Musings on Photography

Words to Remember

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on August 18, 2009


I was just enjoying Doug Plummer’s excellent book At the Fill, and was struck by this particular passage, which I offer up here:

The camera is my portal to connection, both to the place and to myself. I begin from beneath my awareness. I lose the composing photographer’s eyes, and begin responding from elsewhere in my body. I start taking pictures, maybe one or two, maybe dozens. The act of firing off a shutter seems to deepen my trance. I’m not of the Ansel Adams, big view camera spend-hours-composing-one-frame school of photography. My process is profigate, intentionally wasteful. I have no idea what I’m looking for, and besides, these brushy places I like so much are too dense to consciously compose an image in. By diving into this complex terrain I deliberately overload my circuits. My unconscious is in charge of the camera controls. The Fill is where I do my deepest work.

There’s a lot there. Part of it, for me, is that it shows Doug’s tremendous generosity in sharing so openly how his process works – both the parts he understands and the parts where, as Doug puts it, his unconscious is in charge of the camera controls. I feel a certain affinity for Doug’s process, although I’d certainly use different wording and it’s hard to know how much my ‘flow’ experience is similar to what Doug describes.

And I’m not saying that everyone ought to work this way. I expect that process is highly individualistic, and everyone’s is different in ways both important and unimportant. I need to work the way I need to work, and you need to work the way you need to work, and there’s no law, either codified or implied, that says the two need to even remotely resemble one another.

What I do know is that I became comfortable with what Doug describes as profligate waste very slowly and hesitantly. It felt weird to head out with a view camera and burn through film like mad, because everyone else with a view camera was still working in the “spend-hours-composing-one-frame” school. I would have made more rapid progress if I’d read Doug’s words years before.

There’s a lot of writing about photography out on the web, and on the shelves at your bookstore. Some of it is actually writing about cameras, which is closely related to photography but not quite the same thing. And then there’s some writing about the technical details of making photographs – lenses, shutter speed, aperture, calculating exposure, developing film and working with photoshop and so on. There’s quite a lot of writing about photographs – which ones are good, and which ones are bad, and why. If you look in popular photos magazines, you’ll see a lot of articles with titles along the lines of “How to Add Pizzaz to Your Landscape Photographs”.

But there’s not very much written about that bit where it’s you, the subject, and the camera, and something happens in your brain and the process ends with your releasing the shutter. Part of it, I suspect, is that it can be darn hard to do much introspection; you get to a certain point and then, as Doug does, you get to the point where there’s nothing to say but “My unconscious is in charge of the camera controls”.

I just wish there more more folks like who managed to share what they can figure out the way Doug does.

And another thing: Doug Plummer is to the Union Bay Natural Area as Ed Weston is to Point Lobos.

3 Responses

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  1. Doug Plummer said, on August 18, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Wow. Thanks.


  2. Paul said, on August 18, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Paul, I think that there is not that much interest in the why, but more of the how. People tend to want the magic pill that makes all of their photographs good. Which filter should I buy? Which camera? How many mega pixels? Where should I stand? When should I stand? You know the drill.

    Every once in a while, someone can distill down to its essence, but then it seems like so much magic. I love that he said that he has no idea what he is looking for. It took me a long time to get over that fact. I thought that everyone else knew what they were looking for, went out, composed, and got it. Meanwhile, I was traipsing around looking for the occasional acorn!

    When I shot with a view camera, I had 8 film holders, so I could take 16 shots. It was not unusual for me to go through those 8 in less than an hour. Even shooting 4×5 I experimented … it was a bit more expensive, but still worth the effort! Again, I thought that I was rather an oddball.

    Now, I don’t worry about these things. I just shoot and occasionally I’ll fall into that trance-like state and let “the other” take over.

  3. Mike said, on August 19, 2009 at 6:26 am

    Recently there have been a couple of accasions when I went out for a walk in the evening, after the light was poor really, and shot a roll or two of film just because I enjoyed the shooting. The negs have arrived back today, so it will be interesting to see if there’s anything there. Certainly, trying too hard seems to spoil things for me.


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