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

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Quest for light

Browsing hundreds of pictures on there seems to be a clear response to pictures that have certain characteristics: I seek interesting light that speaks to me somehow, and I exclude or discount the scenes that isolate a subject from its context (strong telephoto) or distort the relationship of foreground and background (35mm equivalent lens wider than 28mm). Likewise the images heavily showing post-processing distract me from my quest to simulate the visual experience of human eyes.

What remains of the truly appealing captures, free of distractions and false attention-getters, is a set of favorites that display wide dynamic range (though low dynamic range light values can also appeal), and angle of view of 90-170 degrees from side to side (also 90-100 degrees from ground to sky). Subjects that express this vivid, human-like visual engagement often trigger feelings of majesty or sweeping scale (sweeping time can be invoked by slight blur, too), often giving the widest depth of field. Very often it is stitched panoramas rather than single captures that fit these particular photographic conditions.

After assembling a few dozen pictures like the ones that I’ve singled out, what sort of message do these all speak to me? Leaving aside the value of photos that record an historic event or sociological insight, and thinking just of the pure compositional expression forms, the message that seems to answer the quest has to do with wide, deep, abiding luminous presence (or its conspicuous absence, in the case of night and low-light scenes at the blue hour or beyond it at twilight and mixed-light scenes). When my eyes “hear” that voice speaking then I turn and admire. If a camera is at hand, I may take a photo or two, as well, to share with others.


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What happens when you document your event, trip, or life?

Browsing a few of the videos tagged “time lapse” at each week, this one came up, showing a young couple on vacation in the Bahamas,

It combines music, video, still photos and a mix of chronological and thematic/place-based organizing structure. How would the day to day experience differ without cameras or online sharing services for publishing? Historically some travelers would diary the experiences and possibly include sketches or artifacts that could be attached with the diary. So the process was similar then as now: framing the stream of experiences, establishing a certain amount of critical distance, and then articulating the events in the categories, labels, distinctions and patterns familiar to one’s language and historical period as a member of a particular social group. But with mobile computing, telecommunicating/publishing one’s images, and editing video or audio becoming relatively easily, now the production values rise but also the filtering process allows less carefully constructed expressions to circulate.

Whether it is a sturdy dSLR, a film camera, or a mobile phone camera, when one is so equipped then the flow of experiences is diffracted: instead of immersing in the moment and reflecting in words to one’ s fellow traveler, now one is taking notes, snapping mementos, seeking visual opportunities for self or for sharing with those not present. In other words, the camera allows a person to storyboard the daily schedule as it happens, and also proactively when imagining possible photo opportunities as the light changes, new subjects emerge, or happy surprises delight (or disappoint one’s expectations and world view reference points).

As this Vimeo time-lapse example shows, a camera and online publishing services allow a person to take a stream of experiences and encapsulate each day, as well as the event as a whole with a series of images and clips, with or without voice-over and in-situ commentaries on the clips. The result is that the traveler takes on the split personality of participant AND observer, much like an ethnographer on fieldwork assignment, both learning and doing, both a spectator and a player. As for the value of the resulting online story, it serves as memento to those captured. It allows one to revisit the times and places and events of the trip. It gives others (strangers and people known by the travelers) a vicarious capsule vacation experience. As a form of anthropology, it demonstrates the elements that (foreign) visitors seize upon as salient moments of their time spent on the island(s). More personally, as Richard Chalfen wrote in his book about family snapshot albums, Snapshot Versions of Life, the persons included or excluded in the image frame have recognized social relationships. The photo acts as a confirmation of who is known and valued, and who is not related to the subject in this same way.

In summary, going through one’s life equipped with camera can lead to a habit of framing subjects, of responding to light and composition elements, of recording (and sharing) the results of what is captured, and generally adapting to the split role of part-participant and part-observer. Future viewers may be grateful for the glimpse so offered, but contemporaries and peers may be irritated by the lens popping up during defined events or even in daily life when no special (photogenic) event is unfolding.