Brooks Jensen, John Kotchke, and Traditional v. Digital Photography

Earlier this week I wrote a long, uninteresting, and unpublished post both about Brooks Jensen's assertion that Lenswork was receiving a higher number of quality submissions from digital photographers than traditional, and John Kotchke's response, when I realized that I was addressing the wrong issue*. The question isn't, and shouldn't be, what approach is producing quality pictures more quickly, since that's only a concern reserved for advocates of efficiency and assembly-line work such of Frederick Winslow Taylor or Henry Ford, and not artists. Making art is something richer and deeper than that. For artists, the quantity  of photographs is secondary to the journey that one takes in making them.

I understand that in arguing for process rather than outcome many will feel that I'm walking a dangerous path, but it's focusing on process rather than outcome that is essential to our growth as artists. And by process I don't mean traditional versus digital, silver versus platinum/palladium, or view camera versus 35mm. Frankly, those issues should be irrelevant to all but beginning photographers. By process I mean putting ourselves in a state where we are receptive to the world  around us, dropping our own preconceptions, and letting the environment speak to us. 

Minor White referred to this process as being quiet with oneself. It’s a state where we can’t make good art if we’re worrying about whether our homework is done, or if we put gas in the car, or what the square root of pi is. Instead, it’s a state of receptivity, where we release daily concerns to focus the immediate, where we can’t force our perspective onto what we see. Using a slightly different tack, the philosopher Henry Bugbee, in his book The Inward Morning, says that 

Philosophy is not a making of a home for the mind out of reality. It is more like learning to leave things be: restoration in the wilderness here and now.

By 'leaving things be' I do not mean inaction. I mean respecting things, being still in the presence of things, letting them speak. 

 

Although Bugbee is speaking of philosophy, let me suggest that there's no difference between our approach to philosophy and art. 'Leaving things be' forces us to see the world differently, to decenter ourselves, and to be receptive to all around us. In such a state, we can only be in the moment. The past and the future become irrelevant, and only what is at hand matters. This is the promise of making art: it allows us to slip from the stream of time and stand only in the now; only what is around us matters. Ironically, in such a state, we are most able to make our best art, and to paraphrase Michael A. Smith, the finished print is a bonus, while the experience is the true goal.

Echoing Michael A. Smith is Walter Pater, whose concluding chapter to The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry remains one of the most important writings about making art I can imagine. Pater says 

Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life … To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain its ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is a relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. (Italics added)

Habits are what we must avoid. I awoke early recently to drive to Salt Point and photograph a tafoni formation that I'd been trying to capture for almost a decade. I arrived before dawn, set up my camera, and waited. The moon, a sliver, was above, and the waves repeatedly hammered the rocks, sending sheets of vibrations through my chest. It was too dark for me to compose, so I sat and waited, listened and watched. As dawn approached, enough light appeared so that I could begin discerning the foam on the ocean. The stars started disappearing one by one as the sky brightened. The waves continued to strike the rocks furiously, and the spray landed to my left. Once it was bright enough, I framed my image and took my shot. It was effortless and delightful, and I value the experience leading up to the image as much as I value the image itself.

While I admit that finding a paper, film, or platform that best expresses our vision may be important in the early days of our art, searching for the silver bullet for too long can actually impede our growth, particularly if it keeps us from shooting. The real role of art is to expand our awareness, to guide us away from habits of seeing that may lead us into a rut. 

Once in the right state, it doesn’t matter if we’re photographing along the coast or in the city, in a forest of dead trees or snow capped mountains. In a state of receptivity, the subject loses importance. In fact, it’s a sure sign that our vision is blocked if we can only photograph certain environments and subjects. As Edward Weston said

Anything that excites me for any reason, I will photograph. Not searching for unusual subject matter, but making the commonplace unusual.

One of the reasons I feel Weston’s images are so strong and timeless is because, despite having his favorite haunts like Point Lobos, he didn’t need Lobos or other exotic locale to make timeless photographs. He found photographs everywhere.

In these moments, when we can find photographs regardless of environment, concerns over traditional v. digital, what’s the best paper, which lens is the sharpest, all fall away. Instead we’re left with the experience, and the great print becomes the bonus.

 

*If you want to evaluate Brooks’s claim, look at early issues of Lenswork that only publish analog work, and newer issues that that are primarily digital. If you feel the portfolios in the earlier issues are as good or better in the early issues, then you don’t agree agree with Brooks. If you feel the later issues are better, then Brooks is correct.