lives really needing the approval of others, which will mostly be driven by expectations. As in needing to meet expectations well enough to pass school, meeting expectations well enough to get and hold a job, for a company that must meet expectations well enough to stay profitable so as to pay us. On a similar vein, we must meet some set of expectations to win and keep lovers, raise children, and so on. Even a subsistence farmer must meet expectations well enough to raise a living from the land. All of these things, some of which get represented by money, can be termed ‘success’.

    So, yes Colin, there’s a genetic drive for this.

    What does this have to do with Art? Or growing through Art? Well, something, in the sense that the freedom of art isn’t really the freedom to be utterly random with no craft as an excuse for failure to work and learn. But once you have crossed into “honest effort” – what good are expectations?

    Well, gallery slots and SoFoBoMo, and the like, cause me to stop thinking about the project and actually do the project. That is a positive expectation. A useful result from a deadline.

    That would be it.

    (And stormy beaches with fog and poppies in the wind are more fun anyway….)

  6. Rakesh Malik said, on June 24, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I had a similar experience on one of the trips I made while I was working on my SoFoBoMo project.

    We camped at the Lower Lewis River Falls (the Lewis River flows between Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens), and awoke at dawn to photograph the falls.

    Due to orientation, trees, etc the dawn shot was pretty much a bust; we didn’t get the early more sun on the falls (it was in the shadow of the dense forest canopy), and the falls were so full that the fine detail we were hoping for was submerged under the raging cataract.

    The best shot we had that morning was of a bug on a yellow flower.

    The second shot we both liked a lot that way was… a bug on a purple flower.

    Both of those are in my book 🙂

    I think that it’s a case of learning to see rather than to look. When you look, you see what you’re looking for, or nothing at all. I remember times when I was in Europe with my family looking for a specific building, and when someone asked, “Do you see it?” my father replied, “I don’t see anything.” Although I didn’t say it, I was thinking, “What about all of these building around us?”

    I’ve heard people speak that way frequently ever since, and always I have the same thought… sure, you don’t see what you were looking for, but why don’t you see everything else around you?

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