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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

Linda Butler — Fine Art Storytelling

There are many photographers who I would characterize as artists; there are many photographers I would characterize as storytellers; there are few who I would characterize as a photo-art storyteller and of those Linda Butler may be the very best of them. You will find no better example of the photo-art storytelling that her four books: Shaker Legacy, Rural Japan: Radiance of the ordinary, Italy in the Shadow of Time, and Yangtze Remembered: The River Beneath the Lake.

It was Linda Butler who thoroughly persuaded me that I was not a "greatest hits" photographer but rather saw the world in discrete projects. The inspiration I received from Linda Butler's work was so powerfully influential that I started referring to myself as a storyteller rather than as a photographer. My medium is photography, but my objective is to tell stories. It's curious to me — and the question I shall leave to others to answer – as to why it is that so many of the great photo-art storytellers are women: Linda Butler, Joan Myers, Eve Arnold, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Laura Gilpin, Linda Connor, Sally Mann — just to name a few.

I suppose I should explain what I mean by the somewhat awkward phrase "photo-art" storyteller. Linda Butler's photographs qualify for that nebulous term "fine art photography" because they are exquisite individually — that is to say, any one of her images could be matted, framed, exhibited, and would succeed in the world of fine art photography. Her craftsmanship is second to none; her compositions are meticulous, her sensitivity to printing and production subtleties is outstanding. Some of that comes, no doubt, from her chosen methodology: large-format photography. Her images drip with the sensual tones and formalist compositions that go hand-in-hand with that kind of camerawork. What is surprising, and to me quite inspiring, is how well her images work when seen in groups to tell stories. They're not just individual images of merit, but also contribute to a sense of place, time, and even narrative. I think of her as the other end of the storytelling spectrum from Josef Koudelka and Cartier-Bresson. The Magnum-type 35mm storytellers make powerful images that communicate narrative, but there images would rarely be exhibited as large-scale prints appropriate for hanging above the fireplace and enhancing the room's sense of decor. Conversely, a beautiful Ansel Adams print might look great above the fireplace, but it rarely has much of a story to tell. Linda Butler has found the middle ground where stunning artistic photographs can simultaneously tell a story. She is both Ansel Adams and Josef Koudelka simultaneously, an exceedingly rare quality that I am not sure I could apply to any more deserving photographer than Linda Butler. I find her work such an inspiration because she demonstrates so convincingly that fine art photography can be storytelling and that storytelling can be done through the medium fine art photography.

In another aspect of her work that is quite surprising, her projects always include a few portraits of people. Large-format photography does not lend itself to portraiture the way more portable equipment does. Most of the great portrait photographers use smaller cameras for good reason. Richard Avedon's wonderful project the American West is such a notable example because he used an 8 x 10 camera to make his portraits. What is significant to compared to Butler, however, is that Avedon's use of the camera was very studio-like in its execution. He set up the camera and backdrop and had his subjects come to him and pose in his impromptu studio. Butler, on the other hand, takes her large-format equipment out into the world and makes her portraits in situ, no easy task, indeed. Part of what makes her storytelling so compelling is this combination of people and objects.

When I was first working on my Made of Steel project that eventually became the book, all the original photographs were still life compositions — peopleless pictures of objects and places. In the middle of making those images, I happen to pick up one of Linda Butler's books and was immediately enlightened about how important it would be for me to include portraits in my project, as she has done. For years I've said that photography is about life. I suppose it's difficult to support that as a philosophy if a project does not include any photographs of people. It's certainly not a prerequisite, but the exclusion of people from most projects requires an overwhelming justification that should be a conscious decision. I had not specifically excluded portraits from Made of Steel for any strategic reason, but rather for the simple reason that I didn't perceive myself to be a portrait photographer, nor was I comfortable as one. Linda Butler's inspiration encouraged me to overcome these self-limiting thoughts, and challenged me to include portraits in the project. They added such as such an important component to Made of Steel that I have always felt grateful for the inspiration from Butler's photo art storytelling.

From a slightly larger perspective, the real inspiration from Linda Butler is a matter of unlinking equipment from its typical use. Limiting myself to my knee-jerk reactions, I would tend only to use large cameras for landscape work in smaller cameras for portraits. Butler demonstrated the fallacy of such silly thinking. Her insistence that the world of fine art and the world of storyteller need not be uncomfortable bedfellows opened the door for me that has significantly enriched my work.