Musings on Photography

Circulation

Posted in motivation, shows, the art world by Paul Butzi on March 3, 2010

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I recently got some flattering email from a photographer I know and hold in very high regard; he told me he thought the work represented by one particular set of portfolios on my website was very strong and should have wider circulation. We exchanged emails a few more times, with him saying that the work ‘deserves more exposure’. (I’m not specifying which work nor who the photographer is because what I’m musing about is independent of who’s making the observation and the work).

I’ve said before that I’m of two minds about doing exhibits of my work. I do one little show a year, now, through an arrangement where I get a slot in a small gallery run by a group of photographers. Each year, I ponder giving up my slot, and each year I pretty much decide to go ahead, do the show, and kick the decision into the next year. And after I do the show, I reflect on what I got out of it, and I almost always conclude that it’s a cost and a hassle and I didn’t get much out of it, and that next year I’ll probably punt.

But the fact is that the show keeps me motivated and moving. In some sense it keeps me honest. And so I stubbornly cling to that one little show once per year.

The other part is that as time passed, I’ve become less and less motivated to do the work of promoting the photographs I made. I slowly drifted from actively promoting and thinking hard about ways to get more exposure and extract money from what I was creating, until I reached a point where I decided “You know, this is it. No more selling prints. I’m gonna put the stuff in some finished form on the website, and work in progress on the blog, and that’s it.”

The root problem, here, is that life is short and finite, and I’m increasingly aware that my time is limited, and so I’m getting fairly ruthless about deciding whether or not something is rewarding to me, and even more ruthless about not spending time doing things which aren’t rewarding. I guess I believe that the most obvious way to have a happy life is to categorize activity this way, and to the extent possible given your circumstances and obligations, do more of the stuff that makes you happy and less of the stuff that doesn’t.

And so I told this photographer, in essence, that I wasn’t much interested in promoting the work, that as long as I could get access to the things I want to photograph, I’m not interested in getting past the gates of the art world or the commercial world. His response was that I might feel that way now, but he thought the work could have a larger life than it does now.

I think that when someone you respect tells you something, you should pay attention. I am paying attention, and so I’m doing some hard thinking on this. When I create a body of work, do I have some obligation to get it some exposure? If one end of the scale is mercenary and ruthless promotion of work beyond its merit, the other end of the scale would be to hide work of merit under a bushel. My general observation is that on such scales, the optimum is almost always somewhere in the middle, and very rarely at one end or the other.

And so in the end I am in a muddle on this. It’s very difficult to see rewards to promoting the work that seem enticing to me, but at the same time it’s possible that there are rewards I’m not seeing.

The real questions

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on February 16, 2010

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Ok, I admit that when the discussion turns to the question “Is it Art” I get rapidly confused.

The consensus on the internet, now that everyone has finished gawking in enchanted wonder at it, seems to be that Michael Paul Smith’s photographs are NOT art. Amazing stuff, I thought.

I confess I am not sure why Smith’s photographs of carefully arranged scenes are NOT art, but Jeff Wall’s photographs of carefully arranged scenes are most definitely Art, and Elisabeth Bernstein’s wonderful “Scapes” are Art.

Box score: photographs of arranged scenes NOT art: 1, photographs of arranged scenes IS art: 2. Go figure. Cynical bastard that I am, I suspect in my heart of hearts that the answers here have a lot to do with whether the work is being sold in galleries or not.

The lesson I take away, here, is that when someone starts discussing the question “Is it Art”, we should immediately ask the following four questions:

  1. Where the hell did I put the camera?
  2. Which way do I point the camera?
  3. When do I do the shutter?
  4. Is that annoying person still yammering about “Is it Art”? If so, return to question 2.

Translation, please

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on February 13, 2010

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I recently came across the following text on a photographer’s web page. It appears to be in English but I when I read it, it’s like a drop of mercury rolling off a curved surface – it seems to be so slippery I just can’t get a grip on it.

Not Even But Almost is an investigative look at contemporary life and its unsatisfying nature. By looking intimately at perceived ideals of happiness in the out-there, we can understand how our in-here situations of containment and discontent are created. The understanding of the mind creating a mutually agreed upon reality becomes apparent in these external manifestations, unconsciously creating perpetual unsatisfactory situations. The relentlessness of discovering almost-understanding continues to persist through the inherent flaws in human nature. Through this work I hope to help viewers discover, the quest for wholeness is disguised in our pursuit of happiness.

Is that how other photographers approach what they do? I mean, really? Because that’s not how I do it.

I do it this way: I make some photos. I look at them. Almost always, I think (of one, or two, or some number) “Hmm, that’s interesting. I think I’ll make some more that are sort of like that, and see what happens.” And then I repeat.

And in doing that, sometimes I learn things about what I’m photographing, or I learn things about photographs, or in some rare cases I learn things about myself. Almost always I have a nice time, and end up happier and more content.

This isn’t earth shattering the way an investigative look at contemporary life and its unsatisfying nature would be, I agree. There’s no dealing with my in-here situation of containment and discontent, let alone how it’s created. There’s absolutely nothing dealing with how my mind creates a mutually agreed upon reality nor external manifestations, and nothing about unconsciously creating perpetual unsatisfactory situations.

Despite the lack of deep philosophical and art-theoretical underpinnings, I do seem to be having fun. I admit that I look forward to going to an exhibit of photos one day, and reading an artist statement along the lines of “I take photographs because when I take photographs, I have fun.”

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.

Disagreement

Posted in the art world, Websites by Paul Butzi on January 12, 2010

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Via this entry at Andreas Manessinger’s wonderful blog, I got pointed to this article on Ken Rockwell’s website. It’s about what makes a great photograph. Everything that’s in there, I probably agreed with at some time or another. I don’t think there was a time when I agreed with all of it, let alone a majority of it. Right now, reading through it, I disagree with almost everything he’s written.

One thing I’ve never agreed with, though, is this:

It’s not about the subject

Here’s another secret: in photographic art, it’s never about the subject.

It’s always about the underlying compositional structure. Subjects that may be there are chosen because they support or create a structure, not the other way around.

What a subject does in real life is irrelevant. In a good photo, subjects are chosen to provide the shapes or colors we want to lay down the basic design of an image.

What might look like a door is really only used because it’s a rectangle, or two squares. If we shoot it at an angle, now it’s a trapezoid, or a truncated triangle.

An ocean liner? If you use the whole thing in a successful photo, its because it’s used as a shape that works with whatever else is in the frame.

This is why I’m known as a toilet photographer. I don’t care what my subject might be in real life. When I look for photos, I’m looking for shapes and colors. It just tends to happen that bathrooms and garbage cans tend to get lit up in great light at the end of the day, so if they’re in good light, I shoot them.

The actual subject is meaningless because you’re mind’s subconscious eye can’t even recognize it from a hundred feet away.

Your photograph must have a strong enough structure so that structure is obvious to the subconscious That’s how you grab people to get the ooohs and aaahs.

The actual subject doesn’t matter. Your choice of a subject should be made to give a strong underlying design to the image. What that subject is or does consciously is irrelevant. As far as photographers are concerned, photos subjects are used purely as big colors and shapes, exactly as you’d cut these colors and shapes out of construction paper to make a composition.

Here’s my dirty secret – I think it’s about the subject, and I am not ashamed to say so. I think what the subject does in real life is significant. I also think that the idea that photographs should grab someone and get the ooohs and aaahs is arrant nonsense. This disagreement might reflect a difference in goals. Mr. Rockwell seems to think that the goal of photography is to “be able to take awesome, award-winning shots with any camera.”

And I don’t.

Collecting

Posted in print pricing, the art world by Paul Butzi on January 8, 2010

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I know a lot of people who want an art collection. I know some pretty wealthy folks who have significant collections. But mostly the reason why most folks don’t collect art is that, generally speaking, folks think you need to buy art to collect it. And most folks, frankly, are not awash in disposable income. And, to add to the conundrum, most people have the idea that with art, price is a reliable indicator of quality. I’ll grant that, in a sideways sort of way. I’ll agree that price is positively correlated with quality, in that art that is priced higher, generally speaking, is better.

Here’s the thing, though. I’ve been viewing photography websites on the web. And while I won’t say that I was always amazed at the work, I will say that I saw an awful lot of really good work. There are a lot of people making good art out there. No, let me rephrase that – there are a staggeringly large number of folks making great art out there. They’re making staggering quantities of great art. And, as a first order approximation, zero percent of that art gets collected, because it never gets sold. In some cases, it’s not for sale because the photographer doesn’t want to part with it, but I suspect that in most cases, the reason it’s not for sale is that the photographer realizes, as I did, that while the work would sell, it’s never going to sell in quantities that make it worth trying to make money from it. Life is short, and we’re not going to invest our lives in selling the art when we’d rather be making it.

The significant thing is this: for art which is not for sale, price is obviously not correlated with quality. Take a moment and think about that. What it means, bottom line, is this: there’s a whole, huge pile of art, ranging from completely without merit to soul-shatteringly good, and the price is not a reliable indicator of quality, for the simple reason that the work is all not for sale. And it’s not for sale, not because the artist isn’t willing to part with it, but because the artist isn’t willing to put up with the hassles of selling it just to score some money.

Wouldn’t it be cool to build an impressive collection of art, with all of the art collected from little known artists, with all of the art acquired either free or in exchange for either an artwork or a charitable donation? Would it be interesting if someone built a photography collection not by buying prints, but just by asking for them, and photographers just making it a gift?

Pops

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on January 4, 2010

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I’ve been reading Pops, Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong.

In the prologue, which Teachout titled “The Cause of Happiness” Teachout describes Armstrong as “a joyous genius who confounded his critics by refusing to distinguish between making art and making fun.”

Apparently if you’re a critic, Art is supposed to be serious stuff, not to be in the same room as making fun. If that’s so, then I think the critics are clueless.

With apologies to Oscar Wilde, artmaking is way too important to be taken seriously.

Playing to Strengths

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on September 13, 2009

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Last evening Paula and I went to hear a play reading at the Seattle Rep. It’s a new play, still being developed, and it’s co-authored by one of our longtime favorite Seattle playwrights, Todd Jefferson Moore. He’s done a number of plays somewhat along these lines: he addresses an issue by going out into the real world, and interviewing people on all sides of an issue, and then he takes those interviews, interleaves passages from various interviews, and the result is a play that, because it’s expressing all sides of an issue, doesn’t so much present answers as it presents questions.

For this play, Moore was coauthor with Sara Jo Breslow. Breslow is an anthropology student, and the interviews on which the play is based are her field work, and the play itself is her dissertation.

Before the play, I was reading the program, and was struck by this passage

My dissertation would necessarily bring the multiple voices of my interviewees into conversation. But I realised that through theater I could bring this conversation to life – onstage as well as in the audience. A play, unlike a book or even film, requires an audience to come together in the same room, perhaps for the first time, and witness a conversation that until now has only taken place inside my head. A play requires the audience to watch listen, and reflect together.

-Sara Jo Breslow

It’s not so much that this particular point is news to me. I just think it’s an outstanding expression of how, by playing to it’s strengths, art can make a lot of difference.

I imagine it comes as no surprise, then, that I’m a big fan of Lewis Hine.

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Kindle

Posted in paper, process, the art world, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on June 12, 2009

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When we travel, Paula and I almost never check bags. Not even on our 4 week trip to South America. Because of this desire to never check bags, we are pretty interested in things which make it easy to fit a lot of stuff (books, say) into not much space or weight. In the past, we were in the habit of buying a pile of books, jamming them into the bags, and then freeing up space by setting them free along our journey.

For the South America trip, however, we opted for an Amazon Kindle. Much has been written elsewhere about the physical properties of the Kindle, whether it’s a good deal cost wise, and so on. I’m not much interested in chiming in on that discussion.

One of the things that surprised us, though, was that we enjoyed reading books on the Kindle. We enjoyed it a lot. On a scale from 1 to 10, reading a mint hardback would be a 10. Reading a decent paperback would be a 5. Reading a bad paperback (crummy paper, smeary ink, small print, narrow margins and gutter) would be a 1. Reading a book on a Kindle is, to my surprise, somewhere around an 8.5 or 9. It’s not as good as a nicely bound fresh hardback, but it’s awfully darn close. One thing I like about the Kindle is that it’s excellent for reading while eating lunch or breakfast – turn a page by pushing a button (no worries about greasy fingerprints on pages), and no need to use weights to hold pages open when eating requires two hands.

Anyway, Paula and I now own TWO Kindles. They get pretty heavy use. We like them.

And they have me thinking about printing. I was stunned by how very ‘booky’ reading a novel on a Kindle is. Sure, the Kindle as it stands now is rotten at displaying photos. The Kindle 2, though, is better at photos than the Kindle 1 was. And I expect that for any number N, Kindle N will be better for photos than Kindle N-1.

Furthermore, I expect that there exists some N, where Kindle N-1 is monochrome but Kindle N is color. And then we will have the same incremental improvement in quality, until a Kindle-like device can display photos as well as a paper print can. Sure, we’ll have surface quality issues, and resolution issues. But the trend is clear, and I suspect mostly any argument is going to center around “how long” and not “will it ever”.

And although we know that the arguments about the displays will be hot and furious, I’d observe that although inkjet prints ran into uber-religious resistance just a short while ago, they’re pretty much accepted without thought today. So I predict that having Kindle-like devices to display photos will hit the same complaints – “oh, I can see the dots”, “the gamut is too small”, “short print life” and so on, but eventually the technology will evolve until the new technology is better than the old stuff, and everyone will stop arguing and just use the new stuff. And inkjet printing will become an ‘alternative process’.

And I have to say that I’m looking forward to being able to have a device which can hold thousands and thousands of photographs, is half a centimeter thick, and can display the photos better than an inkjet print can – with no power drain except when switching photos. Bring it on, and faster, please.

Name Your Dream Assignment

Posted in interesting blogs, the art world by Paul Butzi on March 18, 2009

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I noticed that Doug Plummer, (of Dispatches fame) has submitted a project to the “Name Your Dream Assignment” contest.

I’m a big fan of both Doug’s blog and his photography. If you browse back through his blog, you’ll see a fair number of posts about his dance photography, along with a fair bit of writing about his experiences photographing dance.

I think Doug’s proposal is excellent. Through his blog, I’ve seen the sort of work he does, and I know Doug would produce a lot of great photography if his proposal was selected.

So, please – take a moment, go over and browse his blog posts about still and video of dance. Go and read his proposal over at Name Your Dream Assignment. Think about the photos on Doug’s blog, and about his writing and open sharing of his photographic process, and consider that you’re not picking just a project proposal, you’re picking a project proposal where you know the person is an incredibly skilled and committed photographer with a deep, abiding, and personal interest in the subject. This is a proposal that comes directly from Doug’s love of both photography and dance – it’s not just an attempt to produce a proposal that’s attractive to a large group of people and will get a lot of votes.

And if you think Doug’s proposal has merit, please go and give it a positive vote. I know that you have to register to vote – yes, it’s a hassle. But you can avoid much of the hassle by unchecking the ‘send me lots of stuff’ check box on the registration page, registration takes only 30 seconds or so, and I really think Doug deserves the support.

So I’m asking, as a sort of personal favor, that if you think his proposal deserves a positive vote, please just register and give it a vote. It’ll only take a short while. Honest.