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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Contemporary Storyteller

David Plowden — A Singular, Dedicated Vision

David Plowden uses cameras, call himself a photographer, makes photo books — lots of them — and would seem on the surface to be "one of us." He is, but few of us are "one of him." David is the quintessential storyteller. He has a story to tell and has worked tirelessly for decades to tell us that story — that one story with almost infinite variety.

Plowden's life-work is the story of America — particularly small towns, farms, working folk. His story is more important than his medium. He doesn't photograph lots of different themes, e.g., landscape, abstracts, street photography. He photographs America. Like August Sander before him, he is engaged in a mission to document something far bigger than himself. His mission has produced a lots books — at least 20 of them are still listed at Amazon — and a portrait of America that is so deep and compelling that it requires that many books to tell it.

For many of us — me included — our great passion is photography. For David, his great passion is America. You and I point our cameras at lots of different subjects; David has one great subject. I find myself inspired by his focus, his commitment, his consistency that has become his life's work. I am inspired by it even though I don't exactly follow in his footsteps. My projects may conclude in weeks, perhaps months, occasionally years, but never decades. I don't have his discipline. I have learned from his example, nonetheless, the value of looking more deeply, of spending more time on a project than I intended, of choosing projects that allow and encourage longer and deeper relationships. Plowden's approach is the opposite of the quick snap of success. His approach is the opposite of the "greatest hit" that consumes so many of us. Flashes of insight can be incredibly valuable, but digging deeper is a more secure strategy for success and a result that is more meaningful and lasting. The picture of America that Plowden has created is an historic document that is unparalleled in my knowledge.

It's worth studying his books in some detail. For example, it was Plowden (and to some degree Linda Butler) who inspired me to go beyond the photograph of a building from the outside. That's easy. Getting inside, however, is where the true rewards are found. Photographs of the outside of a building are often about architecture. Photographs made on the inside of buildings are ones about the people who live and work there, even if the people themselves aren't included in the photographs. It's much more difficult to gain access to photograph inside a building, so most photographers don't. Plowden does, and that simple (yet often complex task) makes his photographs much more intimate and engaging.

The importance of Plowden's approach shows up in another important way: his beautifully printed and exquisitely designed books are rarely found in the "photography section" of the bookstore. His appeal extends far beyond other photographers. Instead, his wonderful photography books are found in the sections of the bookstore on Americana, on farm life, on small-town culture, and on lifestyle choices. In other words, his books are published for the public, not his fellow camera enthusiasts. Please don't misunderstand me here — his books are gorgeous and belong in any photographer's library. It's just that we photographers are not his primary audience. That's not a statement I can make for so many photography books being published these days. I've written elsewhere that I believe this is one of the great problems with photography today: Too much of fine art photography is made for other photographers — and hopefully for them to applaud. We have become artistically inbred. Plowden shows us the way out of this dead-end — use our photography to tell stories that are not about our photography.