see2think

thinking with pictures


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driven to distraction; or, the medium and the message

M. McLuhan shone the spotlight on the importance of a communication medium that shapes or at least colors the message being expressed. When it comes to the daily browsing of flickr.com/explore and persistently being distracted by technical reasons, rather than to enjoy the subject matter or the composition, several elements stand out, again and again. Doing a simple search for “landscape” and then selecting the filter for licenses set to “no known copyright” brought up a pageful of images, mainly in color. It did not take long to spot 10 irritants that get in the way of my viewing engagement with a subject and what the photographer expresses through composition and moment of release.

click picture for full size view

click picture for full size view

(1) glaring element (color at edge of frame not cropped out or muted somehow)

(2) focal length falsely represents the corners, insinuating visual effect of distorted motion
(3) postprocessing (similar to overly HDR examples) makes color/dynamic range strange
(4) photoshop exercise in imagination: great for fiction, distracting for non-fiction (if lenswork can be bifurcated this way)
(5) hazy capture may be optically accurate, but probably is false when compared to human visual experience
(6) poster-like colors are attractive, but by drawing attention to itself little else can be expressed
(7) blurry foreground pulls the eye away from the larger composition
(8) horizon is tilted, thus taking a moment for the viewer to question what is wrong before solving the problem and finally seeing the scene itself
(9) artful blur of moving subject shouts for attention, thus distracting from the whole
(10) colors are rendered inaccurately, causing the viewer to react to this error before proceeding to the subject itself

Why do such distractions matter in the experience of visually communicating a place, time, or topic? That depends on the viewer expectations and purposes when searching through the images. In my case the pictures that speak most clearly, deeply, or with most insight and clarity of expression tend to express gorgeous light or interesting locations, contexts, moments or subjects well portrayed – not so much to show off the photographer’s talents or imagination, but instead to convey something about the subject itself. By this standard, the best pictures are technically transparent and least distract the viewer from seeing the subject itself. Things like focal lengths far outside the “normal” range (35mm film equivalent of 35mm to 65mm lens), tilted horizon, blurred subject, color distortion and the other complaints illustrated above all get in the way of engaging with a subject. The best pictures present fewest barriers to seeing the subject plainly. Accuracy and honesty are the watchwords, according to this way of seeing things. Better still, when the human eyes’ visual experience can be approximated by normal lens to stitch several frames into something like the 175 degrees (ground to sky) by 180 degrees (lefthand the righthand peripheral view), then I am most content of all. See this logic of making a facsimile to human vision in the slide set at http://bit.ly/seepano

Finally, since the language for understanding or comprehending plays on the language of seeing or vision, perhaps there is a useful extension to make from this discussion of the things that get in the way of plainly seeing and enjoying a scene. Just as there are a number of minor things that detract and distract from viewing a composition, so too in one’s waking consciousness there are a variety of things that singly or in  combination cause a person to dwell on incidental details and miss the big picture. Being driven to distraction can be financial constraints or loss avoidance, social status or relationships in distress, consumer dissipation, health preoccupations, unpredictable rule of law and social order, and so on. Drawing on the logic above and in an effort to minimize the distractions, it makes sense to strive for a simplified, streamlined life experience with relatively few moving parts and a least restrictive environment; one where the path from one’s dreams to reality has least friction and most supporting infrastructure ready to use.

The principle is the same, whether it is searching through sets of images at flickr, or seeking pathways to fruitful living in one’s waking experience: distractions are many and the things competing for your attention only seem to multiply. Acknowledging this situation is the first step to mindfully guarding against things that get in the way of fully and truly seeing.

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Seeing through the present, reaching for past or future

approaching the old castle at St. Augustine, FL (early March 2015)

approaching the old castle at St. Augustine, FL (early March 2015)

Modern life and the ruts of familiar schedules and seasons add up to a state of mind very often distracted; the proportion of signal (the part you seek or express) to noise (the part you best want to avoid) seems to grow fainter with each new product or service that urgently attracts your attention away from the deeper and more lasting things in one’s life. To cut through the noise surrounding one’s daily living there are a few ways to refocus or reframe the push and pull; to turn down the noise and turn up the signal.
Using a lens of historical or archaeological vision is one way to see through the current layers of life to discover traces of people’s lives and decisions during other times on in other places. Taking a specialist interest (cobblers viewing the world in terms of shoes; nurses in terms of health needs; bankers in terms of opportunities to lend or collect potential depositors, and so on) is another way to foreground sometime other than advertisers’ hype or the worldview carried in accustomed habits of shopping, using and disposing of things. A third way is the fall back on the distinction the ancient Greeks made between interpretations (nomos; culture/society) and brute facts (physis). By foregrounding the physical side of events the clamor of cultural meanings and intentionality fades to the background, which results in a refreshing release from those nominal interpretations or assumptions about an event or a practice.
This photo from early spring in north Florida (St. Augustine, then celebrating 500 years since European inroads to the New World began on their beach) shows a history reenactor (lower right) talking to a visitor while many others are filing into or away from the old structure of San Marco castle. The ticket and tourist information station is in the middle background, staffed by the US National Park Service. The relationships that people develop between past and present; and between past and envisioned futures will vary by generation, gender, ethnicity, level of education and income, not to mention temperament or personal interest. For some it is appealing to visit the past (David Lowenthal’s book, The Past is a Foreign Country). For others it is engaging to raise one’s awareness of the past when viewing the landscape; to be sensitive to traces of things from long ago that persist today as silent witnesses to those long-ago times. Still others may consider historical settings as a charming and non-dangerous backdrop to one’s own life story. But no matter the motivation and depth of interest, there is value in seeing things hearkening to the past that most people haven’t much sensitivity toward.