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

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Seeing what was here before


Looking north in 2018 at the town’s commercial center, Main Street, with eyes from 1971.

With middle age comes vision that combines today with memories of what is no longer present. Things now gone sometimes leave traces in one’s mind or heart, and sometimes the earlier things leave physical traces for curious observers to interpret. The three city blocks that form the commercial heart of this county seat in middle Michigan still attract some business, but nothing like the heydays that finally lost customers in the 1980s and still today. Having seen the town on and off these past 47 years, many of the earlier shops and town events still haunt my imagination: the silver and white cars parked in front of the long front of the Main Street Cafe and Pizza shop are models of the last year or two. If the cars of 1971 were parked next to these, the contrasts would be many -not just the design appearance, but the functionality and resulting performance. As for the businesses that have occupied the premises there, back in 1971 there was a D&C (dime and cent) store with a vast bulk candy counter where young spenders could order small bags of their favorites, sold by weight and paid for with a few coins. A kid could feel like a king browsing the aisles of toys, clothing, and candy with just a few dollars in hand. A few years later a similar general store (franchised far and wide) by the name of Ben Franklin (channeling the master’s habit of frugality) took over the property. During the 1980s and 1990s I was largely in other cities, but restaurant-type businesses operated there with varied lengths of success until the current restaurant took over 20 or 25 years ago.

The adjoining building next closest to the lens stands on the corner and its facade in stone bears the name of a bank that originally stood prominently there in competition with another one at the right edge of the frame but out of view. But by 1971 that corner location was occupied for a long time by a Rexall Pharmacy. The upstairs was given over to a community non-profit organization for use from the early 1980s until the late 1990s. Around 2000 the drug store changed hands to another pharmacy for a few years. After that it seems like something altogether different operated on the property until finally around 2000 or so the present owner remodeled it for maximum security needed to offer banking services.

Similar stories up and down the Main Street color the prospect of this place. But for every middle aged observer, there will be others whose memories are much, much longer. Others will have non-commercial memories, but instead hold personal memories of conversations, relationships, events, or employment (including behind the scenes anecdotes) routines and procedures, for example. Still others will be newcomers, whatever their age may be, and see only what is currently in business. Or perhaps the newcomer has an observant mind and can identify some of the tell-tale clues of building fronts to guess what sorts of retail business was there long ago. As for the generations now long gone, most of their own layers of memories have passed away with them, unless captured in a book, diary, or newspaper article, for example. Fast-forwarding the passage of time into the future 5 or 25 or 200 years would be something to try one day. By then much of the world will have changed, and yet some essential human experiences and ways of being in the world will remain recognizable to those here today.

In summary, this time-lens or chrono-vision is one more way to understand a place or a moment captured in video or still photograph. Like seasoned wildlife trackers, those will long memories will be able to detect and perceive and tell others the many layers of meanings, events, and personalities that passed that way earlier. Others will not have the depth of memories, but will be keen observers who can identify a few clues about earlier times. But perhaps rarest of all are the people who can take a few principles and facts that will shed a little light on the future events and the look of a place to come. The lens and composition certainly capture a likeness of a time and place, but after that it is the mind that adds in the past and the future to that frozen moment in time.


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Seeing with your own eyes -certainty or Rashomon effect?

Kurosawa’s Rashomon and before that Shakespeare’s Hamlet showed audiences the same events told from several viewpoints; the actions and outcomes do not change, but the connective tissue, standpoint, depth of field, focal length and field of view affect the meaning and the ability to tie the matter to other subjects. This simple illustration takes a slightly different position, not rotating from one set of eyes to another, as with the stage productions, but instead by altering the frame of composition, making it ever more inclusive (or the reverse; making it more exclusive).

illustration of 3 nested frames for a subject

Three ever wider frames to see with own eyes: composition, camera & composition, context overall.

Lawyers and students of psychology are taught that eye-witness accounts can sometimes be unreliable. In the first generations of photography, the popular belief was that “a photo does not lie,” so closely does its verisimilitude correspond to the scene in front of the lens at the moment of capture. But closer examination has shown careful forgeries or frauds are possible, even in the days before digital manipulation. And yet when our eyes look onto a scene, we seem to hold everything in the frame as a complete statement; as if it were all that we need to know and that the context outside the frame, behind the scenes, or the events before or after the frozen moment will not contribute to the certainty or reality of visual grasp of the things within the frame at that time and standpoint.

As a result of this high denomination of truth value attached to visual information, whether staged or spontaneous, we tend to accept as necessary and sufficient proof whatever is produced in visual form. Similar certainty of one’s viewpoint holds by extension to cultural (mis)communication, ethnic differences, religious worldviews, or tendencies that distinguish masculine and feminine communication patterns both verbal and non-verbal. In other words, a perfectly rational person of goodwill and wide experience in the world can easily hold a firm view of how the world works, his or her place in the scheme of things, and what master narrative should be applied to interpret one’s past, present, and the intended course to come in one’s future aspirations and reference points. And yet a second person who is equally well-adjusted to a very different part of the world may hold very firmly an understanding of the world that diametrically opposes the first person. By looking at the illustration, above, the role of adjusting one’s frame and composition can be seen. There will be times when one person’s perspective differs to another person’s perspective, and yet the underlying facts can be agreed upon: the scene is the same, but the frame drawn around the subject, indeed the choice of which should be the main subject, can differ.

All this rambling is to say that the primacy of visual understanding can lead to feelings of certainty, or possibly a sense of superior vantage point to trump any alternate view. But by returning to the simple illustration, above, the principle of reframing can be seen as a way to permit diverse interpretations to coexist, much in the spirit of the Buddhist parable of seekers climbing the same mountain, but starting from different sides and facing the sun and moon and wind and weather accordingly from different angles before coming to the same summit and meeting the others there to share that mountaintop experience.