Musings on Photography


Posted in aesthetics, process, the art world by Paul Butzi on January 15, 2010


There are a whole host of interesting comments on this post. It’s forming an interesting group conversation, really.

Niels Henriksen wrote:

The one problem I am having with these discussions is the definition of subject. I have a feeling that we may not all have the same meaning.

I suspect Niels is right about this. There’s no single definition being used, and that’s confusing things. I don’t know an easy way around that problem other than suggesting a single definition, and then it just because an argument about the definition.

Take Ed Richards comment:

Hmmm. I am a bit surprised. I thought that a major point of your only shooting what you see when you walk the dog was exactly a Rockwellian exercise in shooting without subjects. As opposed, say, to dragging your camera to the Oregon coast to shoot SUBJECTS. In a sense, subject matters because it is in the picture and has to be dealt with, but I read Ken as trying to get people away from the notion that they have to important subjects to make great pictures. Perhaps the contrast between an AA print of Half Dome and a wonderful Josef Sudek print of a glass by the sink.

What I am photographing these days is, by and large, what I see on the walks with the dog. That’s partly convenience. The basis for the experiment, though, was observing that every single workshop leader or teacher I’ve had has told me to photograph what I know and love. Ruth Bernhard told me to sell the large format camera, buy a small camera, and make photographs of my family, for crying out loud. When Ruth Bernhard told you to do something, by God, you at least listened and considered.

And so I photographed on the beach because I found it a fascinating place, and I discovered that photographing a place is a great way to come to understand it. I photographed my kids, because I love them and knew they would not be children forever. I photographed in the valley near where I live, because in some large sense it’s where I live, and it’s important to me. And now I’m photographing in the forest where I live, because it’s the specific spot I decided to put my home. All of those things matter to me. There are uncountably many other things to photograph, and I might one day decide those things are important, too, but until then I’m not drawn to photograph them.

I don’t know quite how to explain this except by example. A photographer who met Harry Callahan gushed enthusiastically “I’m so glad to meet you because I, too, photograph nudes!”, and Callahan responded by saying that he didn’t photograph nudes, he photographed his wife. This seems an essential distinction to me; if form and composition are all that matters, it shouldn’t make any difference whether you photograph your wife, or some other randomly chosen woman of the same proportions. And yet it matters. It matters a lot.

Ken Rockwell in one place tells us that subject doesn’t matter. And yet, not very much further along in the page in question, he writes about punchlines. And yet, if it’s all about treating the subject as something that doesn’t matter beyond providing things to generate strong, graphic compositions that grab your attention from 100 feet away, how can it matter that this blob over here is a person looking at that blob over there, and that blob over there is actually a person looking back? Either a blob is a blob is a blob, or else it matters what sort of blob it is. If exactly what sort of a blob it is matters, then I’d say subject matters.

If what is being said is that we can’t separate the world into two disjoint sets, one of which is good to photograph and the other not good to photograph, then I agree. People care about different things, and while I happen to care about trees, some folks don’t. I should photograph trees, and those people who don’t care about trees might find it helpful to photograph something else. So it’s possible, I suppose that Rockwell and I are in violent agreement. But I don’t think thats the case.

If what is being said is that the subject only matters in the sense that it provides compositional fodder, I am at a complete loss. Why, then, does Sebastio Salgado go to great effort to travel to the places he does and photograph the people he does? Surely there are people close to his home who are roughly the same size and shape and would be a lot more convenient.

As several commenters point out, it’s wise to stay away from absolutes. So in the end perhaps all I can say is this: subject matters to me, and it appears that it matters to some other photographers as well. Maybe that means I’m doing one thing, and Ken Rockwell is doing something different, and the two activities are connected only because both involve cameras. And that’s just fine, if somewhat confusing.


Posted in aesthetics, technique by Paul Butzi on January 14, 2010


Just to clarify…

What Ken Rockwell says is “in photographic art, it’s never about the subject.” [emphasis mine] and “The actual subject doesn’t matter.” [again, emphasis mine].

What I am trying to say is that subject does matter.

Here’s a useful distinction. If something must be present for the photograph to be successful, then that thing is necessary. If the presence of something guarantees that the photograph will be successful, then that thing is sufficient.

Rockwell appears to be arguing that subject is not necessary, and that strong, graphic composition is sufficient.

I am arguing that subject is necessary, and that strong graphic composition is not sufficient. It is, for all practical purposes, impossible to make a compelling photograph by making a strong, graphic composition of brightly colored idealized featureless geometric solids resting on a featureless geometric plane.

Here are some arguments I am not making:

  1. strong, graphic composition is never helpful.
  2. when deliberately striving for a strong, graphic composition, it is not helpful to ignore what things are, and instead think of them as three dimensional solids projected onto a two dimensional plane.
  3. subject matter is sufficient – that is, given very strong subject matter, composition no longer matters.

Craft and technology

Posted in aesthetics, digital printing, materials, paper, process, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on June 14, 2009


Colin Jago has some interesting points in response to my Kindle post. Colin writes (in part)

Printing used to be a craft. Ignore for the moment the old question of whether printing was also an art, for it most certainly was a craft regardless of that. It was something to get good at through practice and effort. And, do you know what, it still is. Yet, unlike the traditional wet darkroom, it is also very much a big business technology change driven occupation. That means that innovations are likely to sweep though the business regularly. A good thing, yes, but the downside is that change writes off our personal time investment in existing technologies. It might also mean that fewer people persist with any given technology to perfect and stretch it.

It isn’t that fanciful to imagine a time in the near future when people are trading the last ink cartridges and maintaining stocks of old fashioned rag papers just like they now do for dye transfer materials. The difference being that such changes will happen multiple times per lifetime.

Where does that leave the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to learn to do something well?

I’ve spent, over the course of my life, an awful lot of time in various darkrooms. I doubt I’ve hit the 10 kilohour mark, but there was a time when I could produce pretty nice prints in the wet darkroom.

Some of the skills I acquired during that time had to do with physical mastery of darkroom tools. I learned how to burn and dodge without leaving obvious trails. I learned how to develop film and prints with consistency. I learned how to control the temperature of things with great reliability and precision. But those physical skills were, in the end, not the hard part of making good prints.

If I can draw on an analogy I like, those skills are to first rate printing in a wet darkroom as knowing how to use the steering wheel, accelerator, and brake are to a successful road trip. They’re skills that are necessary, but not sufficient. Unless you can control the car, you can’t travel by auto successfully. The big problem to be faced with travel by automobile, though, is not knowing how to drive, it’s knowing where you want to go. Anyone can learn to drive and then drive around in the US. It takes Charles Kuralt to drive around the US, find compelling stories in the lives of ordinary people, and present them in a way that changed the people’s understanding of the world they lived in.

And so it was with printing in the darkroom. The understanding of the physical principles needed can be taught quickly. The problem in the wet darkroom is, in the end, not a matter of knowing how to get what you want. It’s being good at knowing what you want, and being sufficiently open to serendipitous discovery that you aren’t just a machine whacking out yet another full range print each and every time.

So, not only did I learn the physical skills needed in the wet darkroom, but I also learned some about what I can only call “thinking about images”. By this I don’t mean thinking about images in some philosophic sense, but more a matter of thinking about images in the sense that I understand how to visualize different ways an image can be presented, and can more or less articulate a goal for how I want an image to look when I print it. Once you get there (and some of the process of working that out inevitably involves some experimentation), then it’s a matter of figuring out how to get a reasonable approximation of that to appear on the paper when you run it through the tray line.

That skill, which I think is the real craft part of darkroom work, came along with me when I transitioned from printing in the wet darkroom and into the world of digital printing. I already knew how to think of regions of a print in terms of density and contrast. I was already familiar with the idea of print tone and how it could be used to get the right ‘feel’ in a print. I knew about balance and tonal weight, and I knew quite a lot about how to trick the human visual system into certain responses (like ‘wet’ or ‘curved’) when I wanted. So my transition into digital printing was largely a matter of learning how to control density and contrast with new tools. The basic problem to be confronted had not changed – it was just a different tool set, and a display material with different properties.

So I guess my point is that the transition to digital printing didn’t suddenly put me on an even footing with someone just learning to print. It didn’t start me over with a new 10K hour counter set to zero. Some part of those long hours in a small room lit with a dim red bulb counted, in some very important way, toward the 10K hours that it will take me to become an maker of outstanding inkjet prints.

And so, I think, with the inevitable shift from inkjet printing to whatever comes along and displaces that. Photo Kindles do not magically take raw files and turn them into expressive photo displays. Humans do that, and I very much suspect that the skills needed are more or less independent of display medium. Not completely – not quite completely. But very close.

Desire, Noise, Resolution

Posted in aesthetics, equipment by Paul Butzi on September 29, 2007

There was this interesting post on TOP about noise, resolution, and whether or not seeking higher resolution and lower noise will improve your photography. Mike Johnston writes persuasively:

But the fact remains, it is just as possible to take a wholly successful, excellent, outstanding picture with a sensor that has tons of noise, as it is to take such a picture with a sensor that has no noise; it is just as possible to take a great picture that has almost no resolution as it is to take one with very high resolution; it is just as possible to take a great picture with a lens that distorts badly as it is to take one with a lens that does not distort at all; and the list goes on to all the other technical properties that we concern ourselves with so happily. We should not lose sight of that.

And I don’t disagree. I’ve seen too many wonderful photos with supertanker loads of grain to argue that grain ruins a photo. And when I’m tempted to think that a lack of resolution makes things impossible, I’m reminded of the beautiful work that Chris Crandall did in the Washington Palouse with a pinhole camera – just broad washes of color that do a wonderful job of evoking that landscape.

And, truth be told, lately it seems the argument seems to run the other way, as with the recent dustup about digital B&W being too noise free and thus seeming plastic. I don’t put much stock in that, but that’s the argument being made.

One thing being ignored in all the discussion, though, is this: there are these image properties: noise, resolution, distortion. The information gradient of these things has a definite slope, and when people are clamoring for noise free cameras, high resolution lenses and sensors, distortion free optics – what they are clamoring for is the top of the slope rather than some point downslope (perhaps at the bottom of the slope).

That is, it’s easy to ADD noise to an image, and it’s a damn sight harder to get the noise out. It’s easy to reduce the resolution of the image (and in fact you can reduce the resolution in interesting ways by having different shapes to the spatial resolution filter), but it’s essentially impossible to add resolution. And it’s trivial to add distortion to an undistorted image, but it’s again an uphill battle to correct distortion that’s built in.

So given a choice, it makes sense to yearn for a camera that is noise free, has infinitely high resolution, and no distortion. Then, the amount of noise, resolution, and distortion in the final image are determined by the artist exercising creative decision making, and not by the imposed constraints of the equipment. Not enough noise in the image to suit your historically based preference for photos that depict homeless people with lots of gritty noise? Just add some in, until your homeless people look suitably downtrodden, unwashed, and supped full with despair. Too much resolution in your photos of scantily clad women to give you the fine art look to which you aspire? Run a low pass filter over the image, your wish is granted and your images take the shape after which you lust. Not enough distortion to suit you? Dial in a little barrel distortion, throw in some chromatic abberation, and you’ve turned your $8k EOS 1ds Mk III into an instant Holga (or just mount a holga plastic lens or Lensbaby on the body, if you like).

But God help you if what you want is high resolution, low noise, low distortion images like those you could get from your EOS 1ds Mk III and your L series lenses, but all you have is a Holga loaded with TMZ.

It makes little sense to argue that good photographs can’t have noise, must be high resolution, can’t have distortion. On the flip side, it makes just as little sense to insist that photos MUST have noise, can’t be high resolution, and shouldn’t be distortion free. There are more styles of photography in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in ANY philosophy.

But when we’re picking (or yearning for) equipment, it makes sense to choose the equipment that preserves the greatest number of photographic options for us. And that means that even though we might not need a camera that’s fast, has high resolution, low distortion, fast lenses, and a very high resolution low noise sensor, it might make sense to buy one anyway, just because we never know what we’ll want in the future.

Print Properties

Posted in aesthetics, digital printing, hp z3100, materials, process, Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on July 8, 2007

Ed Richards asks

How do you feel about prints as objects? Things to feel and touch, the effect of different papers?

I like prints.  I like big prints, and if I had infinite wall space, I’d probably make a lot more big prints than I do.  But I also like medium prints, and most of the prints I make are 10"x15" these days.  That’s big enough to be able to see what’s going on with the photo, but small enough that you can fit them into a nice portable box or portfolio case.  I like small prints, too, although I don’t seem to have the same reverence for the small print that the ‘quiet photography’ folks do.

But in comparision to viewing photos on a screen, or viewing photos projected (either slides or a projection monitor) I think prints beat the screen all hollow.  I like holding the print in my hands, I like the fact that it’s a real, physical object with its own concrete existence.  I understand completely that there are photographers for whom it doesn’t matter if the process doesn’t end in a physical object, but for me, the process doesn’t feel complete until I’ve got a real print in my hands.

In other words, my views about the reproducibility, uniqueness, and value of the print have changed with my switch to digital printing.  But the value of actual prints in my process, and the satisfaction I get from making prints is still the same.

One of the things I really like about digital printing is that I can stick a wide variety of papers into my printer, and get results that are different.  In some cases, the differences directly affect the qualities of the print (dMax, for instance).  But in most cases when I choose one paper over another, it’s a matter of what I think of as the physical properties of the paper – the way it feels in your hand, the flexibility and weight and thickness, the surface texture, and so on. 

That’s one of the reasons why I’d like to own an HP z3100 – the built in profiling would allow me access to far more papers than my current Epson 9600 does.  And the built in profiling would let me evaluate papers with a lot less effort (and a smaller quantity of paper) than I currently can.  If there’s a reason I haven’t yet bought a z3100, it’s that I know that the instant I have it up and running, I’ll launch into a frenzy of paper evaluation.

I know that there are folks who feel that digital photography and on screen viewing of photos signals the death of the print.  But my view is that eventually, photographers who don’t print their work will find the on-screen experience disappointing, and they’ll turn to printing.

And I think the current tidal wave of new papers, inks, printers, etc. are the beginning of a great golden age of the photographic print.

The impact of printless photography

Posted in aesthetics, the art world, web issues by Paul Butzi on May 8, 2007


For the entire period I’ve been involved in photography, the photographic print has been the ‘end of process’ point.  When I was a kid, my Dad taught me how to work in the darkroom – how to develop film, how to make prints.  I learned the basics of image control – contrast selection, burning, dodging.  And always, the basis for the decision on how an image turned out was how I felt about it when looking at a print.  This attitude that in the final analysis, it’s the print that matters – for me, that continues to this day.  Right now, I’ve got 18 prints up on the wall in my work space, where I can see them and think about them every day.

Watching the online photographic world over the past few years, I’ve noticed that more and more, I’m seeing people who seem to be pretty involved with photography who have little or no experience with prints.  Here’s an example – Paul Lester, who wrote recently about his decision to start printing some of his work.  If you’d pointed this out to me before, I’d have said that Paul was behind the curve.  Now, I’m not so sure.

In the past, there were basically three endpoints for the photographic endeavor – the ‘drugstore’ print (which was the display medium of choice for millions of photographers), prints made by the photographer (the choice of almost all high end amateurs, and a fair number of pros), and transparencies (the choice for a lot of amateurs and pros).

Those ‘drugstore’ prints were (and often still are) horrid.  The photographer had little control over the process, process control was often not very good, and the photographer couldn’t make ANY adjustments to his/her work.  If you cared about what your work looked like, you had a LOT of incentive to either get it printed by a custom printer, or else learn to print it yourself.

In contrast, today, lots of people get good control for what they consider to be the obvious final destination for their photographs – the screen of their computer.  In fact, the control they get is quite a bit better than the control I had in the darkroom when I was a kid.  The downside seems to be that no one ever looks at the images for very long – it’s up on the screen, people look at it, then they move on to the next one.  The image on the screen isn’t like the image on a piece of paper on the wall, or in your hands.  No one sits down and gazes at an image on the screen of their computer for five minutes straight.  No one looks at the same image every day for a week while the electric kettle heats water for tea. The primary attribute of the image on the screen is that it’s not persistent.

So, despite the fact that digital photograph has dropped great controls into the hands of a large number of photographers, I have some doubts.  We have tools like Lightroom, marketed as the be all tool for photographers, that lacks local controls (dodging, burning, local contrast control, etc.).  I see a lot of work on the web, done by people who seem to be quite serious, that’s essentially the straight image.

Anyway, I’d expected that the digital revolution – digital capture, digital editing, and digital output – would result in vast numbers of people who would be freed up to take the next step with their photographs – to take control of how every aspect of it is reflected in the final presentation.  Strangely, the same digital revolution seems to have pushed things toward a much more ephemeral presentation, and as a result, everything seems to be drifting away from the creative process that I think is the most exciting part of a multi-step process.  Why invest a lot of effort in getting the image just right when it’s just on the screen for a minute or two?

UPDATE: See Paul Lester’s comments.  I have to apologize for pretty badly misreading the thrust of Paul’s post, and badly mischaracterizing Paul’s photographic history as well.  And I think that Paul advances the discussion a great deal when he points out that a) photography can be different things to different people, and there’s no reason why a photogapher who views prints as the final destination is better than one who doesn’t, and b) the fact that someone doesn’t view a print as the goal of the process doesn’t imply that they aren’t engaging in what I used to think of as ‘creating an expressive print’ but will now have to find a new name for.

New Landscapist

Posted in aesthetics, art is a verb, interesting blogs by Paul Butzi on April 11, 2007

In response to my comment that “I’m not a post-modernist”, Christoph Hammann asked “What then would you call yourself?”

Well, that’s been on my mind, on and off.  On because it’s one of those questions for which you feel you ought to have a ready answer.  Off, because I think it’s one of those questions like “What is Art?” where you find that having the answer wouldn’t change anything.

So I pondered it briefly but stopped when life intervened, like when my wife asked me to figure out why the paper kept jamming the laser printer (it turned out to be 8×5″ x 11″ paper in name, but more like 8.6″ x 11.1″ in practice, a fact I discovered after fiddling trying to get it to feed in BOTH laser printers), and felling a Big Leaf Maple on the stream side of the house.  Big Leaf Maples often have multiple stems; this one had five, and felling the first four went without a hitch, with them landing one atop the other in the neat row I had planned, right where I wanted.  The fifth stem, though, started twisting as it came down, jumped off the stump in a fit of pique (missed me by about four feet, thanks for your concern) and leapt sideways to land atop the trellis on the patio after sending my wife fleeing.  Trellis was undamaged.  There’s nothing like a big heavy tree coming down on something you desperately DON’T want crushed to divert your attention from post-modernism.

So I hadn’t made much progress through the weekend, nor the first part of the week.  So I was delighted to wander over to Mark Hobson’s The Landscapist and read his most recent entry, which reads 

That said, it seems that there is an emerging middle ground out there where the two cultural paradigms collide and out of the smashed particles a new stew is being brewed – perhaps a kind of post-postmodernism.

Photography-wise, a place where neither intellectual concept nor visual referent reign supreme. A place where the skeptical/questioning gaze of the camera does not descend fully into the ‘end-of-the-line-everything-is-used-up’ paradigm of postmodernism but rather, it creates a glimmer of it’s-not-over-yet hope because, unlike postmodernism, the photographer actually believes that the referent matters.

A place where, even though the referent matters, the skeptical/questioning gaze of the camera never places it on an altar of idoltry that drips with sappy sentimentality. A place where the referent is addressed with a respect that preserves it’s authenticity but still allows the photography-observer to move well beyond the ‘actuality of the real world’.

A place where the denoted and the connoted co-exist on equal footing. A place where photography can both illustrate and illuminate.

In short, a place where I want to be.

I like his description of this place.  If I’m going to call myself something, I’d like to call myself whatever this thing gets called.

I think the name ‘post-post-modernist’ is not very helpful; I’d suggest that we instead just call people who are aiming for the place he describes as New Landscapists, because that’s what my bookmark to his blog says.  (The ‘new’ is there because I used to have a link to his blog at the old URL, before he moved it.)

So I guess I’m both an Art-is-a-Verbist, and a New Landscapist.

I’m a big believer in shamelessly quoting someone else when they’ve done a better job than I can do, so I’ve quoted rather a lot of Hobson’s post.  So here’s why you need to go over to the post and read it there – I really like the photo he’s chosen to go with the post.  Awesome.  Go over to his blog and read the entries for the last week or two – following Hobson as he threads the needle makes for great reading.

More on Wide and Deep

Posted in aesthetics, process, the art world by Paul Butzi on April 5, 2007


In this comment on this post, Mark Hobson writes:

One man’s ‘wide’ is another man’s ‘deep’ and, of course, vice-versa

In concentrating his ‘view’ on the ‘wide’ surface of things – his referent (subject) – Shore has, IMO, opened up a very ‘deep’ level on the conoted – the inferred – in his views.

In the postmodernist tradition, I don’t think that Shore’s visually obvious referent is his intended ’subject’ matter. Without going into great detail, I don’t think Shore is commenting on the state of American toiletry. Rather, toilets and greasy food are metaphorical vehicles for his true intentions- commenting on the rather shallow – residing on the surface – nature of American culture – it’s homogenized and banal nature.

Sure, sure.  The very intentional shallowness of Shore’s American Surfaces work is actually really a cunningly concealed deepness, because Shore’s work is supposed to work at a deep metaphorical level and is actually a commentary on shallowness, so it’s deep because it’s shallow.  I’m sure there are people who are still fascinated by this intellectual masturbation but I’m afraid I’m not buying.

Here’s why – if Shore’s work is, despite its shallowness, actually deep because it works metaphorically, then Plowden’s work is even deeper because not only is it superficially deep, it’s metaphorically deep as well.  And to add even more weight to Plowden’s work, it can actually be viewed as a a meta-metaphoric commentary on the shallowness of Shore’s metaphoric commentary on the shallowness of American culture.  This is obviously the case, because not only is Shore’s work so shallow that the metaphoric deepness of it is obvious even to the oblivious, but the profound lack of shallowness of Plowden’s work can only be be interpreted as an intentional metaphoric side commentary on the shallowness of the metaphor of Shore’s work.

And my work is even deeper still, because by being deep in reference to Plowden’s work, it becomes a meta-meta-metaphoric commentary on the relative value of Plowden’s work in the Modernist tradition and Shore’s work in the post-modernist tradition, and the folly of work that is merely metaphoric or meta-metaphoric.

So, it turns out, my work is the deepest of all, until someone makes work that is meta-meta-meta-metaphoric commentary on my work.  Actually, I think the work of Lewis Hine, which is so incredibly deep and so obviously a commentary about shallowness, deepness, and metaphoric commentary, is incredibly enough work done in anticipation of my work, and is best read as a text that actually comments on my work done 8 decades later.  Unless, of course, my work is, at a further metaphoric level, actually a commentary about Hine’s work, in which case the depth of both my work and Hine’s becomes infinite because of recursive descent.

And that’s why I’m not a post-modernist.  You get really great payback on minimal intellectual investment, but you end up with conclusions that at first seem incredibly profound and in the end are empty of meaning.  The conclusions are always like those amazing revelations you have when you’re using recreational drugs and come up with some astounding, shattering, incredible revelation that you think will alter the course of humanity, and so to preserve the entire future history of humanity you frantically write the revelation down lest you get hit by a bus and it is lost forever.  And then when the drugs have worn off, you find the piece of paper and it reads “Bob’s hat is really ugly.”

Who are photographs made for?

Posted in aesthetics, the art world by Paul Butzi on April 2, 2007


Some time back, Tim Atherton asked in the comments on a post here “But, that aside, are photographs made for photographers or for people in general? “

I’ve been thinking about that comment for quite a while now. 

I’d observe that any individual photograph is probably made for multiple audiences.  Photographs are made with an audience of relatives, or people related to the scene.  Sometimes they’re made with a general audience – anyone who’s interested in city street life, for instance.  So it’s often very hard to generalize about the intended audience for photography as a general thing.

Despite this difficulty, I think there are two generalizations that can safely be made.

1.  Virtually every photograph made includes the photographer as an audience.  I think it’s the rare photographer who does not look at his/her own work at some point.  So the statement ‘Photographs are generally made for photographers’ would seem to be true.

This comes off as somewhat dismissive of the original concern, but I don’t think it really is.  Except for a very small fraction of photographers (e.g. professionals) one of the main goals a photographer has in mind when she sets out to make a photograph is the reward of engaging in the process.  Some folks make photographs because they want the end result (either to sell to a client, or to paste into their scrapbook) but the overwhelming majority of amateur photographers (and essentially ALL art photographers) make photographs because they enjoy making photographs.  And that’s a damn fine reason.

2.  Only a vanishly small fraction of the photographs made are made with art critics as the major intended audience.  I believe this says something fairly important about the role of art critics and art criticism in the world.

The Next Level

Posted in aesthetics, art is a verb, process, the art world by Paul Butzi on March 27, 2007


By now, it seems likely that everyone has read George Barr’s Taking Your Photography to the Next Level Part One and Part Two.  I had a partly written post that was largely along the lines of Colin Jago’s response to part two but as usual Colin has both beat me to the ‘publish’ button and done a better writing job.  If you haven’t already read Colin’s view, go read it now and just think “Paul would have said much the same thing’ at the end.  (Colin has, in fact, pretty succinctly described how I go about photography as a general thing.)

To summarize Barr’s view as succinctly as I can:  Put together a portfolio of one to three dozen of your ‘very best images’.  Show them to other people, and get feedback.  Suggested places to get feedback in this way include friends, camera clubs, online review websites, and Barr’s strongest recommendation, workshops.  The goal to getting all this feedback is understanding where you fall on Barr’s aesthetic and technical rankings.

Like Barr, I think feedback is an important part of the artistic process.  It’s very hard to make your art progress in isolation.  But any agreement ends right there.

I don’t think the kind of feedback that Barr is proposing is very helpful.  I think if you show a friend your ‘Greatest Hits’, you’re going to learn how little your friend wants to hurt your feelings.  If you show them to a camera club, all you’re going to learn is how closely your work conforms to the ‘aesthetic rules’ used by that club to judge its monthly print competitions.  If you post your images on an online review site, you’re going to get useless feedback along the lines lamented by Mike Johnston.  I think if you take one to three dozen of your prints and show them to a gallery owner, you’re going to learn exactly one thing – whether or not the gallery owner believes he/she can sell your work.  And I don’t think any of those things is even remotely useful in making artistic progress.

If you haven’t read The Monday Night Manifesto and The Monday Night Group, go and read them.  They explain my views on getting feedback on your photography better than any short blurb I might write.  But the short version is this: the feedback that counts is feedback that is based on looking at the progress of your work, both the good AND the bad, over a span of years, and not on looking at a ‘Greatest Hits’ album a single time.  In the long run, the important thing is not the strength or weakness of individual images, but the overall direction of your work.  The valuable feedback is along the lines of “I notice you have lots of photos you feel don’t quite work, and most of them seem to be along the lines of… Have you thought about that?”, and not “I think you should print this a little harder”.

It seems to me that Barr is focusing on figuring out the answer to the question “How does my work stack up against the work of others?”, and I think that the answer is going to be almost perfectly useless.  I think you’ll get far more useful informatin if you seek feedback that gets you answers to the questions I propose at the end of Art is a Verb:

1. Does this work open up new avenues for me to explore?

2. Do I understand more about anything as a result of making this work?

3. Now that I’ve made this work, what will I make next?