[ Content | Sidebar ]

Posts by Doug Plummer

Getting in touch


I’ve not posted here for the last month, as I’ve been deep into computer management issues. Creativity has been at a low ebb, as has been anything cogent to say about the process. But I’m on the road now, which always gets me creatively engaged with my surroundings.

We’re visiting friends on Salt Spring Island, which is between the BC mainland and Vancouver Island. The hills and sea coves are spectacular, of course. Walking with friends at Ruckle Provincial Park, I explored the woods and beach with my camera as they conversed. I felt like the off leash dog lingering behind to check out the compelling scents along the trail.

Washed up on the rocky coast, with all the other woodsy flotsam, was a huge stump with its ring of roots, whitened by many seasons in the sun. I’m a sucker for these sorts of things. No matter that this is a well worn rut in photographic explorations–the reason photographers are attracted to eroded rocks and convoluted trees is that they’re interesting natural forms to stare at. I am not above joining the fray, so long as I get to do it in relative solitude.

The more I started poking around this stump, the more I appreciated how this was one of the more complex shapes in a natural object that I had encountered in awhile. By taking pictures of it, sitting in it and looking, and looking, and extracting more shapely photographs, and looking some more, I got to “know” this thing. I crawled in close, and I backed off and saw how it sat in the larger landscape. I began a relationship.

We had about 30 minutes together, this stump and I. Most people, and me in another mood, would have walked by, glanced at the stump, thought, hey, that’s cool looking, and gone on their way. The camera was an excuse to linger and really feel what this spot was like for the duration.


Quotidian art


Two recent blog entries, one by Paul Butzi (I’ve been riffing off him a lot lately) on photographing “Close To Home,” and Birgit’s “Dune Quest” have got me thinking about the notational aspects of artmaking. Namely, the daily investigation of ideas and how that relates to projects of “greater” importance.

more… »

How much influence is too much?

Paul Butzi has a provocative series of posts on Musings, in his typically thoughtful style, about the necessity to seal himself off from influences, particularly the media. I have great respect for his thinking, but I offered a different take in a long comment on his recent post. I’m appropriating myself and posting it here.


As I understand you position, you’re saying that in order to protect the integrity of your experience, you have to deliberately isolate yourself from stimulus that might become a mediating influence, because it deters and inhibits the sense of being in the moment.

My retort is twofold, one about artistic influences, and the other about mass media (we won’t talk about the intersection of these two sets, which is an interesting arena that a lot of artists use to make some important work, and always have). I contend that isolating yourself from other artistic influences is a big disservice to one’s own process.

My feeling is, that the more I know about what has gone on before me, the more roots there are to feed my own work. I visit museums and galleries whenever I travel, and I make it a priority. I have arenas of art work that I like to look at and that I respect, and large swaths that I pretty much ignore. But I don’t prohibit it from feeding my process. Even work I argue with grows me.

Allowing Italian Renaissance art into one’s process is one thing. Mass media is harder to defend. But much of the art I adore was the mass media of its era. I am writing this while I am watching my guilty pleasure, “Dancing With The Stars.” I’m working on a dance project. I’m interested in the popular culture take on dance, and I love that this show highlights and rewards a kind of (well, vulgur) virtuosity. Because I make a living from my artistic process, I pay attention to the trends and patterns in how the media mediates our culture back to ourselves.

I don’t like a lot of what I see, of course. That’s beside the point. Anyone with a lick of self respect is going to be majorly frustrated with the culture we live in. The way I inoculate myself from the media onslaught is to pay attention to it. I deconstruct how it works, what it’s trying to say, and the meta messages within it. But sometimes the production values speak to some of the best artistic output of our era. Or at least, it informs me about what is the visual vocabulary of our time.

Process by elimination

“A photographer is like a cod, which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity.”

–George Bernard Shaw

Photographers are a profligate, wasteful bunch. Maybe not those 4×5 guys, where it takes so much effort to decide to take one picture, but I’m a 35mm guy. I don’t understand large format; it’s a different animal entirely. For me the singular unit is the roll, not the frame. I learned my craft in the era of roll-it-yourself film in reusable cassettes. I found my voice by photographing over, and over, and over again, until I figured it out, in a manner that made it affordable.

I have structured my entire creative process around this unique feature of the photographic process. I shoot in order to find out what it is that is compelling to me. The actual act of operating a camera is how I access the state of consciousness from which my photographs emerge. The more complex the environment I am working in, the more that I can depend on my unconscious mind to find the coherent, complete image.

An aside: In the digital realm, the last barriers to restraint when shooting are pretty much history. Unless you give into temptation, and watch the LCD screen. Seeing your pictures while you’re shooting them is a sure way to interrupt and defeat the process of deepening a connection with the moment. The editing brain is a different one than the shooting brain. It defeats the point to mix them up.

When I’m shooting I don’t know where in the process I’ve “got it”. But I do know when I’m done. Somewhere in there, while I was in that altered state of consciousness, I can sense that it happened. Where precisely, I don’t know. I have to figure that out later.

That “later” process doesn’t get enough attention. Somehow you have to decide which egg you’re going to allow to hatch. It requires a degree of removal from the act of conception, to witness and judge the work for the formal qualities that exist only in the image, and not in your memory of the moment. Henry Wessel, a photo hero of mine, takes it to an extreme unmanageable for most of us. He waits a year to review his work before deciding what to print.

Back in the darkroom days, I’d scan my contact sheets to see which images had some promise, and I’d make work prints. I’d post the prints in the kitchen on a big bulletin board for a few days. It’s one thing to study and consider the work—it’s another to see them in your peripheral vision without knowing you’re looking at them. I’d gradually weed out the prints that were starting to bore me, until there were one or two survivors. These were what I would work on deeper, in the darkroom, to see what potential they held.

I’m still working on the best way to bring this editing process into the digital age. For most of my output my only encounter with the image is on a computer screen. It is not a friendly environment for either a considered, or an unconscious judgement process. Sometimes I’ll go through the effort of making work prints, just like the old days, but it’s harder. It feels removed from something intrinsic to the digital process, and I haven’t found the analogous replacement for the editing mode. I’ll report again in six months and tell you what I’ve figured out.

What do I call it?

Camp Wannadance, WAI had a very successful Photo Lucida with my contra dance project. The consensus after 4 days of reviews, with some of the top people in the photography fine-art field, is that the project has legs and great potential. Now I need to name it.

Alec Soth has a post today on book titles. He loves pondering them, feels they define and sum up the nature of a work, and that they can make or break the success of a book.

I am considerably less gifted in this realm, despite my usual felicity with words. I am struggling to come up with an all-encompassing, pithy and memorable title for my contra dance project.

“Contra Dance in America: A Photographic Journey” is accurate, but really boring. My other working title, “Unconfined Joy,” is from the over-quoted Lord Byron poem, which goes,

On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.
   ~George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Any ideas out there? Here’s the link to my “yes-it-really-needs-updating” dance page. You can also look through the blog posts from Photo Lucida.

Creative failings

Bixby Bridge

Photographing the Big Sur coast can be daunting. There’s the pesky issue of it being so spectacular. Every turnout looks like a Sierra Club calendar photo. How do I make make something of my own from these environs? What I found out was, to not try very hard at any of it. I found that a sort of creative indirection was the best way to handle the gorgeous scenery.

It is not my first trip to the region. About a decade ago, I got myself a 4×5 camera. The intent was to do a “beginner’s mind” thing with my photography, start over with an unfamiliar technology and see what kind of pictures I would make if I had to compose them upside down and under a dark cloth. I was very intent on what I was doing. I had a plan and a purpose. In the end, I made the expected sort of photographs you get when you trundle around the central California coast with a 4×5. After about three years I figured out that large format was not advancing my photography anywhere I wanted it to go, and I went back to smaller formats.

Another trip I did with stock photography in mind. Those spectacular pullouts on Highway One were the point, as were the forests and the towns and the tourist destinations. I had a plan, and a place for the photographs.

This time, I had no plan. I responded to the whim of my inner compass as Robin and I drove from LA to SF. In southern California I wandered slowly through the brushy canyons, when I wasn’t making photos inside of art museums. Morro Bay was about empty water and sky. At Pfeiffer Beach, I turned my back on the surf and rocks and headed for the blown down mess of cypress trees behind the dunes. It was hard, unrelenting sunlight, the worst sort of conditions for this kind of environment. I messed around without expecting too much from it. At the state parks in Big Sur I birded along the rivers, casually shooting where I was, without a deep fixation on anything in particular. Sometimes I did become fixated; I had great fun on Weston Beach in Pt. Lobos, pretending I was channelling Edward Weston himself making poignant, pregnant abstractions. I even let myself photograph the spectacular views, on a tripod and with a polarizer filter. Hey, might as well do it right.

A great thing about an aimless trip of this sort is that the pressure’s off. Image making is still the compelling activity, but there is a deliberate purposelessness about the effort. It allows me to do that most important work of an artist—to fail a lot. I explored a lot of visual dead ends, I made abundant bad pictures, I responded to what was around me, but most of those responses missed the mark. I joke with my clients that I’m a good photographer because I’m a bad photographer a lot more often. It’s more true for most of us than we might like to admit. On a trip like this, I can afford to indulge these apparently fruitless explorations.

It is important work nonetheless. This is where what’s next happens. Sam Abell, a mentor of mine, puts it as “shooting ahead of ourselves.” The dominant theme in my work now started unrecognized while I was busy with something else. One of my dead ends might become an important part of my work henceforth. Or not. My job is to indulge the aimlessness whenever I have the opportunity. It’s like the basic rule of investing—make sure you have a diversified portfolio. I am adding to the savings account on a trip of this sort. The return will come sometime when I don’t expect it.
Trees and sun, Pfeiffer Beach

Advice from the wife of a photographer

I was planning on posting this anyway, apropos of leaving on vacation with my wife, Robin, today. Then I saw Steve Durbin’s entry, and realized it would be the perfect follow-up. It’s a piece she wrote for my blog last year, but I think only 30 people saw it at the time. Her advice deserves a wider audience.

Advice to photographers’ significant others:
  • When on a shoot or on the road, always bring food, water, and a book. If the light becomes “perfect” (usually early or late in the day, or if it’s overcast in just the right way), your photog will be captivated by it. Do insist on your right to go to the bathroom, be dropped at the hotel before the light comes in, or have your basic needs taken care of.
  • Don’t take it personally when he says, “The light is beautiful on you.” You could be a rock, or a stump, or a wall. But he probably loves you anyway.
  • Don’t take it personally when you become the “foreground element”. It’s not about you. You’re just the one that’s there.
  • Do take it personally, in the best way, if you become the object of many studies. Photographers connect with the world through their cameras. It is another way of being known.
  • You don’t have to like all of the work, if you like the photographer. Doug has one body of work that is too visually complex for my brain to process. None of this work is in the living room. If your person needs you to love every picture, send him to therapy. If you think you need to love every picture, go yourself.
  • Get used to schedule changes. Your photog might find out on Tuesday that he’s going to Ireland for two weeks on Thursday. Have friends to fill in the gap. Accommodations I figured out included putting in a watering system for the garden, hiring people to do some of his tasks, and letting myself be pissed about the changes, until I’m not.
  • Keep in contact. In most places in the developed world, there are local cell phones for sale. Speak often. Email. Whine. Say endearments. Listen to whining. Support. Ask for support. It’s good glue. We talk almost every day. I especially like to bask in Doug’s excitement when he’s on a shoot and it’s going well. He does bliss well.
  • It’s okay to demand that the geek speak stops, when you’ve run out of patience for it. Especially if they’re talking about digital workflows. It’s rude for people to speak in a language not shared by others.
  • When he comes back into town with 4,000 images to process, make some dates to connect, but don’t expect that he’ll be fully there until the images are on a disc and sent away. Then you can have the coming-back fight and really connect.
  • It’s OK to play the wife role, whatever your gender, on occasion. I do this at openings and print sales and during the big post-shoot image processing. Other times, be who you are, more than wife. Doug is the wife at my conferences and book signings and when I’m writing. It’s OK to be flexible. Don’t get caught up in the role. It’s not a full enough identity for anyone.
  • If you’re traveling together, don’t think you have to be joined at the hip. Pursue your own interests, then meet later. Do ask your person to leave the camera in the room or in the bag for a meal or an evening. Suggesting that making contact with you might allow your photog to “get lucky” can help this occur. It works for me.
  • If he’s been gone for a long time, and you’ve had the house to yourself, expect conflict on re-entry. It’s normal. It’s predictable. Just have it. He’s invading your space, after all.
  • Dont worry about the “Bridges of Madison County” scenario. You know how he really is.
  • A story: Several years ago, outside of Banff, after a full day of shooting, the light changed and Doug became enchanted. I was really hungry. After 45 minutes, I demanded to be driven into town for food. Reluctantly, Doug packed up his gear, and we drove to a 2nd-floor sushi bar. I was facing the window. The light was magical. We ordered anyway. Before the fish came, I saw a rainbow over Mount Rundle. I said, “Doug, get your gear and get out there.” He did. 20 minutes later he returned. Three minutes later, the second rainbow appeared, arcing over the other. “Get back out there, now!” The waiter didn’t know what was going on. He kept asking if everything was alright. He didn’t understand my explanation: “My husband is a photographer.”

Robin’s blog (on therapy issues, for other therapists–you think photographer’s use geekspeak?) is at Trauma & Attachment.