thinking with pictures – metaphors that let you see the subject from new angles

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Sweet spot (snapshot-focalized) versus the big picture (panorama-immersive)

Walking down the street today in late afternoon spring sunshine the turquoise color of the water in West Bay of the Grand Traverse Bay caught my eye. The camera lens sees all the elements in the scene, but my brain blots out the rest and dwells on the vivid color of the water. Other times it may be a shape, a texture, or the quality of light at a particular hour or season of the year that catches my attention. But to translate that thrill into something the lens can capture and convey to others demands good technique and experience. When something as singular as a color element or a particular shape is the subject then a simple snapshot will render the subject faithfully; no surrounding context is required. The photographer applies blinders so the viewer is tightly focalized onto the specific feature.

looking north at the waters of Grand Traverse Bay
West Bay recently thawed and now so vividly blue

But other times the subject is not a discrete element. Instead it is the wider stage or frame in which many things are arranged. For those times a stitched panorama works well to preserve the proportions of the single shot and yet also to capture the combined wider field of view that is similar to the natural field of view for people using both eyes. The effect is immersive; there is verisimilitude with waking, walking experience. In other words, there are times to photograph a big picture and there are other times to capture a subject all by itself, without much care about the surrounding conditions.

By seeing that both the narrow vision of snapshot and the wide vision of stitched panoramas can communicate something true about the world, then it becomes possible to make both kinds of picture, and to appreciate both kinds of picture, too. Something similar seems to happen in the mind’s eye – sometimes focused on a singular subject and other times taking in the wide-angle or big picture view.


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Layered Looking in five layers

The way to engage all environments beside physically walking (or paddling, if water) is to “read” the landscape at the moment in time you are co-present, plus one more lens that centers on a longitudinal perspective in time, either fast forwarding or rewinding from the present in order to see how the present fits into what came just before this (or will come next). First consider the land forms (geological lens) to understand the land and natural features there. Next look at the natural cycles and elements at all scales (the mosses, the fungi, the microbes, as well as plants and animals of air, water and land). Third, consider human aspects, both historical of the various countries and civilizations (3), as well as the patterns and relationship of the people currently inhabiting the place (4) to read the material cultural shapes and remnants as well as the interactions to the non-human environment. Dominant meanings, motivations, and models that people strive for come to the fore when excavating the significance of what is visible, as well as what is invisible. Certain clues serve as triggers or cues to the human (or natural ecological) stories that are underway. Finally, there is the annual cycle of human and ecological events that recur each year or even longer cycles (13-year cicadas, for example).

pano 2015 mar 7 old-spanishtrail-to-roundpond

panorama 2015 March 7 Old Spanish trail to Round Pond

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Chrono-vision, or Time Lapse on the brain

It is easier and easier to produce video playback from thousands of JPG frames, thus altering the flow of time. By photographing 1 image per minute for the next 60 minutes, you produce 60 images. By setting the FPS (frames per second) at the normal broadcast rate of 30 fps (actually 29.97 or similar) the entire sequence of 60 frames will playback in just 2 seconds of viewing time. Some cameras process the time-lapse experience internally, rather than to require the observer to drop the images into a video editor. And small, rugged action/sports recording devices like the family of GoPro Hero camera seem designed for time lapse work, in addition to the reverse manipulation of time; not speeding things up, but instead recording in slow-motion (60 fps or 120 or 240). How does this time-compressed vision change one’s view of the world?

screenshots from vimeo 124728006

Example of time-lapse: freeze-frames from skidding cloudscape

Adding music instead of the ambient sound at the field recording site changes the impression completely, since audio implies vivid immediacy and Normal Time flow (unless sped up or slowed down, thus ruining the musicality of ‘real time’ musical expression). Some of the videos retrieved at by searching “time lapse” include music, but many others are soundless; few, if any include voice over or field recording ambient sounds.

Certain subjects lend themselves to time traveling in the camera: the changing light (sunrise, sunset, reflections and shadow’scapes), the changing weather (cloudscape, precipitation), moving bodies (animal or man-made), processual subjects (building something, producing artwork, demolition of a structure), for example. But other scenes are best communicated as snapshot, moment in time, either in one of the standard aspect ratios (1:1, 4:3, 16:9) or stitched into panoramic field of view. Still other subjects work best as video recorded in real-time, either as a set of clips, or as long takes. Perhaps conversation, performance, competition, and cause-effect can best be shown this way.

Insects illustrate each of these tools for visual recording. A photo in natural habitat or from a entomological cabinet allows careful study of structure and texture. A video presentation allows study of behavior in response to internal or external conditions. A time lapse shows behavior played out across longer time frames that most viewers could watch in real time. So a process with a long time scale can be conveyed in time lapse.

In summary, seeing a weather pattern develop, the cloud shapes roiling, or the ebb and flow of tides gives a feeling of fairly flying through time; sort of like one’s life passing before one’s eyes in the seconds before calamity. And while the spectacle from compressing time vision can be thrilling of itself, it also puts the normal, day to day pace into a new perspective; that is, periodically browsing Time Lapse projects is a reminder of the fleeting space of a day or a human lifetime that is available to make something of. The unseen patterns of flow and sequence of events are revealed by the lens in time lapse. This puts the non-timelapse experience into a longer chain of events; the present moment is not neatly bounded and discrete anymore. Now we can imagine the ‘now’ as connected to something that came before and something soon to follow. In other words, time lapse vision exposes us to alternative vision of the days we live.