Float Like a Butterfly


What we photograph is never the same as what is capture in the photo. A photo is not reality (except as the reality «photo»). A photo is never the truth. A photo is never objective. Many will even say that a photograph is not a representation of reality. Of course, this quickly becomes an intellectual and philosophical discussion, and maybe not of much value for any practical uses.

Still, understanding what a photograph is does have quite important for anyone working with photography as an artistic or visual expression. However, it’s easy to disconnect from an abstract discussion about some intangible characterisation of the inherent properties of photography. Here is an attempt to maybe make it more tangible.

I have a couple of times in this blog mentioned the book The Photographer’s Playbook. One of the contributors is Will Steacy, a photographer who’s work has been featured in publications such as New Yorker, Esquire, Time, Wired, The Guardian, just to mention a few. In The Photographer’s Playbook he has written a little piece about a really fundamental understanding of photography, which I want to quote fully and unedited:

«It’s all a big lie. All of it. The sooner you know this and accept it, the better off you will be. We, as artists, photographers, writers, academics, etc., spend our whole lives and careers devoted to the impossible task of chasing truth, a fruitless attempt to translate life into a tangible commodity.

A monarch butterfly flapping its wings in frantic spasms against the window of an uptown A train at 1:47 am on a Tuesday night in July.

Sitting there on that train with exhausted workers and drunks waiting for the next stop—when the doors will swing open and that trapped butterfly will have twenty seconds to make its escape. That is art, that is life, and it will never exist as you experience it on a canvas, in a photograph, or in these concoctions of letters we call words. The best you get is a memory.

Never forget it. Never stop allowing yourself to be there on the train and notice the silent struggle of a caged beauty flapping its wings in a desperate fight for survival.

And never forget, that despite our best efforts—despite the tireless fight to capture the details and tidbits of life and attempt to share these experiences with the world in some abstracted form, from which the world will know exactly what it felt like that night in July on the subway—nothing will ever compare to the feeling of being there. Just like the hopelessly optimistic butterfly flapping its wings, the artist in us will never stop trying to capture and share the world as we experience it. Your greatest asset is an endless inventory of Tuesday night train rides. This is the only morsel of truth in the big lie.»

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Canon EOS 5D with a 28-135 mm set at 75 mm zoom. Shutter speed: 1/60 of a second. Aperture: f/5,0. The photo was processed in Lightroom, Photoshop and with the apps On1 Effects and Niksoft Color Efex.

43 thoughts on “Float Like a Butterfly

  1. Captivating photo, beautiful beyond words. Thank you for the thoughtful text, the truth of it is a lot to absorb :).

  2. Thoughts to be pondered as we go about our days trying to share little bits of ourselves and how we see our world. Are we really “chasing” truth, or just trying to show how we see it?

    1. I think only you can answer that question for yourself. For myself, I believe I do chase some kind of truth, my truth if nothing else, which of course is not the truth. 🙂

  3. That’s a lot to think about. But artists will never give up on trying to capture that moment, trying to translate it into something that the viewer can connect with. Hopefully as artists go along they can capture those fleeting moments, and allow the viewer to see what we saw.

  4. I think it maybe doesn’t even matter to someone like me where it’s not about being an artist, or showing ‘the truth’, it’s just about having a blast enjoying photography and trying to do it the best I can. But I get for artists and professionals there are more serious reasons to analyse it all, to have a raison d’être so to speak.
    “Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.” — Aaron Siskind has a more personal take on it from my point of view. 🙂
    Fab image as well Otto.

  5. Great perspective shared here, along with the lovely butterfly. I like both Steacy’s and Siskind’s quotes and it captures both sides of my feelings when I am attempting to capture something in the moment. Alas, those moments are very infrequent now, so I’ll just have to store them in my mind’s eye for the time being 🙂

  6. cool image! and i totally agree about the disparity between what we see and what we capture….sometimes im just shocked by how different my perceptions are : )

  7. So I am sitting at my favorite restaurant and this is the thrid time, I think, that I have cried while online today. The owners and staff are my friends, and they know that ‘my’ area was affected by teh earthquake, and that friends of mine died. They are probably assuming now, that I am reading news of more tragedy, when in fact, I am crying from the beauty of your post.

    Of course you reach me, and I suspect that you reach many people who take the time to appreciate what you share…. I am lucky in that I am there on that train, watching teh butterfly, or the unique species of otter in the pond in front of me, and sometimes I leave my camera at my hip and just watch and appreciate the moment and drink it in.. and of course I then grab my camera and say, “record this!’ In the past two weeks, I’ve recorded two species of birds that ‘should not’ be here, yet they are there, and when Ebird asked for proof, I gladly sent the photos complete with date.

    Thanks again; I normally have little time for comments, but I load pages and appreciate what you share when I am back at the property. Lisa

    1. Thank you for the lovely words. I know it’s often hard for you to get internet access; all the more I appreciate your comment. Sometimes we just need to observe, don’t we, without taking any photos. But sometimes we get so caught up in the moment of shooting that nothing else exists. I am very happy you were able to capture something special like the birds not suppose to be in your environment. On the other hand, I am sorry for you loss due to the earthquake.

  8. I was thinking about the difficulty of capturing reality this past weekend. I had traveled down the coast, and discovered a hay meadow filled with wildflowers. The expanse certainly was greater than my camera could capture, but it occurred to me that, even with the best wide-angle lens, there would be no way to capture the totality of the experience: the sound of the birds, the smell of fresh-cut hay in a farther field, the breeze. I did bring back some photos, and a few are lovely, but none captures the totality of the experience.

    This is being documented more and more often, as it applies to smart phones and our constantly-snapping population. It’s been suggested by studies that those who go to museums, or hay fields, and spend all their time taking thoughtless photos actually remember fewer of the details than those who use their eyes to take it in. A combination of both seems important.

    1. I think what you experienced is “true” for all art work. You can never transfer the complete experience into a piece of art work. If you even try, you will most likely not touch the audience at all. The best is to capture snippets of the experience, to focus on the details (and not necessarily literally so). But in the end, if you don’t take in it first, you will never be able to express anything through any art work.

  9. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee (Muhammad Ali)–must be some sort of yin/yang thing we can come up with here, but I haven’t given it serious thought. Maybe not even worth serious thought, but every time I see the first half of the quote it is immediately followed by the second half in my mind.

    1. I have not even considered the second part of the quote, but that does make an interesting pair of yin and yang. Maybe worth a little bit rethinking. I’ll be back—to answer with another quote. 🙂

  10. Not so very long ago there was a common expression that ‘the camera never lies’. For a variety of reasons we now appreciate that this statement is not valid. From a personal point of view I use the camera for two main purposes: as an aide memoire (to enable me record images that will help me to recall sights and experiences) and to collect source material to feed my imagination in picture-making. Somewhere in the midst of this process is my idea of reality …. but I’m sure it will be different again next week!

  11. That is a fascinating quote that requires re-reading and re-reading. We capture a micro-second of an ongoing story. At best it is an aide memoire.
    Except – there are situations when that micro-second captures a ‘truth’ that our eyes are incapable of seeing. And I’m thinking of the extraordinary frozen moments captured by highly skilled Natural History photographers:the Humming bird captured mid-hover with its proboscis fully extended stealing honey for example.

    1. That is one way that photo can capture some “truth”. I also believe it can capture emotions and relationships—at its best. But of course, it also comes down to how we define the word truth. Thanks for you comment, Andy.

  12. Intressant och tänkvärt Otto, tack för att du delar med dig och jag tar det med mig på min resa och funderar lite mer runt detta.
    Stark genomslagskraft i din bild som passar ypperligt till detta inlägg.

  13. I really like the emotion and feel of this post…we can never, ever capture the true feeling we have at the moment of a photograph. The story of the butterfly is perhaps the most beautiful and frightful analogy of this ~ where a struggle and eventual defeat is the reality, but it is the beauty of the butterfly is what will likely shine through in any photograph. The quote you have, “the impossible task of chasing truth, a fruitless attempt to translate life into a tangible commodity…” making the case, and if we understand this, as photographers, we can also understand a bit more about what it is we are shooting and the perception of everything else.

    1. You are so right, Randall. Understanding the mediums limitations as well as its strengths is a prerequisite for any serious approach to photography. Thank you for the poignant comment.

  14. The image is quite lovely but the quote is truly amazing. I’ve always struggled with the reality of how I remember things and how they end up be portrayed in a photo or in a film. It is impossible to capture the reality. Even our memories will edit what we see eventually.

  15. I used to be obsessed with “truth,” when I was a journalist — my goal was always to make myself invisible as a narrator and let the facts speak for themselves. But over the years I learned that “truth” doesn’t exist, at least not in a collective or objective sense. The best we can hope for is honesty: “This is how I saw it. This is how I felt. This is what I think it means.” That is my philosophy now, and my goal.

    Thank you for this beautiful, wonderful, thought-provoking post. You are a magnificent photographer, and a great teacher.

    1. I am glad it resonates with you. Personally I believe there is truth, albeit not “objective” truth. However, something can be truth for yourself, and I think that is what one should try to express, either in arts or like in journalism. 🙂

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