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

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Your language; your vision

Here is an article about the connection between language acuity and vision ability: better control of language leads to better ability to envision. Perhaps the reverse also is true – the more visual experiences and spatial adventures, the better one’s handling of word distinctions?

…Lupyan and Ward conclude that language can enhance the sensitivity of visual awareness, making their participants able to detect objects that would otherwise have been hidden from view, and that this effect occurs at the earliest stages of perceptual processing, rather than at later stages corresponding to “higher” thought processes. They also propose two possible mechanisms by which this might occur. Hearing the name of the object might give the visual brain areas a head-start, so that neurons in those areas that are selective for that particular object have a competitive edge over those that respond to other objects. Alternatively, hearing object names might activate complex neural representations of a given object, which then facilitates its detection.

The researchers favour the first explanation, because earlier work suggests that the method used to suppress the images interferes with visual processes that occur before the brain can analyse the meaning of words. Regardless of how it happens, the results clearly show that language and vision can interact to influence behaviour…


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The attraction of night lighting

The graceful sweep from golden hour to blue hour of crepuscular light, to the last traces of twilight and then darkness appeals to a camera eye in many ways. Physically, the iris must relax (or does muscle contraction open the iris and lack of contraction leave it stopped down?) to permit light to reach the optic nerve. Psychologically, much of the pell-mell of daylight work has left off and the overall experience is slower and quieter than in broad daylight. Socially, there is less visible scrutiny of one’s appearance or status markers. But what about aesthetically speaking: why should one’s eye be attracted to the extremes of pitch darkness and faint light shading into the bright beam of a given source of light? All of a sudden it occurred to me that something very like the oil painters’ 16-20th century still lifes has a similar appeal: it is the play of point source light (rather than diffuse, indistinct illumination that gives the delicious touch of light upon surfaces, textures, tones and shapes all arranged artfully with plenty of dim or darkness to contrast the subject.

testing SEL20f28 lens for Sony a5000: street lights after rain

testing SEL20f28 lens for Sony a5000: street lights after rain

So next time you find yourself wondering why a night-time scene tugs your heartstrings, or makes your photo trigger finger itching to snap some shots, consider the oil painters’ still life by comparison: ask yourself if something similar could be happening now in the wider spaces of a night walk or a glimpse out of one’s window.

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Lens that speaks vs. lens that listens; shows vs. sees

using one's camera to see versus to speak - impressions or expressions

using one’s camera to see versus to speak – impressions or expressions

When the photographer structures a picture or story rather than being dictated by the subject itself, then there is a shift in emphasis toward something made out of one’s imagination (fiction), rather than something made from what lies outside oneself (non-fiction).

This distinction between something made up from the imagination and something written up based on observation or an attempt to minimize one’s own manipulation of materials seems to be relatively recent, according to best estimates by etymology sleuths and lexicographers, dating to sometime in the 1800s or not so very much before. It’s not that all varieties of written or orally reported information before that moment carried equal veracity or affected the affairs of government, court or other public truths in the same way. But the lines separating the sorts of language were less sharply drawn; or if clearly drawn, then not so much worth fretting about.

Now I am reading the user guide, menus, examples and descriptions of features and functions on my large sensor (APS-C) mirrorless camera intended for enthusiasts or as second choice for professionals otherwise busy with larger cameras. I notice an emphasis by the camera maker on “gilding the lily,” to use a vivid image to describe adding excessive effects. Other expressions of the same meaning: to drown the main course with sauce, to have more frosting than cake, to make more package than product, or to give more frame than picture. In other words, the camera comes with an abundance in range of filters, special effects, and other intentional manipulations of the original subject captured with the light found (or added) at the time of shutter release. In this way, it seems the camera maker is giving imaginative users a wide collection of effects and tools to alter what comes through the lens and thereby to help the artist to express what may not be found in the wild, but only in the imagination. This road corresponds to ‘fiction’ in the opening lines, above.

By contrast, the non-fiction photo essayist has the opposite purpose: not to add effects, but indeed to minimize anything that distances a viewer from the subject. However, the lens and sensor are unlike the human visual experience in having a more limited dynamic range (a good camera may distinguish 10-12 levels of light, but an unaided eye can range something closer to 20 by its constant adjustment between lighting extremes). The two eyes comprise a stereoscopic visual field almost 180 degrees from ground the sky and also from side to side. And so the non-fiction photographer-as-technician must be able to manipulate color, light levels, focus depth in order to make the photographic result something closer to human visual experience. As well, the photographer-as-social scientist or the participant-observer must be able to arrange foreground and background, juxtaposing elements and choosing well the light and moment of capture in order to interpret events in some way — not to dazzle one’s audience with flights of fancy or depth of erudition (performances of one’s own powers), but to interpret the scene in such a way as to shed light on the moment, the subject, or the wider society that it forms a part of.

So while the camera maker bewilders the new owner with all the ways to use the camera in its many effects and manipulations, there is too much information and choice for the person who wants only the instructions needed to make an accurate representation, or who is exercising habits of seeing that lead to insightful social interpretation. For a daylight photographer a number of features/effects can be ruled out, disabled, disregarded, or simplified; image quality (opt for least compression level; possibly RAW in some cases), image size (depending on uses: for use in print or to be seen on screen only), image aspect ratio (choose sensor’s own full surface, not a masked subset of it), flash (usually off), shooting mode (AUTO for fast moving times when attention is reserved with instincts for timing and big picture, situational awareness, not the careful thinking for making images more carefully composed and captured).

The question remains, though, how best can one understand the lens. Can it be both an expressive outlet to approximate what is in the imagination of the photographer (strong composition, bold color patterns or textures, dramatic light or dark, conceptual art) and also be a device of impressions in order to document the world that exists independent of one’s mind “out there.” Probably there is partial fiction and non-fiction in each photograph. And maybe it is not vital to root out all trace of the one in the other. So long as the objective documentarian knows that personal experience and preoccupations of the person snapping the photo does filter into the frame, and so long as the imaginative expressionist knows that the creation and its process do not start and end in the body and mind of the artist, but instead owe something to what is outside of the artist’s mind and powers, then all will be well among viewers and creators alike. The photo expression or documentary record will engage viewers and thinkers accordingly, as message from a creator or as spotlight on the outside world.

And new owners trying to wade through the user guide or manual of features and functions will be able to answer the questions they have about making photos that either amplify one’s imagination, or pictures that accurately represent a time, place, person or thing on its own terms, together with its context.

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Which likeness is truest?

Browsing the user group for Landscapes at there are certain locations, subjects, or techniques that come up repeatedly. In this group, at least, Scotland and Iceland and Norway are frequent places for the thrilling play of light and weather and composition. Of course the golden hour around sun up and sun down, as well as the adjacent blue hour are well represented, too. But seeing one of the tidal ebb and flow for Mont San Michel in Normandy made me wonder – which of these thousands of amateur, enthusiast, and paid professional renderings of the Mont is truest to life? Which composes the structure and the life that goes on there (residents’ experiences, but also engaged with tides of tourists coming in and out) in the most accurate and understandable context? This is perhaps an open question; not one quickly answered. Typing “mont san michel” in the searchbox brings up thousands of shared images. Here is a screenshot from the December 13th, 2015 search on the first page of returns. Which then is the ‘real’ Mont San Michel, I wonder? In order to answer that probably it would take some fieldwork on site to know the conditions of the geography and seasons, as well as the life on the island and the patterns of tourists – their purposes and effects.

screenshot of searchbox 13 dec 2015 "mont san michel"

screenshot of searchbox 13 dec 2015 “mont san michel”

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Inverted images, the anti-photograph

wordcloudAnother way to appreciate the things that attract one’s attention is to consider the absence of those same elements. So rather than seizing on something in the composition as expressing prime significance (e.g. linguistic, cultural, social, person, local, regional, national, universal, emotional, aesthetic, etc), instead consider subjects and scenes that lack some vital element. This sort of non-photo, or anti-photo is perhaps unappealing or neutral: neither beautiful nor ugly, just plain existing. What is the object of this thought exercise for advancing your photographic seeing? It is to know that one’s day is composed of moments of marked awe, wonder, or beauty – or the opposite of these, but that in-between times there also is much that passes the eye invisibly; unremarked upon; taken-for-granted, or disregarded through inattention and unmindfulness.

And so by acknowledging the vast spaces of nothingness that come between the moments that attract one’s eye and that call out to be captured with one’s lens for all to see, then one can better understand the big picture. One’s day and one’s years are enriched by clear vision and careful reflection, trained by the habits of one’s lenses. But between these peak experiences there is much that is important, despite its ordinariness.

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Eyes that face frontward, or The Chain of Being

looking ahead, but behind is "out of sight, out of mind"

looking ahead, but behind is “out of sight, out of mind”

In the predawn darkness setting off to the parking lot to drive to work, a car’s headlights stab through the dim street. So I wait for it to pass before crossing. About the same time a solitary walker comes to the intersection ahead of me, distracting the internal monologue of my early morning thoughts. Then it occurs to me: the interior monologue of moments before, when I was moving about indoors, has been replaced by the events of the cold morning darkness. All that seemed important and worth filling my mind with now has vanished; something out of one’s (forward facing) sight is also something out of one’s mind. The lived experience is compartmentalized and that which no longer appears in the “right now” box simply disappears.

This same sort of forward-facing consciousness is true also of one generation’s lifetime and (lack of) consciousness. Others have written of the Native American vision of 7 generations: consider the 3 generation that came before one’s own, as well as the 3 that will follow one’s own, before taking consequential action or making a big decision. But for the immigrant nation of USA, at least, each generation strides the Earth as if for the first time, relegating all those who came before (and those to follow in future times) to a static limbo of inconsequence or non-existence, perhaps. As a result of this present-only vision, those alive now preoccupy themselves with what is today and what is new and next. Conveniently there is no baggage from what came before; at least that is the thinking. In truth, of course, there is little new under the sun. And one cannot engage in civilization that has no legacy baggage of inherited attitudes, methods, infrastructure or ideals.

And so while we today and those of other times, places, languages or ethnic worlds may view the space and time occupied as “their oyster” (to do with according to their will), in fact all are connected; possibly at the level of Arthur Lovejoy’s writings in The Great Chain of Being. At the very least the forward-facing vision we grow accustomed to seems to predispose a way of thinking that is oriented to now and that which comes next, rather than consciousness that sweeps in the full context of past – present – future.

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Look around – the future is already here…

It’s just not evenly distributed –William Gibson

historical photomerge projects by Jo Teuwisse,

If indeed the seeds of the future are present today all around us, hiding in plain view and detected in the hindsight of a person looking back to this point, then perhaps also the complement is true: that the past is still here. That is, a person from a generation or more ago could look around our present day and would see and hear the patterns of social interaction and would recognize the play of expectations, proprieties, aspirations and restrictions still going on today. Of course, there would be other things alien or baffling to a time traveler from the past and visiting our time now. This photo project is a virtuoso software performance that juxtaposes a WWII scene in black and white with a color image from today. It is one way to visualize this jostling of past and present (and by extension jostling with the future). But how possibly could one do a photo merge experiment that shows the present day in color and seamlessly merges what is to come in a generation or two, this time in black and white.
Maybe the project could be made to express today’s persistent elements that carry into the future, but also to pick out elements of the future that already are among us today, although they be not fully formed or in general use yet. These future things could be depicted with spot monochrome treatment so that a scene is mostly in color but also contains elements “of the future” that already are here now.