Musings on Photography

Discuss

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on May 7, 2010

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From Terry Teachout’s About Last Night:

“It is the immemorial dream of the talentless that a sufficient devotion to doctrine will produce art.”

David Mamet, Theatre

I like Mamet’s work a lot, both stage and screen. But I disagree with this statement for a couple of reasons. Or maybe I agree with it but think it means something different from what a lot of folks think it means.

I’m a big believer in Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, which he explains in his book Outliers. Simply put, the rule is that in order to get really good at something, you have to put in about 10,000 hours working at it. It doesn’t much matter what the something is: playing guitar, or making photos, or writing novels, I suppose. Ten thousand hours. Sounds like a lot, but if you spent 10 hours a day on something, you’d tick over the 10,000 hour mark in under three years. That’s a nontrivial effort, surely, but it’s by no means impossible.

I suspect that what people call ‘talent’ is actually one of two things:

  1. ‘Undeveloped talent’ – what people show when they’re quite young – is an interest in a subject that might be sufficiently strong to carry them over the 10,000 hour mark in their pursuit of that subject.
  2. ‘developed talent’ – what people are usually talking about when they say ‘Oh, she’s so talented’ – is more a recognition that they’ve climbed over the 10,000 hour mark.

So I read that Mamet quote, and I’m thinking a lot of people read it as “If you haven’t got talent, forget about it”. But what Mamet is actually saying is that if you haven’t got talent, no amount of blindly following the rules will produce art. And, yes, I agree that this is probably true, if by ‘Art’ you mean ‘Art that will be viewed with widespread acclaim’.

I guess my point would be that if you’re putting in your 10,000 hours to get good at something artistic (photography, or playwriting, or playing violin, or chainsaw sculpture), you’re engaging in artmaking. It may be that what you crank out won’t win widespread acclaim, at least not until you’ve paid your dues and put in the 10k hours. But your experience – what really matters in the personal sense – is still that you’re making art.

And that doesn’t magically change when you hit 10,000 hours. You struggle with things after 2 hours. You still struggle with things at 1000 hours, although they’re probably different things. And you struggle with things at 20,000 hours, too, because the struggle is part of the process. You don’t wake up one morning and think “Oh, now I’ve paid my dues, and I’m on the gravy train! From here on, making art is as easy as breathing.” Oh, no, life isn’t like that.

Are there inherent differences in ability? Sure. Lance Armstrong is a genetic freak; he can perform at an aerobic level higher than the highest I can achieve, and his heart rate will be lower than mine is when I’m strolling down my driveway. No amount of training is going to make me able to compete with Lance Armstrong. The same is true in any field of endeavor – music, or mathematics, or weightlifting. Some folks just have more inherent ability than others.

It’s easy to look at Mozart and Da Vinci and Carravagio, Newton and Einstein and Liebniz, and say “Oh, well, their achievements all happened because of their inherent ability.” But this doesn’t really help much, because it’s utterly unhelpful in deciding how to arrange your own actions and your own life.

Maybe you’ll never write plays like Mamet, or make sculptures like Michelangelo. But you probably won’t know that for sure until you’ve put in a substantial fraction of Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.

An awful lot of photographs

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on April 18, 2010

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I very much enjoy About Last Night, a blog written by (among others) Terry Teachout. One of the recent entries consisted of the following quote, which I like quite a lot:

“The way to determine whether you have talent is to rummage through your files and see if you have written anything; if you have, and quite a lot, then the chances are you have the talent to write more. If you haven’t written anything, you do not have the talent because you don’t want to write. Those who do can’t help themselves.”

George V. Higgins, On Writing

I don’t much care for the word talent, for reasons I’ve covered here before. But if we take this usage to mean “you are likely to be successful”, I think that the quotation seems pretty much on the mark. What’s more, I think it generalizes well. Look at your files. If they include quite a lot of photographs, then you’ll probably meet with success as a photographer.

All this reminds me of a wonderful ad that delighted me many years ago. Data General, a smallish company that built minicomputers, ran an ad that announced their plan to sell a lot of their minicomputers, and went on to say “Because if you’re going to make a small inexpensive computer you have to sell a lot of them to make a lot of money. And we intend to make a lot of money.”

I bought the M9 because I’m hoping that having a camera close at hand pretty much all the time will mean I’ll take an awful lot of photographs, because if you want to reap the rewards of photography, you have to make an awful lot of photographs. And I intend to reap the rewards of photography, even if my rewards might not look much like the rewards everyone else seems to want.

Practice and exercises

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on March 22, 2010

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Michael Johnston has an interesting post over on TOP about some exercises he recommends. I don’t have much to say about Mike’s suggested exercises – I think they’re probably pretty useful. It’s really the comments that I find interesting.

The interesting thing about the comments is that they reflect a trend I’ve noticed before – that the people who protest that the exercises are stupid and counterproductive and useless are the people who have never done and would never consider such exercises.

I mean, what’s the cost? The one exposure exercise is opportunity cost only, a fallacy if there ever was one. Potential photographs stream past us at infinite rate, and all we can do is dip into the stream now and then. How many photos have we missed if we don’t make any photos? An infinite number. How many photos have we missed if we take one? The same infinite number. How many have we missed if we take 10,000? The same infinite number.

And the ‘make a lot of photos’ exercise – what can the possible harm be? You go out with your DSLR for some time, and you make 300 exposures, and perhaps all of them are crap. Ok, delete them.

It’s staggering to me that so many photographers think photography is about sitting at a computer and reading stuff on the internet, or sitting with a book and reading about photography in their den. And it’s really about – dare I utter the phrase? – *making photographs*.

As Ted Orland puts it, the function of 99% of the art you make is to enable you to make the 1% that soars. You can’t go through life making only perfect art. You have to make a vast, staggering pile of stuff that falls between outright mistakes and stuff that’s pretty damn good but not quite there, along with the stuff that takes people’s breath away.

The thing about photography, especially digital photography, is that the feedback is so good and so fast. Make some photos. Look at them – are they good, or bad? Which ones are good? Make more like that. Which ones are bad? Make fewer like that. Repeat. The more photographs you make, the more feedback you get. If you don’t make photographs, you don’t get any feedback. It’s not rocket surgery.

Maybe the reason I feel this way is that I think *I* ought to make more photographs. A lot more photographs.

I haven’t taken it yet

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on March 7, 2010

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What seems like a very long time ago, I wrote a little essay titled “Art is a Verb, Not a Noun“. In it, I advanced my argument that it’s the actual practice of artmaking that’s important, and not the objects that are the end result.

Viewed from this process standpoint, the best art is not the art that you buy, it’s the art that you participated in making. From the process perspective the photograph you made this morning is more valuable than a vintage print of Moonrise over Hernandez, NM. And the photograph you print tomorrow is more valuable than Pepper #30. Most importantly, the photograph you are making right now is the most important photograph of all, because it’s an unfinished image; you’re actually in the process. Process is important; the print is just an artifact, a byproduct of the process. The real goal of making art is to be making art, not the objects you create.

So I was delighted to read this interview with Lord Snowdon, where when asked if he had a favorite photograph, he replied

“Yes.” Pause. “I haven’t taken it yet.”

The photos you have yet to make are better than all the ones you’ve made. The photos you’ve made are all dead, ossified things. They’re mementos of an event, and not the event itself. Only the one you’re making right now and all the ones beyond it hold out the prospect of being in that process.

Look

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on February 16, 2010

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Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray, i.e. we are not looking for it. So, in the largest sense, we find only the world we look for.

Henry Thoreau – [Journal, 2 July 1857]

Keep looking for it.

Automated art

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on December 8, 2009

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Some time back at the beginning of November, everyone was all atwitter about how Google Streets will make photography obsolete. Why bother taking photos when it’s already been photographed by Google, the image is available on Google, etc.

I think that’s silly, and not just because of the obvious refutation that there are actually a lot of places Google Streets doesn’t cover, such as your kitchen table or your back yard or your bedroom closet.

But suppose we had an amazing array of cameras that reached everywhere and photographed everything, all the time. That is, we could, on demand, browse through a library of images and find one that was made at any spot on the planet at any given moment in history, with the camera pointed in whatever direction we chose. Would that make photography obsolete?

Well, it would certainly change things. But in essence, what it means is that we’ve replaced going out into the world and finding photographs with browsing through a computerized library and finding photographs. This is not quite the revolutionary change that everyone seems to think it would be.

Beyond that, though, it presupposes that the entire point to going out with a camera and making photographs is the end result – photographs. And, in the end, I just don’t think that any more.

Last night I had the good fortune to be at the awards ceremony for something called the Young Playwrights Program, which puts professional playwrights in classrooms so that they can teach kids to write plays. I think this is important. And I was pleased when playwright Paul Mullen took the time in his speech to tell the assembled throng of young playwrights that making plays matters. He told them that theatre is not just about mounting another production of a play written centuries ago by a guy who’s dead. It’s also about making new plays. He told them that when you write a play, something important happens, even if your play is never produced.

When you make photographs, something important and worthwhile happens, even if you never share the photographs you make. When you make photographs, something important and worthwhile happens, even if Google Streets has already made nearly identical photos of that spot. The important and worthwhile thing that happens is that you saw something, and you made a photograph of it. When you did this, you changed, inside. You are not the same person after making the photograph as you were before you made it. It’s a small change, yes, but little things are sometimes important things.

From Apshodel, That Greeny Flower, by William Carlos Williams

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

The Google Streets argument says that from a spectator’s point of view, there’s no meaningful difference between the photos you make, and the photos made by the automated camera on top of the Google van driving around. What the proponents of this argument are missing is that photography is not a spectator sport.

Sharing

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on December 6, 2009

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Via Kathleeen Conally’s twitter feed

“If nobody sees your photos, do they exist?” http://bit.ly/5oyIt9 RT @Expert_Photo #photography

Paul’s simple answer: Yes, they exist.

Paul’s longer answer: You bet they exist. If you make a lot of photos, and never show them to anyone, you’ve still showed them to the most important audience: yourself.

Don’t misunderstand. I think sharing your work is good. I share a lot (but not all) of my work. This blog and my static website exist partly as a way for me to share my work – to get feedback and comments from other folks. I founded a group of photographers who met every other week to share work; I was a member of that group for years, and left only with great disappointment for reasons unrelated to my feelings about sharing work.

But when we start talking as if sharing is the only thing, that the work is unimportant or doesn’t exist until we share it – that’s where I get off the train.

I share a lot of the photos I make, but I’ve made work, liked it, and destroyed it without showing it to a single soul. It wasn’t about sharing, it was about figuring something out. It was deeply personal, it was about how I felt and what I thought, and it was, dammit, private. Making it was important. Keeping it wasn’t. Sharing it would have been counterproductive.

If you share every piece of art you make, you’re never going to make deep, personal work. You’re always going to hold back. Privacy is a basic human need, like air and food and water.

So.

I think there’s a sharing/utility curve. At one end, we have never sharing your work. I think that’s sub-optimal. At the other end, we have always sharing your work. I think that’s suboptimal too. In between is a balance of sharing some stuff and not sharing other stuff, and somewhere between the two extremes is the optimum. Where the optimum is probably differs from person to person and changes over time.

Noticing

Posted in art is a verb by Paul Butzi on December 4, 2009

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Via Kathleen Conally’s twitter feed:

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” – Virginia Woolf

which I think sums up the motivation of a lot of photographers. At least, the desire to get people to see things they wouldn’t otherwise have noticed is something that’s mentioned often in photographer’s artist statements.

I’m good with that sentiment, but…

I’m better with the idea that my photography is about making visible what, without my engagement in the photographic process, might never have been seen by me. If the rest of you benefit, that’s a plus, but it isn’t actually necessary.

[entirely off-topic to this post, Kathleen’s A Walk Through Durham Township photoblog remains, after all these years, one of my favorites.]

Apparently, art has been a verb for some time now.

Posted in art is a verb by Paul Butzi on November 21, 2009

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“The word ‘art’ is very slippery. It really has no importance in relation to one’s work. I work for the pleasure, for the pleasure of the work, and everything else is a matter for the critics.”

-Manuel Alvarez Bravo

I don’t know that I have a whole lot to add to that sentiment.

Everyday

Posted in art is a verb by Paul Butzi on November 8, 2009

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I know there are folks for whom a farm gate is an exotic thing. For me, this gate is everyday. I walk from my house to this gate at least twice a day, every day, rain or shine. The dog and camera go with me on these walks, and although we walk the same path, twice a day, we’re discovering new things, every time. When you see something for the first time, you get the big impression. When you look at it every day, you come to see the subtle changes from day to day – not just how it looks after a rain, but the difference between how it looks after a hard rain and how it looks after a gentle shower.

Today, the drops of water hanging from the top of the gate caught my eye. So my question for the day is this: would I have noticed this if I hadn’t taken the camera on the walk? I’m guessing I wouldn’t. It’s not that a person can’t; I’m sure it’s possible. But for me, the camera is a big help.

That’s why I take the camera.