Musings on Photography

The Brooks Jensen Effect

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on March 10, 2009


I’ve had a subscription to LensWork Magazine for quite a while. (It’s the only magazine where I’ve saved issues, and I have the original issues from way back when it didn’t have photos in it, just articles, and it was 8.5″x11″).

I admit that when my subscription runs out, I’ll let it lapse. The issues don’t seem to hold my attention much any more. That’s not necessarily the fault of the magazine – my tastes have changed, and no magazine can appeal to everyone.

But one of the things I note is that because LensWork is a venue where a lot of photographers would like to see their work appear, there’s this subtle bending effect, where because LensWork publishes a certain kind of photography (e.g. black and white, fine art, project based, with a certain kind of ‘look’) this means that photographers seems to tailor their work to match that aesthetic.

Maybe that’s because it’s a good aesthetic, and thus makes a good target for aspiring photographers. Or maybe it’s just what Jensen likes, and because Jensen likes it, that’s what goes in the magazine, and thus that’s what aspiring photographers aim at so that their work has a shot at getting in. I know I’ve seen bodies of work I thought were stronger than the usual LensWork stuff which were submitted to LensWork and weren’t selected. It’s hard to generalize, but I’d observe that the work I know about didn’t quite match the usual LensWork fare.

I just wish that the reproduction qualities of the www, or of devices like the Amazon Kindle, were as high as the quality of LenWork magazine. Websites would be a lot more fun, and I think we’d see a more diverse crop of magazines if you could really view photos easily on the Kindle (and if it was easy to publish a magazine for the Kindle).

There are no final, distilled thoughts here. I am just observing that just as the popular trends in photography affect what sort of magazines flourish, the trends set by the popular magazines also tend to affect what sort of photography flourishes. It’s a two way street. That might be good, and it might be bad. But either way, I’d rather see more diversity than less.

Grover’s Corners

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on March 5, 2009


Last night we had a delightful time seeing the soft opening of the beautiful new Floyd and Delores Jones Theater at the University of Washington. The inaugural show for this theater was one of my favorites – Our Town, by Thorton Wilder.

There are a fair number of plays I’ve seen a fair number of times. Most plays, when you’ve seen them more than twice, tend to fall prey to the “I’ve already seen this (too many times)” syndrome. Wilder’s Our Town, with its spare, almost spartan staging and its direct, unadorned writing – it doesn’t seem to suffer. I have no idea how many times I’ve seen this play – too many to keep count. And yet each time, to my delight and surprise, I find there’s more there than I remember. It’s worth considering that a play that can be done with a set that’s empty except for couple of tables and a few chairs leaves much for the audience to fill in, and in the end that makes the play durable in a way lavish productions aren’t. Sometimes, it seems, it’s really true that less can be more.

The program included this quotation from Wilder:

I am not one of the new dramatists we are looking for. I wish I were. I hope I have played a part in preparing the way for them. I am not an innovator but a re-discoverer of forgotten goods and I hope a remover of obtrustive bric-a-brac.

Some interesting thoughts in there. It makes me want to look at my own work and try figuring out what parts actually do the work and what parts are just obtrusive bric-a-brac.


Posted in Blogroll, the art world by Paul Butzi on March 3, 2009


I found the following on Terry Teachout’s blog

“An audience aware of the importance of its own opinion can be dangerous. An audience that seeks above all to have an opinion–and to parade it–is a menace. The audience that believes that one goes to the theatre to form an opinion–that opinion is what the theatre aims to create–is destructive of all real values in the theatre even when its opinion is favorable. The theatre is a place for experience rather than for judgment. An audience’s merit is its capacity to feel rather than its disposition to hold court.”

Harold Clurman, “Tryout” (New Republic, Aug. 2, 1948, reprinted in The Collected Works of Harold Clurman)

I like Teachout’s blog a lot. I like this quotation quite a lot, because it seems to touch directly on what I think is a real problem, not just in theatre but in the world of art consumption in general.

Art, lost and found

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on March 1, 2009


Martin Doonan, musing on the responses of camera club judges to photographs made by famous photographers, writes:

Surely someone creating great work gets to become known as an artist. Just calling yourslef an artist does not mean what you do is art.

I’m not sure I understand exactly in what sense Martin is asking this question. There’s the sense that, unless you’re producing great work, you shouldn’t get to call yourself an artist. And there’s the sense that, if you produce great work, you will eventually become known as a great artist.

I definitely don’t agree with the first. If you make art, you’re an artist. If you produce bad art (I’m not sure how I’d classify it) then perhaps you are not a very good artist, but you are nonetheless an artist. In my view, that is. As for the whole good art/bad art thing, I’m always mindful of the words of E. B. White, who commented “There is no good art, or bad art. There is just Art, and damn little of it.”

I don’t care if you’re a high school student, or a single mom, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a famous sculptor or painter or photographer. If you engage in artmaking, you’re an artist, period. You might be an unknown artist. You might be better known for your supreme court briefs, or for your ability to fix plumbing, but if you make art, you’re an artist, period, full stop.

And for the second sense – the idea that if you produce great work then you’ll be recognized as an artist – I have a short-ish story to relate.

Once there was a kindergarten teacher. She had this idea, and she thought to herself “I think this idea might be best expressed as a play.” She’d never written a play. But she sat down, and she wrote this play. And then, having written the play, she made copies of the script, and she sent them all over North America to various theatres. She sent out a lot of copies, and no one cared for her play. Theatres get a lot of unsolicited manuscripts, and there are not many people to read those unsolicited manuscripts, so it’s pretty hard for an unsolicited play by a completely unknown writer to even get read. And that’s perhaps especially true if the unknown writer is a female kindergarten teacher.

And then, one day, a literary associate at a theatre picked up one of the copies, saw the kindergarten teacher’s name on the title page, and thought “Hey, I went to high school with her!” And so this literary associate sat down, and read the play. And he thought “Hey, this is damn good. We should produce this play.” And so the theatre did. This play, which had been completely overlooked by uncountably many theatres, was produced at South Coast Repertory. The play, Wit, by Margaret Edson, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999. Yes, really. A kindergarten teacher from Atlanta won the Pulitzer Prize for the first play she wrote.

So sometimes the difference between a play that goes out into the world and doesn’t make a ripple, and play that wins the Pulitzer Prize – that difference is not in the play, but in the expectations of the people who come into contact with the play.

Sadly, it’s a certainty that there’s a truly great play – a Pulitzer Prize winning caliber play – sitting in a stack of ignored unsolicited manuscripts in a disused corner of an office in a theatre somewhere. It is an absolute fact that great plays are written, and then are never discovered, and vanish without a trace.

You can make great art, and getting recognized as an artist is still something of a crap shoot.

And the moral of the story is this: make your art to be making art. Enjoy making it, and arrange your life so that you will enjoy making art for a long time. If you get fame and recognition for the art you make – that’s gravy. But if you expect to get recognized for the art you make, you’re like the inner city kid shooting hoops in the parking lot, and dreaming of becoming the most famous player in the NBA. It isn’t impossible, but the odds are so long that you’d be better off making other plans.

And if you make art, feel free to think of yourself as an artist. Even if you’re a carpenter, or a stay at home mom, or a bulldozer driver or a globetrotting commercial banker.

Because if you make art, you’re just as much an artist as that kindergarten teacher from Atlanta. Really.


Posted in the art world, whimsy by Paul Butzi on February 12, 2009


A strange thing happened to me today. I saw a big thundercloud move down over Half Dome, and it was so big and clear and brilliant that it made me see many things that were drifting around inside me.

-Ansel Adams

Love and Need

Posted in motivation, the art world by Paul Butzi on February 4, 2009


In my post In Praise of Obscurity, I argued that it was OK to not pursue promoting your photography in search of recognition or financial return.

In response, Lisa Call responded:

“It’s just that perhaps for some of us it makes more sense to pursue contentment than fame or fortune”

I don’t think contentment is necessarily incompatible with fame and fortune. I don’t view it as an either/or proposition with my art.

And, of course, Lisa is right. Go, and read Lisa’s blog, which is on the list of blogs I read regularly because Lisa is an example of someone who is, with great vigor and success, pursuing artmaking with an eye toward integrating that artmaking and earning a living. I can think of no one who has done more and worked harder to align everything in her life with her goal to be a productive, financially successful artist.

So, let me explain my thoughts a little more completely and clearly.

I’m a big believer in trying to align what you do for a living with what brings contentment into your life. For many, many years, I earned a living doing the things I would have done even if there had been no one willing to pay me. During that period, there were two things in my life: my family, and my work. My job was, for a rather startlingly long time, one of the most richly rewarding and satisfying things I’ve ever done – and I made a fair amount of money at it, too.

And as a result, I very much agree with this little snip of Robert Frost, which I surely have quoted before:

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right–agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

(Two Tramps in Mud Time)

But being a poem, this has only room for one part of the story. It is possible to be BOTH a computer programmer and a photographer, or a group manager and a photographer, or a lumberjack and a photographer, or whatever. We can love more than one thing in our lives, which is good because if that had not been the case I’d have had a very hard time integrating loving my family with earning a living.

And where that happens, it sometimes makes sense to pick the more financially rewarding thing to pursue in order to earn a living, and leave the other things free of the constraints that earning a living imposes. In fact, in some cases, someone can be free of the need to earn a living at all – they’re retired, say, or supported by someone else.

That doesn’t make the things we do without regard for financial return (or recognition, or whatever external reward there might be) less important. Work can be work in the sense I’m driving at, here, without being ‘work for pay’. We can pursue things seriously without the prospect of fame or fortune. I’m one heck of a believer in capitalism, but I do not suffer from the delusion that something is only worth doing if you can make money by doing it.

And so my point, here, is this: sometimes it makes sense to integrate your art making and your money earning activity. As Lisa points out, contentment is not incompatible with fame and fortune. I’d go further, actually, and claim that it’s rare to achieve fame and fortune doing something you don’t find internally rewarding.

At the same time, I’d also claim that fame and fortune are not the same as contentment, and that pursuing fame and fortune will not necessarily lead you to contentment.

Don’t discount yourself

Posted in process, the art world by Paul Butzi on January 2, 2009


Mike Johnston (he of The Online Photographer fame) writes about the best-selling books among those he’s mentioned on TOP this year. I was not particularly surprised to see him wax enthusiastic about Frank Herzog’s Vancouver Photographs, because I would pick that book as the best of the crop of books I’ve bought in the past year. I’m very sad that the book is now out of print.

Most important, though, was Mike’s closing paragraph:

And don’t forget—no matter where you live, you could do a similar project in your own town or neighborhood. Someday, everything that is ordinary and unremarkable to you will be distinctive of this time period, and many of your pictures of things we take for granted today will be of things or people that have changed or gone. No one will ever take a photograph in 2008 again, for instance—think of that.

Beyond the Omar Khayyam quality (“‘the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on, nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line…”), what occurs to me is that there are a lot of photographers out there, working steadily on long term projects. Some of those projects will go nowhere. Some will produce great art that will go unrecognized. And some will produce great art that will bring fame to the artist.

The thing of it is this: you can’t say “Oh, I’d work on a project like that, if I knew it would go somewhere and get recognition.” If you take that view, you never start. Every single project that ended up a big success started out as a project where some people would have thought “Why in the world would anyone waste their time doing that?” Of course, that’s true for projects which went nowhere, too. There’s no knowing without actually doing. It would be nice to know when we start out on a project if it was worth pursuing, but that doesn’t seem to be the way the world is put together.

What I think is remarkable was that Herzog plugged along, building this work, more or less separated from the mainstream of photography because of his working methods. There’s a lesson there, I think – trends come and go, certain kinds of work are in fashion for a while and then vanish forever. Anyone else remember the period when it seemed everyone was going out into the desert and making flash photographs of isolated bushes? Slot canyons, anyone?

The good news is that you don’t need a license to start. You don’t have to have paid your dues to start. You don’t need an art degree to start. All you need to do is pick up the camera, and start.

In the end, it seems, the only certain satisfaction there is in working on something long term like this lies with finding contentment in the process. There’s no predicting success and failure, and so it doesn’t make much sense to vet projects in advance based on whether you think the project will pan out. About all we can do is go, make the work, and let the chips fall where they will.

And if there’s a lesson to Herzog’s book it might be that a large collection of photographs of quotidian scenes can, in the end, make for a mighty compelling body of work even if it doesn’t seem to fit the mainstream conceptions at the time it’s being done.

Art on the Other Side

Posted in art is a verb, the art world by Paul Butzi on November 16, 2008


Some recent email correspondence has had me thinking about my view of art primarily as a process, with the actual objects created as a side effect of that process as being of little interest to me. “Art is a Verb” is my view of art, but it’s by no means the only sensible view, and it leaves unanswered the question of “What happens to our artworks after we’re done?” In my admittedly narrow art world, the goal is to be making art, not worrying about what happens to the byproducts. It’s hard enough for me to focus on one thing at a time, let alone several, and so this gross simplification is something I’ve hit upon to allow myself to focus on what is important to me – making art – and avoid burning a lot of time and energy on things that are relatively unimportant to me, like where I fit in the grand scheme of the greater Art World, or the pantheon of Art History.

But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about art as a spectator sport.

The particular topic raised in this email exchange is primarily about what happens when we come across art that doesn’t meet our expectations as an art consumer (as opposed to an art producer). When some artwork doesn’t meet our expectations, our tendency is to compare it to other art we’ve seen (or heard, or whatever). We let our previous art experience form the basis from which we make judgements about the art we’re viewing right now.

That can be good, or that can be bad. There are a lot of strong trends in the photo world, and I think it’s a mistake to think that they’re all applicable to all photos. Here are some examples of those trends:

  • everything must be in perfect focus. If it’s not, you should have stopped down or used movements to get it all in focus.
  • the photo must have at least some part in focus.
  • the tones in a print must range from maximum black to pure base white.
  • shadows should consist of luminous detail.
  • Highlights must never be blown out; they must always have a hint of detail
  • Images should always be cropped so that the subject is framed perfectly
  • Images should never be cropped. Cropping shows a moral failing on the part of the photographer.
  • Things should be arranged in the frame according to the rule of thirds

I could go on and on. You, if you’ve paid any attention to the voluminous writings on photography that have been cranked out over the past 150 years, could go on and on.

Here’s the thing – all of those, um, norms, are useful much of the time, but not ALL of the time. That is, when we’re making art, it’s often useful to examine the work we’re doing in the light of such norms, because the norms can offer useful feedback about what we’re doing. If we’ve strayed from convention, it’s usually helpful for us to examine if we have good reasons for what we’re doing differently. (and here, I’ll point out that the reason “I want to see what happens” is perhaps one of the best possible reasons for straying far away from norms in artmaking.)

But when we go over to the other side, and we’re looking at someone else’s art, we need to use those norms in a different way. One possible way is to see the deviation from the norm as a defect. Got a lot of photos that have very shallow depth of field? That’s not normal, and so it’s easy to view that as a bad thing. Got a lot of photos which have no maximum black, or no pure base white? Again, it’s easy to see that as a defect. That’s the easy response. We see art that doesn’t match the norms, and we assume that the artist is a nitwit who doesn’t know any better.

A somewhat more difficult but more useful response is to posit that perhaps the artist actually knew what he or she was doing. Take a leap, and assume that the deviation from the norm is a deliberate choice. And that raises the fairly interesting question “why did the artist make this particular decision?” That’s an interesting question because it tends to lead us into some deep contemplation of what the artist was trying to get at when making the work.

Some years ago, I saw a play in which one of the characters is an actor, and not a very good one. This character had to do an audition, and did it in a very bad (but very funny bad) way. And at the end of the audition, he asks how it was, and the director says that he certainly made some ‘brave artistic choices’. The phrase ‘brave artistic choices’ entered our family lexicon as a humorous way to say that we thought that someone’s artistic decisions didn’t work out too well.

But it’s not the case that all brave artistic choices end badly. Some end well. We shouldn’t let our preconceived notions of how photos ‘ought to look’ blind us to work that happens to be different. Those might be just the works we need to examine closely and think hard about, so that they help bump us out of a rut.


Posted in art is a verb, the art world by Paul Butzi on August 31, 2008

I’ve commented before about how some photography is about discovering reality (or things about it) and some photography is about inventing things which are similar to but not the same as reality.

So it was with some amusement that I read this article about solving the problem of a past history with which you aren’t entirely satisfied. The answer, of course, is to take all the photos you have and just use photoshop to erase the bits you don’t like. If you want to have mementos of your vacation to Jamaica, but you want to forget the spouse you were married to then – not a problem. Just use photoshop and erase him (or her) from your photos of Dunn’s River Falls.

Look, I’m no different from anyone else. I have things in my past I that make me uncomfortable; everyone does. But I don’t feel a need to behave like Stalin, happily engaging in historical revisionism just so that it appears that my life has always been perfect – one smooth, even course from birth through to the present.

I admit that I struggle with the whole ‘art’ concept. I’m no longer sure what art is, or if what I do is art. I’m more or less resigned to the fact that I’m going to do what I do (which is make photos to help me figure things out) and if people think it’s art, why, that’s fine. And if they don’t think it’s art, well, I guess I’m ok with that, too.

But that doesn’t keep me from thinking about what I think Art ought to be. I think Art ought to help us get on in life, sure, but I think perhaps we’ll get on in life better if we face up to our past, errors and all, and just get on with the future. I think Art, perhaps, ought to be like religion – that is, I think it ought not to lead us out of this world so much as enable us to live better in it.


Posted in art is a verb, process, the art world by Paul Butzi on August 20, 2008


I’m fundamentally a mystic. That is, I believe that we perceive only a very shallow, flat projection of a very deep and rich reality. At the same time, I’m very much a pragmatist; I believe that things which cannot be detected are, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. If it doesn’t have any impact on you, then you may as well act as if it isn’t there.

In my mind the resolution of these somewhat opposite viewpoints lies in subtlety. I think that much of the richness and depth to reality is hidden to our direct observation, and that in order to appreciate it, we need to use non-sensory tools like reason to help us pick things apart so that we can apprehend them in terms we understand. I’ve talked before about how one of the reasons I’m coming to feel that making a lot of photos of something is that in making lots of photos you start to discern things you’d otherwise miss.

Subtlety, it turns out, is a topic which Doug Stockdale tackles in his recent post. In that post, he points to a review of a show which says:

Among the most haunting and beautiful photographs are Belgian Bart Michiel’s present-day images of World War I battlefields, now cleansed of all evidence of the horrors that went on there.

Pumpkins grow in furrowed rows in the tiny Belgian village of Goudberg, where thousands of soldiers died in the mud in the battle for Passchendaele.

The image is one of three in the show from Michiel’s “Course of History” series, picturing battle sites dating from before the birth of Christ up to Omaha Beach. The Nelson’s selections all focus on World War I.

Although nature has reclaimed these sites, Michiel is on the alert for ghosts. By his own account he seeks out “happenstance traces and features on the land that refer metaphorically to combat.”

The tractor tracks that cut through the mist-shrouded field shown in “Verdun 1916, Le Mort Homme” (2001) evoke the tanks that rolled through the area during the Battle of Verdun.

Subtlety is one of this exhibit’s strong suits.

Now, I’m a fan of subtlety. It’s part of my world view. For me, photography as a pastime is all about using photography as a tool to pierce the veil of subtley and come to grips with that deeper, richer reality that we can’t connect with in more direct ways.

So you’d think I’d be enthusiastic about these photos. I don’t know; I haven’t seen them. But there’s something that makes me wary, and it’s the question of where the subtlety is coming from.

Did Michiel go to these battlefields knowing the history of the place, and look for traces and features that refer metaphorically to combat? Or did he go to these places and make photographs, and after having made the photographs come to find that many (or most, or the ones he liked) contained these features, and upon examining the features come to some understanding that the features were in some sense references to the combat that occurred on that spot?

From a photographic object point of view, I can’t see that it much matters. There’s no objective test you can apply to a photograph that will allow you to discover the photographer’s intent. At that point, there’s just the photograph, and the viewer having the experience of seeing the photo. The experience of the photographer, if it’s presented at all, is boiled down to some elliptical text in the artist statement.

Nevertheless, from the photographer’s point of view, it’s a world of difference. It’s the difference between going out into the world with a camera, hoping that by using the camera you can (if you’re quite lucky) tease some understanding of things out of a cunningly subtle world, and going out into the world with a statement in mind, planning to hammer reality into the shape needed to express that statement.

It turns out that as time goes on I’m more and more interested in the former and less and less interested in the latter. I’m not saying that’s the right way to tackle things. I’m just saying that it seems to be the way I’m put together, and the more I come to accept it instead of change the way I am, the more contented I am. And I’m also saying that if you happen to put together in the same quirky way, well, you’re not the only one.