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

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Why context matters – the wide view

photo subject plucked from its context, September 2018

Whether novelist, journalist, historian, or ethnographic observer making documentary records, the importance of putting a subject in its frame makes sense – not only what is physically adjacent, but also what comes before and after in chronology, and also relationally – what the main subject is connected to closely and more distantly.

panorama grayed except for one piece of the scene
central focus, ignoring immediate context (click for full-size view)

Failing to include surrounding conditions in the picture that is conjured or captured not only excludes rich detail, but also the meanings that touch on the subject being featured or spotlighted will be out of sight. Looking again at the same scene taken in wider view reveals a lot more of the day and the moment of shutter release.

September 2018 pow-wow at Riverside Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan


One of the magical things about using software to stitch 2 or 3 frames together is seeing the composite being generated; reminiscent of darkroom experiences watching the image appear on the photo paper emulsion. But the main source of amazement is the finished scene. It is a similar visual experience to the almost 180 degree field of view that a person with two eyes is familiar with. See this handful of slides to illustrate this similarity in more detail, A main subject fits naturally into its surrounding context of shape, color, meaning, and relationship. And so, while there are lots of appealing subjects that can be fragmented from the larger scene, only the wide views can give a full visual feast. By extension from the world of lens, composition, and exposure to the world of social and cultural interaction in one’s lifetime, perhaps the same thing is true; that the wide perspective helps to show the significance of a subject being considered.


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Entropy dissolves things while cameras focus things

Great minds have pointed out the way that structure, order, and creative forces compete with the opposite — entropy, the break up of environment and its components, and the dissolving of shape and definition into a sameness of ever smaller parts. Thinking about what happens when your eye is attracted to a subject or event and then you frame a picture, there seems to be a countervailing defense against this entropy; a neg-entropy.


Much of the world is confusing, out-of-focus, and working in diametric opposition, but lenses sharpen and freeze all the motion into a moment of clarity to express structure.

On the one hand a camera brings to bear the harmony between seeing a subject (the visual sensory experience) and knowing that subject (intellectual comprehension; acknowledgement and understanding its setting and significance). To see is to know. The unknown becomes known to a certain extent by shining light on it, focusing and framing it, then capturing on film, glass plate, or digital sensor.

But on the other hand a camera’s optical physics also creates order from disorder, pattern from randomness, focus from haziness, certainty from ignorance. To take a picture is to freeze the day’s flow of events and meanings, if only for a fraction of a second. At least in that moment everything within the frame and in focus can be accounted for, measured, related to each of the elements, and so on. In other words, when you engage with your daily experience and the wider world with the help of a camera’s lens, then the feeling of control, order, and certainty comes with it.

A camera can be a therapeutic device to impose meaning on circumstances that sometimes seem to lack meaning, pattern, structure, relationships, or focus. The work of Tony Vaccaro during his 272 days of WWII combat on the march from Normandy to Berlin with a trusty 35mm rangefinder is a prominent example of mediating the fluid, confusing days of mortal danger. The 2016 HBO documentary, Underfire, presents some of Vaccaro’s humanity at the time, during the several years of healing from that experience, and in the decades of hindsight that followed.

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Poaching pictures, plucked from places

A photowalk with a wide-angle lens lends itself to compositions that feature a main subject in its surroundings, rather than isolating the subject or a small fragment of a larger scene. On the other hand, going about with a telephoto lens, whether moderate or superzoom, lends itself to sniping of far-away subjects, or framing small pieces of a larger whole, abstracting the lines or shapes of just one bit of something bigger.

This photo shows the way that a small detail from a larger scene can be isolated for aesthetic interest, teaching purposes, or visual delight.

cropped view of cactus scene to show a small fragment of the whole

cactus close-up in bloom at Meijer Gardens 1/2019

The next photo shows the wider scene of the cactus plantings from which the flowering detail was plucked and placed in a frame of its own, disconnected from the larger relationships and surrounding context in which the subject lives.

view of new red spines and yellow flowers on greenhouse cactuses
wider cactus scene in bloom at Meijer Gardens 1/2019

Using this insight about close-detail versus wider frame to portray a subject, something similar can be said about social experiences and learning the cultural literacy needed to read the surrounding stream of human life at work, home, or in public places and events. The long-view of a telephoto lens can simplify surrounding distractions, compress the sense of space that separates things in daily experience, and focus the person’s attention on details in a myopic or aesthetic way – perhaps causing delight or thrill, but also ignoring the larger setting and significance of the subject that sustains it where it can be found out in the world of lived experience. In other words, there are times where a telephoto view of the world is a great help in showing things that might be unknown or underappreciated. But this perspective also leaves out much that is vital to know about a subject and its setting.

In summary, the many lenses to look at one’s world have different uses. But in the end, knowing the subject together with its context is what matters most for decision making, engaging, and governing a subject and all the other subjects that may depend on it subsequently. No matter what results come from the other focal lengths, in the end it is the wide-angle lens that should be used as fundamental frame for a subject.

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When the focus is too sharp or too weak, illusion follows

photo of houseplant with leaves in focus and background blurred

A well-focused picture draws in the viewer

The history of lens grinding and mathematical design for engineered glass has led to ever sharper representations of a scene on the recording medium of the time, whether glass plates or electrically charged silicon sensors. And while amateurs, avid enthusiasts, and professionals seem to want ever sharper and even 3-dimensional photographs, it comes at a psychologial cost.

Because of the conflation of “see” with “know,” there is a feeling that the sharpest focus gives the best understanding of a subject. That may be true in documenting shades of reflected light, color tones, texture, and so on, but to interpret a subject in its surroundings, both its physical and its historical context, there are more important things than resolving power for a particular lens. Paradoxically, the pricier the lens and the higher the user’s expectation for sharp focus, the more likely it is for the photographer to be preoccupied with the subject’s surfaces that are expressed so crisply with the pricier lens. As a result of this sharp focus on the image itself, the larger meaning, purpose, or significance of the subject may be overlooked or obscured.

The opposite case, where focus is very poor, also leads to preoccupation with the image qualities rather than the subject being recorded. And so, it seems, the best photo for communicating a subject together with its context or wider meaning is a picture that is well focused, but not so sharp that the viewer becomes fascinated with the tangible, life-like quality of the thing.

After so many generations grown used to photographic illustrations, advertising, documenting and instructional guides, there are high expectations for text or audio to come with images, still or moving. In the current generation the scale of image making has mushroomed by the creation of digital pictures and the exchange wirelessly by phone and computer. And software manipulation of photos has become difficult to detect with one’s eye alone, unaided by forensic tools of digital scrutiny. But despite knowing of trickery, people today still seem to cling to the idea that “a photo never lies; it must be true, just as it appears on the surface.” So the old equivalency between “I see” and “I know” is stronger than ever.

As the focus becomes even sharper than before, perhaps the people of the future will only take that old equivalency and regard it impossible to think otherwise than the appearance of what one’s eyes seem to know. When that state of affairs comes to pass, then it will be time to recall what The Little Prince (Antoine de St. Exupery) learned in his story, that “only with the heart can one truly see.” In other words, the full meaning or significance of a subject is not found in the descriptive lines that capture its surface character, but rather between the lines where the true character resides. Thus there is a parallel between lenses that focus well, but not too well –on the one hand, and knowledge that is comprehensive with granular precision, but also leaves room for ways of knowing that are not restricted to surface characteristics: in both cases the excessive focus on external qualities paradoxically can produce an illusion of certainty of knowledge that will blind the person to possible deeper or wider significance.

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Limits on your best shot – will you hit a wall?

late afternoon box elder tree, December 19

Many subjects and moments cry out to be composed and captured in a fraction of a second to share, to document, for future reference, to commemorate, or for purely aesthetic delight. All along the learning curve, from first-timers with point-and-shoot device to grizzled old veterans of many cameras and compositions, people make an effort to consider their standpoint and the moment of shutter release. Sometimes the photographer is lucky and creates an image that is more than was expected, a happy coincidence of light, intersection of multiple moving subjects, and an exposure setting that faithfully represents the scene. Other times the conditions are very complicated and so only a photographer with deep and wide experience can translate onto the film or camera sensor what appears before the eyes or in the imagination. A person without sufficient technical mastery and experience of the translating process from live scene to captured composition is not able to make a picture in such cases.

Thinking of the very best possible result for a photograph –not its timeliness, dramatic emotional response, or the price that the marketplace will bear — what is the most that potentially can be photographed of a portrait or a landscape, for instance? The resulting image is a combination of a couple of factors: the person’s eye or imagination; that is, the recognition of a potential subject and composition to make. There is the artistic flair to arrange foreground, middle, and background effectively and to make a decision about angle of view (lens size) and depth of field (focus area). Finally, there is the technical mastery of the camera and the post-processing and factors in final presentation (in print settings versus on-screen or as part of sequence used in multi-media or visual essay).

For the sake of this thought experiment, suppose the photographer is blessed with the maximum powers capable in 2018 technology (gear and software), as well as artistic sense, and awareness to respond to subject matter potentially usable in composition: how well-made a photo can be expected from this extreme degree of masterfulness? Is the gold standard to compare the photo to the original scene; in other words, is verisimilitude the best that can be aspired to – a close match to the original subject in its setting? Or can the skill of a photographer go beyond the physical facts of the moment of shutter release and communicate to the viewer something above and beyond what is present in its raw, unmediated form?

Of course, when the goal is unmoored from sensory reality, then a person can be limited only by imagination when introducing post-processing artifacts and miracles of Photoshop inventions. Clearly the result is more than the sum of the raw materials in that case. But when something free of post-processing enhancement and amplification or suppression of original subject matter is the purpose, then again the question remains: will the very best version merely attain an immersive, true to life effect; or will it go beyond what is present on the surface and reveal (or suggest) something more; something that a less careful or less reflective observer perhaps would not notice without the photographer foregrounding something by light, depth of field, or choice of lens focal length, for example?

Thinking of images that make a deep or lasting impression, it is fair to say that the very best photographs (and by extension, also photographers) do produce value-added meaning to the scenes they compose and communicate to others. So there does seem to be an answer to the question about limitations being imitation of the original place and time. A skilled eye and hand makes something better than the raw material begun with: emphasizing certain things while downplaying or minimizing other things that diminish the artistic statement or question being expressed.

By analogy the same thing seems to occur when the ensemble effect of many musicians can produce something greater than one alone. In the case of harmony that is perfectly expressed there can be a ghost-like “overtone” added to the harmonic structure, a note that can be heard that none of the players or singers is making. And in the realm of cooking, too, there are examples of combinations of ingredients that express something that the component elements alone can do. A third analogy is the cultural or natural landscape: experts can “read” things there that may be invisible at first to inexperienced people. So, too, of photographers – by striving to reach one’s peak mastery, it is possible to make pictures that exceed the original subject at the point of shutter release.

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Virtual, vicarious, verisimilitude – observing versus participating

collage of spiderweb + HTML error message

clipart mashup – Web & “page lost” error 404 message

Watching, seeing, viewing, browsing, regarding – there are so many ways to stand outside of an experience or a subject to look at it. Anthropologists who study living societies combine observation (and documentary work) with participation in the mode called “participant-observation.” Whether one is an insider or outsider, by taking a middle position, with one foot in the event and one foot outside the event, there is a unique standpoint created that allows a person to use all their senses as a person on the field of play, but also equipped to put those experiences into words and images, too.

Now in the age of (over)sharing on the Internet and digital cameras (mostly on pocket-sized cellphones) there seems to be more and more spectating and recording of life; Selfie Existence as a master narrative. At the same time there seems to be less (unreflective, unmediated, undiluted) living. We see lots of words like “virtual reality” and “vicarious living” (watching strangers eat food, do farm work, deal with obstacles in “reality” TV programming or online streams and social media like Twitter or Facebook following of others). The more immersive the viewing experience (stereo or multi-channel sound, interactive User Interface, sensory goggles), the closer that the digital copy comes to facsimile to the original, actual subject. Verisimilitude or “truthiness” has become a kind of holy grail among engineers of ever quicker CPU computer chips and the software makers who strive for more and more persuasive, programmed and semi-structured but open-ended scripts.

In the beginning the novelty attracted interest, the challenges attracted talent, and the possibilities attracted imaginations. Now the ripples are flooding the great and the small with unintended consequences and soaking most people unexpectedly, ruining lives is some ways while also enriching lives in other ways. Now the world of virtual and vicarious is maturing and people are less easily smitten with novelty. More people are recognizing the fact of limited waking hours in a day and a fixed number of days in one’s lifetime, no matter how rich or how poor. So no matter how intoxicating, escapist, or infatuating the sound and flickering light of portable and wireless screens, at least there are some people who are ready to draw a line and no longer pay their attention into the bottomless ocean of information and data in search of knowledge or its distilled form: wisdom.

The sign of a fully developed feature of life experience and society is to learn the powers and the dangers of a particular tool so that it may be used well but not to the point of abuse. Hopefully the dissolution of social habits, structures, and compartments that “information wants to be free” has set in motion soon will mature among the young and the old. At that point there will be no fewer cameras capturing moments and sequences, but at least there will be mindful use of those rich records of days lived and lives undertaken. Knowing limits in not something that hobbles; rather it helps narrow down the range of motion and focus the intention and making of meaning.

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Without a camera… feeling lost?

absence makes the heart grow fonder [source: clipart]

Having parked the car, we darted toward the entrance to the botanical gardens. Once safely inside, I realized my camera was still out in the car. The visit was not very long, and another day we would be coming back, so I had to borrow my partner’s cellphone to take a couple of images rather than to use my own familiar equipment. The sense of loss at the absence of a trusty tool like a camera is palpable; a sort of let-down or emptiness. Of course it is not a human default to go around equipped with a device for composing and recording images to print or to share. However, after getting deeper into this habit and way of seeing, step by step, it did stir some strange sort of mild anxiety. But what kind of anxiety comes from NOT being equipped to complete the creative experience of (1) catching your eye on something (colors in conjunction, textures and light, shadows and line; irony, majesty, simplicity or graceful elegance), then (2) composing the subject in mind’s eye, (3) engaging the optical gear to translate the envisioned composition into something fixed on film or photo sensor, (4) post-production tidying up and then sharing.

Maybe this anxiety comes from the broken process of culminating expression; being unable to put a vision into persisting form. When a transient pattern of light, subject matter, and shutter release come into conjunction, then the static picture remains eternally frozen so that it can be shared, compared, studied, or simply added to one’s collected works like a trophy or another breadcrumb on the trail that leads to better and better work. Alternatively, perhaps the sense of loss or void in one’s accustomed way of being in the cultural landscape comes from the usual feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction when the sequence of events culminates with the succinct sound of the shutter release. When there is no camera to engage the subject and place it into a frame of one’s own making, then there is no capture for the hunter of “decisive moments” or chaser of light. Still another possible source of anxiety about finding yourself with no way to document experience or punctuate the flow of events is due to the imagined power that comes from what a camera potentially can do. Leaving the capacity of recording a time-sensitive news event or its opposite, a timeless truth, customarily having a familiar picture-taker within easy reach has the potential of memory assist (in case you forget some important details of the place or subject), the ability to prove a condition by documenting it (e.g. minor car crash or other property injury), the capacity to record something for posterity (a group photo, an achievement), and the power to mark an insight or discovery you have made by long effort or instead by serendipity. Somehow there is a mental equivalency between seeing and comprehending; to see what the person means is to grasp the significance of the thing. The reverse also may be true psychologically: NOT to see (or by extension NOT to photograph) something of value or significance, perhaps, also means NOT to understand or hold the full meaning.

Whatever is at play the experience is undeniable: feelings of missing one’s trusty lens and a sense of loss that goes along with it. Happily this anxiety can readily be dispelled. Unlike the days of having to restock one’s film cassette and also pay for the photo-processing of the film or slides, now the digital workflow encourages generous shooting, selecting, and sorting. So this story can have a happy ending.