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.

Poetry/Photography

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on May 3, 2010

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I’m constantly amazed at how much connection I see between seemingly unrelated fields of artistic enterprise, in this case poetry and photography…

‘Why do you want to write poetry?’ If the young man answers ‘I have important things to say’, then he is not a poet. If he answers ‘I like hanging around words, listening to what they have to say’, then maybe he is going to be a poet.

-W. H. Auden

Or, if I might translate this across into the world of photography, there’s a certain kind of photography you get when you pick up the camera with an agenda, and a different sort of photography you get when you pick up the camera because you’re curious.

I’ve often said that when I’m making photographs, I’m trying to figure things out, not convey some idea. I’m not coming to the camera with answers, I’m coming to the camera with questions. From my point of view, this is really good news, because in the final analysis I have a towering mountain of questions and an almost non-existent little ant-heap of answers. If I had to rely on answers to make photographs, I’d make one or two, and then I’d be done.

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.

Sapir/Whorf

Posted in Leica M9, process by Paul Butzi on April 2, 2010

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in the comments on this post Nathan writes:

it seems to me (but i may be way off base here) that you’re saying your new photographic tool has a profound influence over the kind of images you are inspired to make.

i have only 5-6 years of photographic image making experience, and i’ve used several different kinds of (digital) cameras and so i kind of get how different tools affect how and what i photograph.

i guess i’m just surprised by the degree to which the use of new equipment alters the way you see and make images. i know it is not the case, but it almost sounds as if the camera is the determinative factor in the creative process.

I don’t think it’s any great secret that I think the equipment we use affects how we see photographically.

It happens in small ways. Put a fixed focal length lens on your camera, and commit to using just that lens for a while. At first, you’ll see all sorts of photographs, including quite a few that can’t be made with the lens you’re using. After a while, almost all the photographs you see will match the lens you’re using. It’s not that you see fewer photographs; it’s not that your brain is editing out all the photos you can’t make. It’s that your seeing adjusts.

Switch to a different lens, and over time the adjustment happens again.

In this case, switching cameras doesn’t so much affect how I see photographically as it changes *when* I see. The M9 is a carry everywhere camera; the 5dmkII is a use for specific situations camera. So the set of opportunities is different. I have the M9 with me almost all the time, and unsurprisingly I’ve made a number of photos like this:

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It turns out I have made relatively few photographs of the scene after I eat my breakfast. Although it’s a camera issue, it’s different from the lens affecting seeing. It’s about having the camera present during a different set of opportunities. The stream of potential photographs flows past us all the time. What’s changed is that now, once again, I usually have a camera at hand, and so I’m likely to open the shutter on the scene.

So while the camera is determining what gets photographed, it’s doing it in a way that is not quite what people might expect.

Ground

Posted in Leica M9, process by Paul Butzi on March 23, 2010

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We’re sort of programmed to look horizontally. When I took forestry classes, I learned to look up, into the canopy of the forest, as well as horizontally.

The camera has been teaching me to look down, straight down, for some time now. You think of the ground as just ‘ground’ but it’s rather startling to see what’s actually down there when you look without thinking ‘ground’ as you do it.

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.

Unconscious

Posted in Leica M9, process by Paul Butzi on March 9, 2010

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I made the trip down into the bustling metropolis of Carnation today, to have lunch with my friend Alex. I went a little early and took a stroll around town with the M9 and the 35mm. The 50mm and 35mm had quite the argument about who got to ride on the camera today.

I got plenty of honks, and a few that are not exactly honks but not quite winners either. I’ve been a little surprised at how tightly composed things are coming out on the edges. These two are uncropped. There’s no thought there, it’s just been lift camera to eye, tweak focus, press shutter. The same habits from the walks with the 5dmkII, extended into the somewhat more snappy world of the M9.

The ‘move thumb to cock shutter’ reflex is now gone, replaced with the ‘forefinger turns on camera’ reflex if the shutter doesn’t fire.

I’ve gotten several questions about whether I’m processing these differently from the exposures made on the 5DmkII. My processing remains the same, with two exceptions: 1) I’ve been tweaking color temperature for each M9 exposure because so far they have been all over the map and some intervention has been called for to get things normalized, and 2) I’ve taken to adjusting tonality with the image in toned grayscale, then turning off the greyscale conversion layer. I’ve been doing this more and more with the 5DmkII images, and have made it a regular practice with the images from the M9. I’m of two minds about whether I like this or not; it’s still in the experimental stage.

Comments Off on Unconscious

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.

Subject

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

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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.