Musings on Photography

Intuition

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on November 1, 2009

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One experiment I’m making is to photograph very close to my home, on a daily basis. I take a walk along the same path, every day, and so I’m seeing the same things, with subtle changes from day to day. One of my goals is to avoid a lot of thinking about what to photograph, or even if the photo I’m about to make will be good. I’m going for ‘intuitive’ as opposed to ‘carefully reasoned’.

The reasoning part comes afterward, when I download the images from the CF card and look over what I’ve done in the past walk or two. I’m looking for what works, and what doesn’t. I’m looking for things that catch my interest, regardless of whether that particular photo worked or not.

This morning, I came across the following quotation, which I think sort of sums up the process I’m trying:

Imagine I throw a spear into the dark. That is my intuition. Then I have to send an expedition into the jungle to find the spear. That is my intellect.

-Ingmar Bergman

All this is driven by a few photos I’ve looked at recently – in particular some photos by Eliot Porter and Christopher Burkett – which I can only describe as broadside views of forest. I’ve looked at those photos, and looked at them, trying to imagine the process by which the compositions were made. They’re compositions with a billion things in them. There seems to be no compositional structure to them, and yet the photographs delight me.

I’m the first to admit that I am a photographer of very little compositional skill. I have not taken classes in design, although I expect such classes would help. I can manage a composition with one thing in it pretty handily. On occasion, I can pull of a composition with two things. Three is on the edge, four is right out. A billion is so far beyond my limit that it seems clear to me that some other sort of mental process is involved.

I’d like to be able to make photos like those. I can’t reason my way to them, so I figure I’ll try something else, and see if it works. This brought to mind a story about a computerized expert system I read about – an expert system to replace an employee who directed the troubleshooting and maintenance on a dam. The dam was very complicated, and although this manager had a very clear understanding of “water coming out here means a problem in this apparently unrelated spot”, he could not articulate this knowledge base. So they trained an expert system, using day to day problems and this expert’s diagnoses. And before long, the expert system was making diagnoses that matched what the human expert was saying. And the funny part of the story is that because of the way this expert system was implemented, it was not possible to derive an articulate path of reasoning for the diagnosis.

So my hope is that I am trainable as an expert system is. I’ll make a lot of photos, and I’ll look at them, and perhaps slowly I’ll train myself to make this ‘Eliot Porter’ broadside sort of photo. This one works. That one doesn’t. Don’t worry about articulating why, just make more like this one and fewer of that one. Lather, rinse, repeat. This process would be prohibitively expensive if I were using film, but my marginal cost for each exposure is essentially zero, so it might work for me.

And if my plan doesn’t work, well, at least I got to take a lot of walks with the camera. There is no downside.

10 Responses

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  1. drewfulton said, on November 1, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    This one definitely works. I really like it. I too am a huge fan of Eliot Porter. He has been an inspiration for many years ever since seeing a 100+ piece exhibition of his work. I love the images and his approach. I have struggled to replicate his forest images as he seemingly makes beautiful images out of complex chaos. A truly amazing photographer. I wish you the best of luck!

  2. Doug Plummer said, on November 1, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    I harp on this endlessly, but you’ve given me an opportunity to make the point again. Leave the brain behind, and pay attention to your body. Start sensing those visceral cues that tell you your getting warmer or colder. This feels good, This doesn’t. Don’t ask why. Follow the sensation. Stay out of your head.

    You need something of the same approach when editing. This feels good. This doesn’t. This one’s peculiar in an interesting way. Hmm.

  3. Paul Butzi said, on November 1, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    Thanks, Doug, for the suggestion that I’m at least on the right track.

    I’ll work on editing the same way.

  4. Martin Doonan said, on November 2, 2009 at 2:25 am

    I’l be interested in reading more on how you progress. Personally, I wonder if I have the brain parts to work in that way. Too much logic and reasoning going on.
    I also enjoy Porter’s work but I don’t see them in quite the same way. I always see strong elements in each, with a supproting cast. As I do in the posted photo here: 3 strong elements with some minor supporting characters.

  5. julie said, on November 2, 2009 at 4:00 am

    This might sound a bit cheeky so tell me where to go if you think so… but: isn’t there a bit of a mismatch between photographing/editing intuitively and having an idea of what you want to achieve based on a finished product you’ve seen elsewhere?

    I would have (possibly naively) thought that by photographing intuitively it isn’t natural to have a finished product in mind, because what you’re doing is letting your own internal creativity have its own way rather than doing it in a conscious fashion where you’re aiming to go down a particular path. Or at least, going down a path with a particular destination in mind.

    Am I making sense, or have I had too much coffee this morning?

  6. Paul Butzi said, on November 2, 2009 at 9:00 am

    This might sound a bit cheeky so tell me where to go if you think so… but: isn’t there a bit of a mismatch between photographing/editing intuitively and having an idea of what you want to achieve based on a finished product you’ve seen elsewhere?

    I think the issue is that before, I’d be drawn to a scene like that, struggle to do something with it, and never get anywhere, because my poor old tired brain was not up to the task of consciously arranging things. Well, other people are making those photos (e.g. Burkett, and Porter). So I know it can be done, and I know that I can’t make them using a deliberative process.

    Remember, too – I’m big on experiments. What would I get if I took a photo of this object every day for a year? What would it be like if I tried to make a book in a month? What would I get if set the focus to infinity and made photos? How about setting the focus to 1 foot?

    The glory of digital photography is that such experiments are essentially free.

    As for having a destination in mind – no. I’m not so much standing at the fork in the trail and wondering “Which one leads most quickly to the coffee shop” as I’m standing at the fork in the trail and thinking “I’ve always turned right here. I wonder where I end up if I turn left? Maybe that’s where all those *other* photos are found.”

  7. Anita Jesse said, on November 2, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Nothing new on my part, but periodically I am moved to tell you how clear you make these things and how that clarity serves others. You inspire me to contine in my journey toward embracing the way my mind works rather than pining away for a brain that works differently. It’s tempting to admire photographers who “have arrived”, try to determine how their brains work, then muscle one’s own brain into the same mold. More and more (you play a role in this) I take pictures of what catches my eye (or heart), and consider later whether or not it works. Ah, the joys of digital photography and endless experimentation without bruising the budget.

  8. David Bailey said, on November 2, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    A billion compositional elements … that’s almost 100 compositional elements per pixel (or grain of silver) … Porter and Burkett are masters, indeed!

  9. Peter Szawlowski said, on November 3, 2009 at 4:51 am

    Re: “I’ve always turned right here. I wonder where I end up if I turn left? Maybe that’s where all those *other* photos are found.”
    Reminds me of a short story (Chance Traveler) by Haruki Murakami
    “I’m in no position to hand down any advice,” he said, “but there’s a rule I always follow when I don’t know what to do.”
    “A rule?”
    “If you have to choose between something that has form and something that doesn’t, go for the one without form. That’s my rule. Whenever I run into a wall I follow that rule, and it always works. Even if it’s hard going at the time.”

  10. Paul Butzi said, on November 3, 2009 at 9:44 am

    A billion compositional elements … that’s almost 100 compositional elements per pixel (or grain of silver) … Porter and Burkett are masters, indeed!

    Ah. Well. Ok, not a billion. Fair point.

    I think the point remains the same if you replace ‘billion’ with ‘too many to be counted easily’.


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