see2think

thinking with pictures


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handy tools – life before cameras

photo showing knife in left hand, smartphone camera in right hand

ubiquitous cameras affect the ways we move through life as a series of framed, captured moments

Setting off to buy a few groceries on a glorious cool morning filled with bright light, my eye scanned all the attractive subjects that might be worth photographing (or making a video snapshot, if audio or isolated bit of motion were just so). For some reason, I stopped my daydream and wondered how different the sunlit scenes would appear to a person living at a time or place where no cameras were known, or at least were rare and unfamiliar in one’s ordinary routines of daily experience. Since cell phones bring recording of still and moving images, as well as sound capture into the hands of so many people, it is hard to appreciate the absence of visual representations available by the simple motion of nothing more than to point and shoot.

As a child I grew up with film cameras: first was the family’s slightly bulky flashbulb point-and-shoot device using a roll of 120 or 620 film. Then came the Kodak Instamatic for color snapshots of the late 1960s and middle 1970s before moving to the even more compact form factor of the “Pocket Instamatic” 110 cartridges of film (13x17mm negatives) that were so cheap that we children got our very own camera and could appear on the other side of the lens. In those days, picture taking was fairly informal, encouraged by the consumer advertising that showed happy people snapping away with abandon. But with film sold in 12 exposures and later 20 exposures (28×28 mm negatives), each shutter release brought you nearer to the end. So shots tended to be used somewhat sparingly, with many of the shots commemorative (family events or vacations and photo spots with signage to direct tourists to fixed compositions).

Later in high school and the chance to join the photo-club with reusable 35mm cassettes of black and white film bringing the cost down to a few pennies per shot, plus the price of darkroom chemicals and paper, I began to shoot more and more pictures and carried a camera to places and subjects that might not have seemed typical when using the old consumer, point-and-shoot gear. But even with the capacity to shoot rolls loaded with 36 exposures, since there was a price in money and chemicals and DIY effort involved, the act of recognizing an interesting subject, lighting, or angle would involve some consciousness of expense. In other words the picture-taking experience was not frictionless because there were (for a teenager of limited means, at least) costs involved every time a picture was framed, the focus double-checked, and any adjustments to the light meter’s suggested exposure were figured into the shutter release.

What remained the same in those earliest moments of parents allowing me to take a picture with the family camera, and later with me taking my own shots with my own enthusiast equipment, was the sense of clear boundaries and intention about setting forth to “take pictures.” In other words, some deliberateness and possibly preparation was needed before packing a camera and rolls of film, and then seeking out a specific subject; or in a photo walk, waiting for spontaneous subjects to present themselves. By contrast, the presence of a good cell phone camera within one’s reach most anywhere and anytime in which price per exposure is practically no-cost means that people have gotten used to snapping pictures for many purposes other than recording a family event or special trip. Now it is common to use a camera to remember parking location, product information, insurance claim or inventory, special food or drink, maps and other helpful signage, and so on.

The visual anthropologist Richard Chalfin has studied family photo albums in the time before digital photography, both in USA and in Japan, among other places. In his book, Snapshot Versions of Life, he says that pictures express who belongs in or out of a group; it is a kind of boundary of inclusion or exclusion. As such the lens we use to capture subjects of significance, value, or memory will reflect who we are; who we wish to see ourselves as, or what we hope to be true or one day to become true. With the lack of friction or cost of cell phone snapshots, the selfie is perhaps an extreme extension of Chalfen’s observations of the sociological frame that the photographic frame expresses. With self posed near famous site, person, or occasion, the resulting photo says “I was here” and “this who I am” and by process of association, I claim some of the halo effect that glows from this precious place, person, or thing.

So the long history of photography seems to culminate at this moment with a flowering of self-representation, self-examination, and self-referential meaning; looking inward rather than seeking to engage and understand the surrounding landscape of cultures, risks and opportunities, or the Big Questions of life that the humanities is filled with. But is it possible to travel backward along the sequence of developments: from digital cameras on so many portable devices, to the consumer film cartridges of 12 exposures color and before that black and white, to the large-capacity Kodak “Brownie Box” camera of the 1900s – 1940s, back to the advent of portable 35 mm photojournalism with the original Leica, and before that the 4″x5″ film plates of the news photographers in the early years of the 1900s, and before that the clunkier glass plates of studio and field cameras like those of Matthew Brady and the others traveling out west and around the battlefields of the U.S. Civil War. Going back into the 1840s and earlier is the realm of experimenters of the Daguerreotype. Before a scene could be focused onto a chemically treated metal plate and fixed with permanence by chemical treatment, there was the camera obscura that painters and sketch makers and map makers could use: the lens could focus on the ground glass at the rear, and under the shielding darkness of a cloak, the artists could trace the lines of a composition with precision on paper and produce a final image that is almost photographic in detail and perspective, thanks to the precision lens. Each of these moments in camera history affected the kinds of subjects that were worth recording, sharing, or publishing for sale.

In the beginning it was very costly to make a picture and only very high value incidents would be memorialized and displayed or sold. Most people in the industrialized societies seldom saw a photographer or appeared in the frame until the 1920s or later, when low cost Box Cameras like the Kodak Brownie (spools of 127 film, slightly smaller than the 120 rolls) and the associated system of film processing and photo printing facilities were running. Around this time and in the generation before there were subscription services to deliver a few stereoscopic postcards of world events or famous places to homes to enjoy with their very own stereoscopic viewer frame. But the act of making one’s one decision about what is worth capturing and then going about the composition and pressing the shutter only came with the cheap and increasingly common point and shoot cameras. Even then, however, it would not be a casual affair to tote the box camera around in search of subjects. Instead it would be a wedding, funeral, family reunion, or some other part of the life cycle that would be recorded. The rest of one’s waking consciousness and daily routines would be less about documentary considerations of representing one’s day or lifetime, but instead would be focused on fulfilling obligations, watching for liabilities to avoid or opportunities to seize. In other words, in the time before ubiquitous cameras to record self or others, the way to view the world was in terms of instrumental goals: things to accomplish, respect to gain, criticism to avoid, expectations to fulfill, dreams to launch, and so on.

One’s eye took in the surroundings differently to today’s lens-preoccupied thinking. Life was not a series of photo opportunities, but was a big and wonderful adventure that one was immersed in; a player on the field, rather than a spectator on the sidelines. As such, a person in the time before cameras would set off in the morning with money in pocket, hat to protect from the elements and signal one’s style, and perhaps a pocket knife, pocket watch and gold chain, pad and paper, make-up mirror, or some other handy tool that was useful in the day to day events in one’s life.

Back in 1984 a relative of mine traveled abroad to visit my location and the people I had gotten to know there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime voyage and yet I was puzzled by his lack of camera. During his military service in the 1950s he had obtained on tiny Minox spy camera, not much bigger than a pocket lighter. So he must have once had some photography interest or knowledge. When asked about the lack of camera now, he answered that carrying a camera tended to blinker his vision to see and seek subjects that conformed with ideas of what would make “a good picture.” There is not too much harm from picture taking; indeed, many people discover that their powers of (detail) observation sharpen when carrying camera or binoculars. They tend to use whatever tool is at hand to engage the world. But he made the deliberate decision to experience the time and place with only a journal and pen.

Who can say: does formal, deliberate, ponderous (e.g. sheet film or tripod-dependent) camera shooting add value or add boundaries to one’s engagement in a place and time, and the relationships one forms as rapport builds and context deepens? Does less formal, simpler, point-and-shoot photography streamline the form factor so that many more occasions can be captured than by the slow shooting, above? And if camera work does indeed amplify the value to self and the ability to communicate those experiences to others, does it follow that better camera skill and a bigger scale of visual recording will also increase the communication power of the work? Taken all the way to the extreme, does ubiquitous camera use with the proliferation of cell phone shooting lead to saturation, so that life and the recording of life blur together such that the meaning of engaging a place and time is not about actively grappling with conditions on the ground (a player on the field), but instead consists of experiences of representing the conditions on the ground (a spectator on the sidelines).

I suspect that cameras that are rarely seen or experienced (1870), or ones that are ubiquitious (2018) act like a mirror. They are extremely useful and they are sources of fascination. They may produce additional narcissism and they may distract a person from active engagement in their social environment and physical ecosystem. On balance they seem to do more good than harm, but like most things that are good, they must still be used in moderation and with some degree of care; not used in ways that are thoughtless or mindless, but instead taken into one’s hand and brought to one’s eye deliberately. It is hard to appreciate truly the experience of a place or time in which all cameras are absent and only hand-drawn visual representation is possible. Simply locking one’s own gear in a drawer for a week or a year cannot remove the built-in habits of thinking and seeing accumulated from years of taking pictures.

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mirroring – resonating with the scene’s features, its significance, or context

gallery for Impressionism at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Visiting an art gallery can be motivated by many reasons; sometimes multiple reasons simultaneously. The psychological phenomenon of “mirroring” or empathy seems to be part of the experience, though, as one clicks through an online gallery, or wanders from room to room to gaze at some pieces but glimpse other ones in passing, without looking at the label or encroaching on the frame and surface to immerse oneself in the place and time of composition. The experience of mirroring is a kind of sympathetic resonance or a recognition that there is something in the scene that touches one’s own interior; something of a similar or related kind. So a piece of particular beauty that speaks to one person may not speak to a different person in the same way, or to the same degree. This limbic system of emotional response works slightly differently among people, but it does seem to explain why a person is attracted to certain art and not to other pieces.

Now in the age of digital photos and cellphone snapshots, it is possible to visit gallery, museum, historical site, or series of famous tour sights to see and collect photos to document one’s experience of having seen particular points of interest that spark a feeling of significance or a recognition of personal insight and meaning. The lens frames and focuses the eye. It becomes a tool to interact with the scene and to communicate that moment of meaning to others, meanwhile overlooking other parts of the context and focusing only on the bit that seems important at the time.

Some may snap a memento to share on social media on the spot to say, “I was here & this was a delicious moment.” Others may go through the day and week snapping away, but feel satisfied that they have added to their own cumulative stock of life experience, potentially able to review or show to others, but feeling no urgency to revisit the now captured moments. Perhaps only a few people will systematically look through the day’s shooting or longer period of picture-taking in order to discover the pattern: what subjects, what lighting, what composition, what intentions seem to recur in one’s snapshots? By regarding one’s camera(s) as the recordkeeper that extends one’s eye and awareness, much can be discovered about self and about the society one moves through.


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Quick camera finger ready to release the shutter

dumping rice chaff at side of garden

There is an adage dear to the hearts of designers, maybe some would say also of the Creator of the Universe, “Form Follows Function”; that is, the first principle should be the purpose, use, or function to be accomplished. And based on that goal, the structure that enables the process or function will come out of those defining conditions. In the arena of composing and capturing a still or moving picture, there is also an intimate relationship between form and function.
These days “form-factor” is used to refer to the physical characteristics of a product like a camera -its weight, the number of exposures from its battery, whether or not it comes with physical or touchscreen controls, and so on. One consequence of form factor is that big gear tends to left at home, unless there is a pre-determined, scheduled subject to record. Otherwise it will be the cellphone camera or pocket-sized enthusiast model that is within reach for catching moments that arise unexpectedly, or arise with only a few precursor clues that a prize composition is about to come together in front of one’s eyes.
The story about legendary landscape artist and concert pianist Ansel Adams comes to mind: for some of his courses he challenged students to use camera of their own choosing, while he restricted himself to a point and shoot model. Among the final assignments and display of best work, he often stood out for his eye and the darkroom magic of experience he applied to a composition. That echoes the saying about “the best camera is the one you happen to have in your hand.” Even if you have a powerful, advanced piece of technology in your cupboard, it is not much use when not within easy and immediate reach.
Another adage comes into play here, “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” This one has been attributed to the man on the U.S. legal tender, the $10 bill (Alexander Hamilton, the first national Treasurer). It means that the flush of serendipity one feels when the planets align and one is recipient of great good fortune requires two things – preparation & opportunity: one’s mind, experience, gear all has to be ready to seize an opportunity in the event that it appears. When those two things come together, one is overwhelmed by a feeling of having been blessed; magically the recipient of “luck.”
In the arena of composing and capturing a moment in time, this means being prepared mentally and technically to recognize the potential for a great photo as it comes into being (quickly drawing the camera, making any fine-tuning adjustments of focus, exposure, or framing before releasing the shutter) or, better yet, being able to divine the elements coming together ahead of the moment they will intersect and one will be ready to capture the composition as the clouds drift from the sun and produce the desired shadow play, or the second when the figure and ground line up, for example (Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”). This foreknowledge or premonition corresponds with the celebrated hockey player’s knack for being at the right place at the right time. Wayne Greztky famously explained his success this way, “You don’t skate to the puck; you skate to the place where the puck is going to be next.” The same can be said of Preparation Meeting Opportunity with camera in hand and composition in one’s mind. Look to what is coming next.
Pedaling along the skirt of a mountainside in rural Japan (above video clip), the scene ahead of me was unfolding. In a trice I could see the farmer in the middle of the process of offloading heaps of rice chaff at the roadside of his field. My mind was on the lookout for “video snapshots,” scenes that are mostly static, but are recorded using the video function in order to present the soundtrack for that composition, sometimes with a bit of motion to tease the viewer’s eye. So in this instance an opportunity was met by preparation as I reached into coat pocket, launched the camera/video app of the cellphone, positioned my bike for the composition, pressed record and then waited for the anticipated sequence to play out. This clip is not a spiritual revelation or moment of profound significance, but by its ordinariness it merits a kind of meaningfulness of its own. Being alert for social or cultural meanings that (are about to) present themselves, and being ready (and practiced) to compose and capture them can be very satisfying. It is a visual way to engage with the flow of significance all around and to escape from the dull routines that form when taking for granted one’s surroundings, blind to what is happening, desensitized to the many meanings in play.
Traveling around the valley in the early Saturday morning of harvest time by car or by foot would probably make this video snapshot unlikely since the speed of car forces one’s eye to the center of the road. On the other hand, travel on foot means one’s circle of awareness tends to be arm’s length or perhaps 50 or 100 meters to the front and sides, occasionally backwards if one turns full circle to take in that prospect. But the variable speed of bicycle (lazily drifting at foot speed, pressing ahead at full-speed to cover some distance, or somewhere between) means that one’s ears and eyes and nose can take in all the clues to what is going on across the surrounding space of land and sky, or (better yet) clues to what is ABOUT to go on across the surrounding landscape with time enough to compose the shot and wait for the moment of shutter release.
Stretching the analogy of seeing as a form of thinking and being, perhaps one’s passage through the day or indeed through an entire lifetime really is shaped by one’s vehicle; the form-factor of one’s camera (well matched to one’s needs, automatic in one’s reflexes and ability to capture what is in the eye of one’s mind) and the form-factor of one’s vehicle (passing along life’s byways on foot, bike, car or by hot-air balloon).
The adage about “Life is a Journey” can be read in reverse, as well; “Journeys are a lot like life.” The means of transporting yourself along the way can determine what comes into view and what passes in a blur. The gear one carries to pass the time and engage with the social and physical environment also shapes what one sees and records, seizing on what is significant now, or was significant in the past, or will one day come to be significant. Things like framing selected parts and excluding others; centering a particular subject or using focus, exposure, leading lines, light and shadow, color and contrast to represent a scene visually also affects the way it is perceived and remembered in one’s mind, too.
So give a care to choice of gear, choice of transport, and the nimbleness to read the scene not just for what is at play in the meaning of the scene at that moment, but also looking for what is in process and is about to take place in the moments to come, or at a slower timescale, in the process for taking shape over the full season, an entire generational time frame, or indeed a lifetime to which one is witness.


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Shutter speed cure -thaw the ‘frozen moment’ and bring it back into life

collage pre1970 pics

Four generations in Yorkshire, UK

For the fraction of the second when light is exposed to film or electronic sensor, the world stands still; the subject is arresting; the moment stands is sharp clarity instead of motions blurring from one scene to the next. And when looking at others’ work published on the shelves of library, walls of museum, or a personal collection; or the albums of one’s own family or those of a friend, an occasional image has the power to transport you back to another language, society, location or point in time -whether it is one’s own narrative,  that of someone familiar, or belonging to a person unknown. Perhaps there is a technique to make nearly all images return to living things, rather than to remain static and disconnected to the preoccupations and ambitions of our present moment?
Watching an out of date, out of fashion movie or recorded broadcast source may at first give one a smug feeling of being modern and not tied to the old fashioned ways; a feeling of superiority for a life today of possibilities that must seem more vivid, consequential and available to us than we assume was true of those older times. Just so, the same psychological distancing typically occurs when viewing something (old or new) not in our own native language. Somehow we take ourselves and our habits and life chances to be normal and all others deficient to the extent they fall short to our standard of practice. But something magical happens when we let go of our presumed normality and (moral) superiority. Then the foreign scenes that flicker before us become plausible, real, and perhaps worth aspiring to; we join the game and seek to know the rules of the unfamiliar culture, language and society. Then the black and white drama of our parent’s or grandparent’s moment in history no longer seems quaint, ineffectual, or unimportant. Instead we can begin to identify with the characters and allow that they –in their time and style and historical moment,– had as much gumption, ambition, and grace as we attribute to our present time. In particular there is something important about the eyes; “the window to the soul,” as has been observed by others.
So whether the photo is a barely-dressed person – youth, prime of life, or frail; or whether the photo is an heavily dressed person – young, middle, elder, it matters not if their skin and hair and gender mirrors our own, or is alien to our own place in life. No matter, It is still possible to non-verbally and powerfully lock into a shared human identity that transcends decade or social status. The secret lies in the eyes, a certain look of strong intention and presumption of competence in the scope of the person’s own cultural and social landscape to get things done that they have learned need their attention; their confident knowledge of what represents a risk and what indicates an opportunity.
In other words, as a viewer of present-day or distant still images, the trick to giving the frozen moment some life and weight of meaning is to extend to the subjects in the scene that same urgency and purpose that animate your own waking moments now. Look at the persons in the scene and tell yourself they, no less and no more than yourself, have about them a quickness of spirit and earnestness of heart. When you have given the subject in the image such life-like meaning, then they cease to be 2-dimensional objects and they take on a personal presence; someone with name and face, someone with relatives, someone with a past and ambitions for a path for the future. Call this look in the person’s eye “mien.” It is a meaningful look – not some secret shared between the person in the frame and you, the viewer of the image, but a look that carries meaning and future intention. Breathing life into the 1/250th of a second just takes some practice. It starts with a closer look at the eyes; not to dismiss the person as remote istant in time or distant in culture different to one’s own, but just the opposite; to invite yourself into that person’s time and place and find meaning on the playing field they actively inhabited before and after the shutter release was pressed.
It is facile to gloss over important differences in rhythm, texture, taste and language of a time or place and declare “every one is the same, deep down inside.” And yet going partway along that line of reasoning is what it takes to make a flat photography take on 3-dimensional presence again. There is an equally simplistic pigeon hole for “one of us” or “one of them” to break down. The true vision is somewhere in-between, sort of like DNA of human populations around the planet: almost entirely the same, but the differences that do exist are important to acknowledge; not as barriers, but as part of one’s definition and sense of self, as well as sense of other. And so when viewing (or making) photographs, it is not that all subjects are deep down inside made of the same assumptions and ideals as we ourselves; nor the opposite extreme, that the people are unconnected and irrelevant to our own trajectories. Instead it is good to get past whatever differences at first signal to you they are not like you; “not from around here.” But bridging the surface differences of time or culture, you then become part of that subject in the frame, and they also can inhabit your time and place, right now. The result is the frozen images thaw out and once more are alive with possibility; not relics, or curious artifacts. As the distance between self and photo disappears they become living in one’s world, but the reverse is true, too: we viewers of today touch the world of frozen moments, since one day others will view photos in which we are the 2 dimensional, distant image.


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documentary-maker’s 10 Commandments

The current scholar-in-residence this year at U-Michigan is Kazuhiro Soda. His Feb. 9, 2017 lecture will probably be video recorded (in English mostly). Commonly these days the events are recorded and can be viewed online in 2-3 weeks.

=-=-=-=-= Excerpt from announcement link, https://www.ii.umich.edu/cjs/news-events/events.detail.html/38037-6859806.html
The Power of Observation: How and Why I Make “Observational” Documentaries
Kazuhiro Soda, Toyota Professor in Residence
[guiding principles]

1 No research.
2 No meetings with subjects.
3 No scripts.
4 Roll the camera yourself.
5 Shoot as long as possible.
6 Cover small areas deeply.
7 Do not set up a theme or goal before editing.
8 No narration, title, or music.
9 Use long takes.
10 Pay for the production yourself.

His filmography includes “Campaign” (2007), “Mental” (2008), “Peace” (2010), “Theatre 1” (2012), “Theatre 2” (2012), “Campaign 2” (2013), and “Oyster Factory” (2015).

Kazuhiro SODA, documentary maker