thinking with pictures

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the urge for a satisfying, ‘perfect’ picture

close-up photo of lens face pointed at mirror

‘perfect’ photos are in the mind of the beholder

Browsing a few years of photos and the collection of my personal “favorites” marked at flickr, there seem to be a few patterns among the pictures that speak most clearly and eloquently to my mind’s eye. Setting off to make compositions like that tends to be the most satisfying experience. And even to daydream about a prospective photo walk can satisfy some of that same urge for a perfect photo, as defined by the sort of shot that brings me back again and again to grasp more of, understand with more depth, or embrace more vividly.

Subjects tend to be landscapes, or other static scenes of the present (or imagined of the past or future at the spot), but compositions are most delicious that convey motion by pattern of line, texture, color, or light; often with field of focus extending from an arm’s length or two all the way to the horizon. Beyond the abstractions of composition, though, the moment of shutter release should capture something of human (cultural, social, personal) significance, or equally meaningful, something of non-human (animal, botanical, marine, geological, or seasonal or weather related) consequence. In summary the craving for taking a ‘perfect’ photo includes motion and a moment that communicates some of the context for interpretation to tell a viewer that something of meaning is being witnessed, if only one pauses to reflect on it.

As a thought experiment, given a budget for modest travel for 6 weeks or 6 months, what sort of itinerary or day to day routine could present opportunities to compose and capture ‘perfect’ photos as described here? One approach is the Walden Pond way: within a walking-distance radius, observe the small events hour by hour and season  by season, either far from human society, or the reverse, in the thick of people’s lives and patterns swirling around one’s lens. Another approach is the trekker or seeker approach, always venturing over to the next hill or around the next bend in the road to seek another horizon. Travelers, guidebooks, or wikivoyage offer lists of scenic spots, sort of like the Victorians rambling in search of spacious or historical views. And the photo-sharing sites sometimes show clusters of photo spots that have attracted camera enthusiasts and professionals during the 5 or 10 years that the sharing services have operated.

Lists of historical matters can be sorted by theme (battle sites, natural disaster locations, places of literary or scientific or political significance) to form a “bucket list.” Even if the trekker model produces few ‘perfect’ photos, the effort of travel will produce various insights, reflections, reactions, and unexpected good and bad occasions. Attention span may be preoccupied with logistics, safety, and direction finding, so that relatively little energy remains for creative expression, writing and reflection, or depth of observation.

A similar mix of positive and negatives comes from the Walden Pond way: some days feeling little motivation, having no external demand to move on, or lacking a contrasting difference to spur a reaction or reflection. And yet, there will be a few rare moments when conditions are right to produce some depth of understanding or insight or wondering because all creative energies are available and not diffused by the effort of travel and unfamiliarity. One’s deepening familiarity with the surrounding scenes allows for even very small variations or developments to be perceptible; something that a “just passing by” sort of observer would wholly miss.

Between these extremes of “staying put” and “trekking far” is a happy and productive middle way: keeping the routines and modest scope of movement to form a dense foundation for creative work, but now and then venturing far away, if for no other reason than to derive the joy of “going home,” the sense of familiarity and comfort that comes after dealing with unfamiliar faces, languages, and outlooks. Finding this balance will depend on the person and the point in life they occupy, of course, but here are one or two examples of splitting time between “local depth” and “distant vision.” The second one fits the expression “don’t just sit there; do something” and the first one is the inverse, “don’t just do something; sit there.” The second one takes creative spark from external excitement, unfamiliarity, exoticness, outsider perspective, and novelty/newness. The first one takes creative spark from an internal frame of reference: conditions that are not unfamiliar, point of view of an insider, and lack of novelty. In other words, the scene is not changing much, but the eye of the observer is shifting to discover things that were buried in plain sight until finally embraced with deeper vision.

A world map makes a good starting place. The planet is the widest field from which a few destinations can be plucked and prioritized. One’s own national boundaries and neighboring countries can shorten the list of possible destinations. Then a day’s drive from one’s home can reduce the universe of possible destinations still more. Finally there is the circumference of bicycle or travel by foot to define an even closer world of subject matter, with the views of changing light and skyscapes from one’s doorstep as the smallest circle of all. The model in each case is to strike a workable and productive balance between sameness and routine (familiarity) on the one hand, and novelty on the other – serendipity is an enlivening element in both cases, surprising one’s routines or adding excitement or easy solution to a problem far from home. For example, on the planetary scale of things, an adventure of 3 weeks to a single hub (urban center than can be transected on foot within 1-2 hours or less) or set of 2 or 3 hubs (sea, city, highland) should have some structure as well as latitude for spontaneity to chase the light, the shifting composition, or the events at hand. The same model fits things within a day-trip by car from your home base hub: begin with some structure, but leave room for spontaneity. Again this model works for places far from home but within your national borders or neighboring countries: hub locations for routine and refreshment of creative forces, with some structures and routines, but then leaving room to follow one’s eyes and the light or the subjects that emerge.

In summary, the urge for a ‘perfect’ picture is a craving that can be satisfied as conditions permit, either from one’s doorstep with keen observation of a small world, or far from home in unfamiliar worlds. Planning and daydreaming can be the first course in a feast for the eyes and mind. But of course, so much of what gives meaning and value is in the eye of the beholder; the one who puts in the effort and lays a foundation to appreciate what finally comes to pass. Pictures from the photo walk or expedition are a pale likeness of the full, sensory experience of the place, the composition decisions, and the circumstances leading up to the shutter release. For a person coming across your ‘perfect’ photo, it may look like a postcard view or a curious trick of the light. And without knowing the things contained in the frame, the effort required to bring one’s eye and mind into focus at that moment, the full depth of the vision will escape the casual looker. That ‘perfect’ photo will be treasure that hides in plain sight and perhaps only a few will savor the result.


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Passing the time; or time is passing us?

museum display showing 6-7 standing stone crosses from Scottish history

Display of early Christian stonework from around Scotland – land earlier lived in by the PIcts, the Gaels, and the settler Vikings (National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh 2017 December)

There are a couple of ways to contemplate time when visiting the Kingdom of Scotland section of the National Museum’s permanent exhibit galleries. One way is to contemplate the artifacts from the various millennia and imagine all the local and world events that these have persisted through, arriving safely in the present moment in the collections department of today’s governing powers. Hopefully this patrimony will also persist long centuries into the future, as well. From this way of seeing things, we who live today are “dew on the morning grass” to use the imagery famous in the Bible. But the stonework, metal work, or other materials are here for longer periods. If the ancient and historical pieces on display and those held in storage or being studied by curators out of view (or the acquisitions being prepared by conservationists) could speak, they might declare, “we are just passing through; we are not concerned about the current events or issues since our destination is far ahead in the future from now.”

A second perspective on the passage of time that is on display at museums comes from taking the visitor’s standpoint. Instead of seeing the artifact as a time traveler or long-distance vehicle that likely will outlive us and the next several generations, this second perspective comes from browsing the many display cases and noticing the diverse locations whence the many artifacts came from and the (pre)historical period of their origins. This point of view uses the present moment as the fixed frame of reference against which each item can be measured to appreciate its age. In this way, a look around an exhibit hall might turn up items 200 or 1200 or 2000 years old. An analogy for this way of seeing might be a very big, extended, family reunion with 4 or maybe 5 generations present. A look around the venue would include people of many ages all coming together for this occasion. Possibly one’s time consciousness will grow from the realization that one’s own life can be reckoned relative to those present in the room from the generations that came before or after one’s own. This same multi-age awareness belongs to the museum displays, too.

Expanding or elaborating one’s consciousness of history, processes of change, and the passage of time is one way to appreciate the museum display, or indeed the scenes from daily life surrounding one’s routine passage to work, school, or home. Reversing the vision, though, you can identify your point of view as part of the “time traveler” cultural artifacts that persist as long-lasting elements of the cultural landscape. This way offers another vision of time’s passing. According to this perspective, the myriad daily details and risks and opportunities become ephemera that come and go, of little consequence to the enduring and extended time frame of these artifacts that we modern residents temporarily co-exist among. We mortals take life’s exit ramp maybe around age 75 or 80, but those durable artifacts do not exiting the world’s stage for centuries or longer; either in glass cases, in constant use one generation after another (e.g. roadways, sea routes and facilities, river crossings), or perhaps discarded by one generation but excavated by future researchers. In sum we mortals are “just passing through” and the artifacts and natural landscape change only slowly, serving as our lifestory backdrop. Or is it the reverse: that the long-lasting cultural artifacts are “just passing through” and we mortals just come and go as background; of little consequence relative to the long time frame of these artifacts or works of art.

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Palimpsest – time traveler


Utility pole, probably Sitka Spruce, maybe harvested a generation or two ago & still holding announcements attached by staple, brad, pin or nail (January 2018).

Palimpsest is a rare old word that means the beeswax tablets encased in a wood frame and accompanied by a stylus with which a young scholar was able to do math problems or practice one’s hand at penmanship. After each use the wax would be smoothed over to provide a clean start for the next piece of work. But hints of the earlier traces sometimes carried through. So in the modern use of the word, it means a place or time that bears traces of earlier uses.

This photo was taken at eye level and shows the location on the wood pole that is most likely to attract attention from pedestrians, or people passing by in cars who stop briefly at the intersection where a 4-way stop sign scheme forces everybody to pause momentarily. Over the years one or more fasteners (what attaches the paper or plastic message or announcement to the wood) were used and nearly always left behind. The paper or plastic containing news of a lost pet, a yard sale or community event, ballot initiative, or some other informational notice would either be removed by the person who posted it, or by someone else wishing to use the space and finding the old material out of date and ready to be removed. Other times the natural force of wind, rain, freezing-thawing cycles, and the power of sunlight to fade the ink and weaken the material resulted in the message parting from the fasteners holding it in place. So this graveyard of staples, nails, tacks and pushpins, tape, and brads shows the many seasons of communications at this corner. It is a kind of palimpsest of the years gone by.

Expanding on this idea it is possible to see the world not just for what it presents at the moment of observation, but also to consider the frame of view as containing the accumulated traces of past activity, lives, dreams, intentions, and reactions. In other words, when you accept the idea of palimpsest then your vision expands beyond the present and seeks out signs of other times – things from before that have been repurposed and integrated to the modern day uses, or things fragmented and left by the wayside, unnoticed or uncared for by today’s habits and residents. To fast forward the scene and identify the seeds of future developments is a bit more speculative and stretches the imagination more than the look backwards in time requires, but there, too, it is a kind of palimpsest. In this way the 1993 quote attributed to Sci-Fi author, William Gibson, fits in: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”


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The “Leica-look” and life outside the lens

screenshot of leica lens photo in low, contrasty light

example of leica-look 3 factors,

Relying on the search algorithms of Google to turn up some clues to the praise that many photographers have for the ancestor of most 35mm cameras of the 20th century, and now also a non-Asian contender among top digital cameras, I typed into the searchbox “leica-look” and found a handful of articles in the first screenful of results. One writer summed things up nicely and even identified particular legacy and currently produced lens with express these attributes: sometimes using a very shallow depth of field (setting the aperture wide-open for lenses built with f-stops bigger than average), higher than average micro-contrast that heightens the separation of subject to background, and glow produced in highlights due to the lens glass, polishing, and arrangements of the elements in the lens. Photos that have these hallmarks usually are what people’s emotional response comes from in certain photos, whether made on film or digital sensor.

In the spirit of this blog that blurs literal vision by camera and more philosophical vision by thinking, this “leica-look” seems to lend itself to the wider arena of lived experience. The times in one’s life when the above factors come into play seem to create a sort of magical perspective or look, too. For example, a shallow depth of field in a photo boosts the visual experience of the subject, since the context fades from focus, making the central subject feel hyper-sharply focused. By contrast, the same frame and subject with deeper or even total depth-of-field from foreground to background may present the central subject with the identical sharpness as before, however because everything in the frame now is clearly in focus, the central subject no longer stands out relatively speaking. And so of one’s lived experience, too, when an event is unfolding or when one revisits it in hindsight (or looks forward to some future event imaginatively), then it will become relatively more intense when one’s mind’s eye perceives with shallow depth of field.

Similarly of the next attribute of the “leica-look,” micro contrast, it can be said that small degrees of contrast around the edges of lived experience produce larger feelings of significance, purpose, or value by comparison to the same lived experience in which no extra emphasis is added to define the edges of the subject. I can’t understand the optical calculation or mathematical narrative for what happens to light as it enters a certain lens having this high micro contrast, but the eye can see relative differences between such lenses.

Finally of the “leica-look” there is a hint of diffuse brightness in the highlight areas of certain pictures, especially for contrasty or point-source lighting conditions, and especially for shallow depth of field (wide apertures). In lived experience, too, the times when something is glowing (light, emotion, ambient praises or auspicious circumstances) contributes to the resulting memory and mental image of the subject. In combination with the other factors found in the “leica-look,” the total effect of these factors is to make the subject recorded in 2-dimensions somehow gain volume or mass and feel almost 3-dimensional. And also of lived experience, when these factors are present alone, or in combination, then the result is to make ordinary experience somehow richer, or somehow to gain volume and mass, standing out from the surrounding conditions.

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Light of limbo; time traveler

early evening photo of waterway and group of ducks

ducks at dusk near Funaoka shrine, Echizen-city, Fukui-ken, Japan (click image for full view)

Dusk is such a mysterious time The shadows and luminosity change perceptibly; and within just 45 minutes full daylight turns to semi-darkness. So one’s sense of time is challenged: no longer is there a feeling of ‘eternal present’ and the ordinariness of normality. Instead it becomes effortless to blur the boundary in one’s waking consciousness that usually so sharply separates present from past and future. This scene could easily be 2015 or 1950 or 1815, apart from the paved road and utility poles and wires.

Perhaps something similar happens in language learning. Once the fundamentals are mastered and one can interact with little effort in the new language, then a bit of blurring begins in the line that used to separate “us” and “them,” or “foreign” and “familiar.” It may become hard to remember whether a given conversation or source of  an idea was conducted in one’s first or second language as the two become more porous in one’s mind.

And again, from a different field for analogies, perhaps something similar happens in rising levels of proficiency and fluency in a sport, hobby, or other skill-based form of expression. As one picks up momentum, eventually the static parts begin to blend and produce a certain rhythm and pace which one can effortlessly transpose or move across and within. A dialog begins between oneself and the particular medium one is working in. In all these cases a similar blurring effect happens – blurring of chronological moment (orienting one’s place in the flow of time), blurring of self-perception in first and second languages, or the power of mastery that results in “flow” or effortless fluidity in the particular field of actions.

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Beckoning light – chase, capture, or admire?

photo of noon light on low table at Nepali restaurant in west Japan

gleam on restaurant tabletop at lunch (click image for full size)

Light calls one’s name from time to time in unexpected places, such as this restaurant table flooded by lunchtime light of a glorious fall day. The gleam of the sun on the chrome table service bell is particularly eye-catching, but the foreground subdued patches of light have a mellow charm, too. Soon after my eye landed on the strong shadows and pattern of light on the table almost immediately the impulse I felt was to go closer and soak up the splendor; but almost at the same time as I felt drawn to the brightness, I also reached from my cellphone camera, thinking to make an effort to frame the central subject with some care and without alarming the restaurant owners working in the adjacent kitchen.


On second thought, though, I realized that not all light beckons for the purpose of chase or capture. There are times when the light only calls out to be admired; not confined to a composition or shutter release, but instead simply to be studied and enjoyed as it tickles the light sensors at the back of one’s eyes before being communicated to the brain’s visual cortex for interpretation in pictorial sense. And so I settled on a quick grab shot to serve as a visual prompt for this brief epiphany: light beckons day and night, but does not always require a photographic response. Nor is it always technically possible, socially or culturally convenient to transpose a mental composition into a photograph; although as a thought exercise, there may be merit is thinking through the settings and considerations to take into account if one actually were to commit a moment in time into photographic form. So when you next hear the light calling out to you, consider if the subject is meant to be photographed, or simply scrutinized with eyes trained in seeing pictures and enjoyed as a passing moment amid the hurly-burly of one’s waking hours.

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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.