Musings on Photography


Posted in process by Paul Butzi on July 28, 2009


I noted, yesterday, the passing of Merce Cunningham, the famous choreographer. Despite his prominence, I can’t say I knew very much about him until I read the entry on Wikipedia and this obituary at the LA Times.

One thing that caught my eye was his use of ‘chance operations’ like flipping coins or casting dice to make decisions in his artistic process – a practice which he apparently learned from John Cage. Much of what is available on the web about Cage’s and Cunningham’s use of ‘Chance Operations’ is either utter bafflegab dressed up poorly as deeply mystic philosophy, or bafflegab without the window dressing, which is unfortunate because it makes it very hard to understand exactly what Cage and Cunningham actually thought they were doing by drawing on chance operations to generate artistic decisions. Did they believe they were drawing on some mystic oracle for guidance? Or did they think that, by incorporating chance into their artistic process, they’d be forced to evaluate possibilities they would not have considered otherwise? Or both? I’ve found snippets of quoted writings that seem to point in both directions.

One of the things I miss most about the traditional darkroom process – developing film and conventional printing – is that because the process was filled with potential for mistakes, it was also filled with the potential for making serendipitous discoveries. I can’t say that I deliberately made bad prints just to jar myself out of a rut, but I can recall many times where I made a mistake (the most usual one was forgetting to stop down the lens after focusing) that resulted in a print that was bad but which also made me think “Oho! This is a bad print, but it’s a GOOD bad print, because it has shown me something I hadn’t considered.” In some sense, those (all too common) mistakes brought chance operations into my creative process, and that turned out to be a good thing.

I was a big fan of making conventional ‘test strip’ prints that covered the image entirely – using a whole sheet for a test strip – because in doing that, you see quite a lot of information you wouldn’t see if you just made a perfect exposure right from the start. A test strip is really just a carefully sequenced set of mistakes, from which the darkroom worker proposes to learn enough to make a good print.

And then I switched to digital printing, and then to digital capture, and this source of randomness in my process disappeared. I was aware of it at the time, and I even wrote about it some. Somehow, though, it’s never occurred to me to incorporate chance operations into my digital workflow.

Yet another thing for me to ponder in the midst of my current busyness. Time, I think, for me to get a few books about Cage and Cunningham from the library.

10 Responses

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  1. Chris Klug said, on July 28, 2009 at 11:41 am

    I remember Brian Eno using a similar technique, but I bet he got it from Cage.

  2. Dennis Allshouse said, on July 28, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    John Cage has/d published several books by the mid-sixties. One of which is titled: “A Year from Tuesday”. Might want to check that out. I have looked at it or thought about much since the mid-sixties.

  3. Bronislaus Janulis said, on July 28, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    “chance into their artistic process, they’d be forced to evaluate possibilities they would not have considered otherwise?”

    In spite of thermometers, timers, Kodak guides, cigarettes and coffee, I always seemed to do my best work, darkroom, photographing, painting, when I let go a little, let serendipity take a part.

    They might have a point.

  4. Martin Doonan said, on July 28, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    I had exactly the same thoughts when reading the ’70s novel “The Dice Man” by Luke Rhinehart. And in some ways I’m reassured by Ian Rankine’s idea (“The Player of Games”) that the best games in the world are a mixture of chance and skill. Or maybe Gary player’s assertion that “the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
    Surely the trick is being aware to the opportunities of the random or unexpected event.

  5. Rusty said, on July 28, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    some years ago I had scanned a slide and when working on it with Photoshop, instead of my usual adjustments, I just hit the auto button. Wow, changed the look dramatically to something I would not have otherwise have got. It’s now a favourite image. Go figure.
    So in today’s world, we can take a chance, and risk very little. Nice.

  6. Ed Richards said, on July 28, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    You might want to track down the NPR interview with Cunningham – when I heard it I had the impression that he was saying “what if you flipped a coin” not ” I flipped a coin.” My impression, base only on the (brief) interview was that it was a metaphor, not an actual technique.

  7. Mike said, on July 29, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    If you have two ways to go and both look equally good, why not flip the coin? Two roads diverge &c.

  8. Chris said, on July 31, 2009 at 11:49 am

    I’ve added a small amount of chance into my digital processing.

    I’ve written a program that takes a toned “source” image and creates a lookup table that matches luminance values to tone values. Then I can take a target image and randomly assign tones to each pixel based on that pixel’s luminance. I allow tones to be picked from neighboring bins in the lookup table. The result is images that take on a softened look, often reminiscent of platinum/palladium prints. It also gives me an easy way to create multiple prints of an image that have the same overall tones, but differ slightly from one another.

  9. Gordon McGregor said, on July 31, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Does sounds a bit like Eno’s oblique strategies and the approach taken to extremes in the Diceman.

    I’ve occasionally played around with this, mostly on the subject selection side of photography. I’ve done occasional ‘pick a random theme’/ ‘pick a random colour’ and follow it sort of shoots. I always seem to end up places I wouldn’t have otherwise gone, and learn something new along the way.

    I also really enjoyed the Lonely Planet guide to Experimental Travel ( and have adapted ideas from that book to be photographic games, with some success.

    Not tried it so much on the processing side of the world.

  10. Peter Szawlowski said, on July 31, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    I used to shoot film (35mm) but never did my own developing and printing.
    So there was always a chance aspect to my work prior to 2000.
    I kind of miss this element of surprise working now in the digital medium.

    Re. Dennis Allshouse’s comment about John Cage
    I think he probably meant “A Year from Monday”
    The book is still available after all these years.

    This was on NPR today about John Cage and Merce Cunningham

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