see2think

thinking with pictures


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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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Bird in the distance gives me a flight of fancy

big heron looking for breakfast in the Hino River, Fukui-prefecture, Japan

This morning while I walked across the bridge for early morning exercise I saw a great blue heron in the shallows of the river with morning light shining off the surface and giving partial silhouette, while not completely blotting the color and detail of the bird’s body. Something about the light or the large bird’s slow, deliberate movements attracted my eye caused me to wonder what sorts of triggers were in this tranquil scene to captivate me. Several elements came to mind, step by step as I mulled over the image in my mind and walked on. The volume of the bird just taking up space on the blank canvas of the lit up water surface is one thing; that is a visual appeal. The mass of the bird; the pull of gravity between the bird and the Earth and theoretically between the bird and my own mass is another sensory layer that stirs in me – feeling or imaging the bulk of the living creatures as it breaths in and out while I stand by to observe. Besides the visual contours and the physical presence of the bird, its behavior or seemingly intentional search for food, awareness of fellow herons, and lookout for possible threats in the sky or on the ground (or in the river), all these things seem to animate the tall animal. Merely watching it turn this way and that, later to crouch and bring the big wings into play and then lift into the air, this, too, is a magnet to my eyes.

When we talk of passing the time before a flight or some event by “people watching” perhaps that means a mix of entertainment or info-tainment. One part of the appeal of looking at fellow people is to benchmark or compare to ourselves and those we love and respect: are these strangers conforming to the range of normal and expected ways of walking, sitting, talking, dressing, eating, and so on? By extension, any behaviors that fall at the margins of our own definition and experience of “normal” become tacit challenges – is this difference a threat or rebuke to our own “normal”; or the novelty may be a source of delight, stimulation, or insight. And anything that goes past these outer boundaries of what is known, expected, allowed, or (culturally) normal becomes a fascination to watch because it is alien; an outlier, or outlandish in a literal sense of “not from around here.” So there is people watching that interests us much like TV or movies or novels (even non-fiction, perhaps). It is this endless appetite for comparison and reminding ourselves about what is normal, desired, trusted, worthy of respect or aspiration, and so on.

But as with the great blue heron turning his glance this way and that way in the cool still September morning, also with people watching there is interest in observing intentionality play out. We watch to see if we can grasp what the others are doing, are about to do, or meant to do. In other words, we like to supply captions to the images that present themselves before our eyes. There is comfort in knowing (or telling ourselves that we know) what is happening in a given scene. On familiar ground and among one’s own cohort probably the accuracy for interpreting what is going on will be very high. But among strangers in a strange context, the chances of understanding the meaning or purpose may be very mistaken, particularly when there is a different language or society involved.

These things, then, seem to be what was speaking to me as I walked across the morning bridge over the Hino River this morning before cars filled the road. There is the visual presence of the bird occupying the space of the bright surface of the water. There is the physical mass of the bird as a fellow creature with beating heart and lungfuls of air. There is the purposeful movements and pauses that comprise the bird’s minutes there in the water before setting off for another location upstream 100 meters. But unlike “people watching” this bird is not a peer reference group (nor do I know enough herons to watch this one as point of comparison to those others to judge if this one is ‘normal’ or an outlier). However, just about the same was watching people, I did look at the sequence of movements and try to imagine some realistic interpretations to tell myself “I know what the bird is trying to do; what the bird’s goal is.”

Having distilled some of the layers of interest in the scene that caught my attention this morning, I will look at other times when I am drawn to the light or shadows filled indirectly by skylight or other sources and ask myself analytically what sorts of things tug at my heartstrings and cause me to pause and frame the subject just so before releasing the shutter.


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Light values (dynamic range) vs. slight values (preoccupations)

In summer the early morning is a good time of day for walking around the town –cars are few, light is warm, air is cool, and thoughts are clear. Moving along the sidewalk the angled light casts long shadows and touches the surfaces of things in a glittering way. Even without looking through a camera lens the familiar elements of composition come to mind as I mentally form some scenes in passing. The colors of store fronts, the texture of weathered wooden walls and rusted metal sheathing, the warm tone of the first hour of daylight, the line of one subject in foreground and another in background to give shape to the composition, and the play of shadow and light values brightest to darkest all come to mind in the morning walk as one subject after another comes into view.

bright sunlight on streetscape surfaces

looking at line, light, texture, color, juxtaposition

For a person of school age there will be other concerns and interest to fill their minds than the light talking to the streetscape. So, too, of a parent taking care of a household with people of younger and older generations. For a retired person there will be still other interests and preoccupations. Perhaps only someone in a contemplative, reflective, or philosophical frame of mind will pass these shops and houses along the street and think about the composition of light values, textures, colors, and lines of foreground and background. Instead the young or old will be too busy paying attention to costs, time, safely crossing the street, making sure not to forget to return a phone call or avoiding peer criticism for overlooking one’s obligations. In other words, more attention goes into safely crossing the road than in pausing to really see the road: its color, texture, line, and lighting. Most people are too busy with actively playing the game of life to be able to stop their forward motion long enough to look around and see exactly how things look and the way that light abundantly touches most everything directly, or indirectly, or how it is suggested by its absence (shadow). We readily emphasize the BUSINESS of living instead of the business of LIVING.

Perhaps the recent attention on “mindfulness” associated with Buddhism and specifically the writings and recordings of Thich Nhat Hanh when one is walking, eating, meeting others, and so on can also be applied to this situation of walking early in the morning and really seeing, touching, smelling the passing views from one minute to the next. Too often in a conversation the listener is not hearing the meanings but instead is dwelling on the next question to ask, the reply to the speaker’s point, and so on. Too often in walking through one’s day, similarly, the person is too busy dwelling on what comes next rather than to abide in the present moment and to see all there is to see of a place. “Wherever you are, BE there,” is one form that the mindfulness instruction takes. Notice the shapes, color, light, and light. Hear the summer morning sounds of cicadas. Smell the breakfast cooking, the wisp of tobacco smoke in passing, or the river smell as you walk its bank.

So there is a basic tension between looking that just skims the surface in search of familiar cues and landmarks in one’s hurried routines, but does not deeply look at what is there –on the one hand; and the inverse: looking past the surface and seeing the complete context with the sort of augmented* reality of an experienced archaeologist excavating, a forensic specialist reading clues, or a hunter tracking the signs of what happened earlier at a location. In the typical mindset, much in a rush to accomplish the day’s plans, there is usually little extended reflection on the flow of events, since the biggest consideration is instrumental or functional; getting something done, paying debts, meeting the deadline, avoiding liability, putting food on the table. In the inverse, the task accomplishment is secondary, while the reflecting about the way things are takes priority. One extreme is to be a walking canvas, sensitive to the visual details and meanings, in and of themselves of value and interest. The other extreme is to be blind to these visual values and instead be preoccupied with “things to do,” including places to go, people to meet, money to spend. Surely somewhere in the middle is best: busy with normal life, but also filled with the beauty and feeling of awe from the wonder of light all around you. Go forth with list of errands in one hand, but with camera in the other hand to make a record of what you see and think along the way.

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* Augmented by seeing history, past circumstances, and individual aspirations, as well as futures circumstances that may be probable in a location; seeing whole generations expressed in material forms; visualizing social networks and burdens of ownership in caring for property, businesses, or fields and forests; imagining dreams achieved but also plans gone awry; envisioning cultural expectations and ideas that shift sometimes in a single generation.


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Reading the cityscape, reading the social’scape

photo of public tour of castle excavation, Echizen City, Japan

Edo-period Lord Honda’s castle moat under the 1950 city hall parking lot (Echizen city, Japan 22 July 2017).

The photo shows buildings from many generations all within the frame, starting with the current deposition layer exposed in the multi-year excavation at city center in Echizen-shi, Japan, and then the traditional tile roof of the private residence at the right, as well as the steel I-beam white faced multi-story building containing retail at street level and residential space above. By walking or biking the old grid of narrow streets of this very old city, it is possible to see generations of buildings. Apart from temples, most buildings range from the 1880s to the present, since fires (from the days before gas to cook and heat with) periodically destroyed sections of the town historically, and the custom of rebuilding every 50 or 75 years to freshen things up, rather than merely to remodel also reduces the oldest physical traces around the city.

With more and more walking and viewing experience, small details and reminders of earlier worldviews, values, motivations and cultural assumptions appear at unexpected moments or in the fertile imagination that comes in the twilight of dawn and around dusk. A local historian is likely to be less free in picturing what might have stood at a certain location and time, and the activities one might expect to see there at certain seasons or calendar dates, and even much less be willing to stretch the imagination to visualize what sorts of lives, habits, aspirations and burdens the people of a given place and time lived. But for someone trained in social science with a hobby interest in genealogy, tracing these connections of long ago to the point we have come to now is entirely possible, conjecture though it may all be.

And so, to set forth with camera in hand, looking for clues to what once happened here, or even to know what the meaning and activity of a location is nowadays, is a rewarding sort of visual exercise. Much like hunters who pick up small signs of the life they are tracking, or the way that a detective seizes on clues that together form inductive reasoning and from there extending to deductive reasoning, so also can a person walk the streets and bike the fields and read the terrain for clues to meaning, changes from then that still exist now, and possibly portend things to come – a nod to science-fiction writer William Gibson who is attributed with – “the future is already here; it is just distributed unevenly” (some instances are easy to see, but in other settings maybe there is less to recognize as belonging to future generations).


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Tourist eyes or old-timer eyes, which are you?

narrow lane with several houses fronting it

Side street en route to library, Echizen City, Japan

Discovery, Uncovery, Recovery –Part of the joy of street or field photography is stumbling onto something that seems significant (treasure by some definition) or at least on the surface (texture, color, light play or shadow) is worthy to view and possibly record. Perhaps this is something like Serendipity or the kind of things that seemed to happen to Forrest Gump fortuitously again and again.

Taken to the extreme, there is mystery and beauty in something as taken for granted as a single breath of clean air or a sip of cool, life-giving water. More often, though, it takes something more obvious to get our attention and trigger the impulse to compose and capture a moment. By contrast, to the person who lives next to a famous photo prompt, perhaps the subject is static background to the plans they make or obligations that give structure to their own discretionary time, intention, and energy. On a larger scale this native versus newcomer phenomenon explains why residents only visit the sight-seeing places when accompanying visitors. The fact that the particular event, site, collection or restaurant is always available and potentially the long-term resident supposes therefore that by osmosis there is some inherent ownership or relationship they accrue, therefore the need to actually buy a ticket and go inside seems to have very little urgency or necessity about it. There is always tomorrow to do so, it seems.

Thinking about this insider-outsider difference from another angle, there are tourists on a 5 day or 3 week timeline who feel each waking moment should be filled with relevant experiences, reading, relaxation and relating to local people, opportunities, occasions, events and so on: they are focusing on inputs, not processing or reflecting or making outputs of their own. Meanwhile that same person returns to their routines and cultural infrastructure that makes their life somewhat predictable and stable. Now perhaps the opposite mode is primary; that is, rather than keeping hyper alert and observing the surround life and people and language of the place (the input side of things), instead the person navigates through the day and the landscape on autopilot, already thinking several steps ahead to the next obligation or moment when there is a break from responsibility and routine. Now the emphasis is on output: not taking in everything that is playing out in big and small ways around one’s life and in the longer time frames of seasons, years and even decades. The person’s mind and attention is not in the present moment or one lately past. It is on plans for what to do next, what to watch out for, what to fulfill as promised.

Jumping now to the metaphor of music performance, the audience member might be dwelling on the sweet sound of a chord or splendid passage of melody as it unfolds in expected intervals or with some unexpected surprising transitions to spice things up. But the well-rehearsed musicians are a few measures ahead, so they know not just the tuning and blending of the present moment as it passes to the one that follows, but that they have a wider horizon of view and know the place where the current passage is heading, thus to connect smoothly and with musicianship all the parts between now and that future point, and from that point to the one that follows. In other words, a person with no prior experience of a musical style might be baffled or charmed or mesmerized by the first exposure, but their awareness is very much momentary, since they lack the vocabulary to make articulate sense of the larger production and don’t know where it is going, nor what it hearkens back to in the wider body of related music. An aficionado will have some of the same depth that a musician has while performing, thus being able to appreciate what goes into the finished experience of all parts interacting. But only the practiced musician has the full and richest viewpoint on the piece of music, at least from the notes that guide them in their own part of the whole.

With tourists to a strange land and language, too, there are these different levels of proficiency to understand the meanings all around them: the most fluent native will have a wide ranging mind, aware of so many details and able to express the finest gradations of emphasis or distinction. But this high speed ability to navigate the local terrain of meanings comes at the expense of savoring the texture, rhythm and surfaces that the tourist is preoccupied with. Perhaps it is the intermediate position that is richest of all: somewhat able to move across the meanings, but not well enough to master them and dwell at the high altitudes of awareness and preoccupation, nor yet at the beginner level and stumbling over rudimentary aspects of the local society and language. Here in the middle ground there is some awareness of the finite time schedule; that one is not going to be in the current set of circumstances forever and therefore it is worth making the time to do certain things with all due deliberateness and purpose; but not so overly pressed by the time schedule as to make hasty, careless, or ill considered decisions, big or small. Instead there is a kind of wisdom in using time well (sometimes conserving it; hyper-conscious of its passing, but other times letting go of it, letting the hours freely pass), just as there are wise ways and foolish ways to use whatever money comes into one’s life (sometimes sticking with thriftiness; other occasions being lavish).

Buddhists talk about how precious it is to strive to have the mind of a beginner, not weighed down by larger matters, and fascinated in a fresh and uncomplicated way with the surfaces of things. But the thread of these paragraphs, above, argue for the value of something that comes after the beginner’s mind; not the tourist or newcomer to a place absorbed with the inputs, and neither the old-timer who no longer sees the wonder and novelty all around. Instead there is great merit in the middle ground of someone beyond the surface level and not yet fully rooted to a place and oriented to action, accomplishment, and similar outputs.

The person at the middle ground can still be amazed by little details, can still set aside high quality time and full attention for local inputs (a camera can frame the seeing process and force some decisions and deliberately slow-down the capture process, simultaneously serving as a trail of breadcrumbs or record of the forays in the local surroundings). But the person at the middle ground can also do some of the things the long time resident can do – make plans, dream dreams, dive into possible futures and dwell on the interior life; in short, the middle ground person can have both input mode of consciousness like a beginner or temporary visitor, and also output mode of consciousness like a long-time resident who has some institutional memory of a place and how it got to be like this now. Yes, there is indeed delight in discovering or uncovering or recovering something that is precious for a fleeting moment or for an eternity. But there is also pleasure in seeing past the surfaces to observe the longer cycles and flow of events before one;s existence and after one has gone. The vision of the momentary and fleeting, intensified by the sense of transient life, as well as the vision of things much bigger and longer lasting than one’s self make the walk-around with camera in hand a worthy pursuit.


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just looking… the eye of a flaneur

rising sun light on stone Buddhist grave statue

Morning light on grave marker at Daihou-ji, Echizen City, Japan

Setting off with camera in hand and only a general circuit or destination in mind, and without fixed time limits, my eye fixes on wondrous light falling on the scenes that present themselves in landscape or streetscape; or I am drawn to the signs of time passing (poetic intimations of mortality) and people’s efforts purposing some kind of significance or response to the call of responsibility – features of the cultural landscape. Traces of the past seem relatively infrequent in Japan, where businesses and residences are meant to serve an active span of years and then are either left to dereliction or razed for a fresh generation to make its own mark on the same ground. So there is a small thrill of discovery when a relic of the earlier society and worldview comes into view. By passing along narrow lanes, or the premodern roads not built in ruler-straight lines there is a faint smell of earlier times to discover, particularly in the twilight before and after full light of day. A similar thrill of discovery comes from seeing the plants and animals doing what they do in each season, mostly without reference to the lives of humans that clutter up the space and time occupied by these creatures. For example, seeing small birds gathering materials for nest building, or seeing the big water-wading birds settling onto their large tree-top nests is worth stopping to admire. Watching for flowers about to bloom, animals following their life cycle, and by looking out for traces of the past all draw one’s attention away from the ordinary haste of the all-surrounding consumer worldview of purchase, consume, discard with kudos for finding lowest per unit price or bulk buying. The other vision that takes one outside the normal routines and habits is to view the passing scenes on the day’s circuit with the eye of a cultural detective, reading the cultural landscape to see what recently (or long ago) occurred in a place, whether it is tending a garden or field, pruning the woodlot along a mountain side, or tidying graves during the equinox holiday. All of these ways of seeing and reading the surrounding locations come about by setting a course outside one’s usual route, taken to be the most expedient in the working framework of one’s weeks and years. Instead of having a deadline, time schedule, and destination at some distance from the starting point, let the wandering of the “boulevardier” or “flaneur” be the standard to follow; let the passing scenes themselves be a sort-of cinematic feast of circumstances that move from one view to the next. Let the excursion itself be the purpose or destination; not to arrive at a fixed location (other than to return to one’s beginning place) someplace else. That way the delight of the moment, the thrill of discovery, and the satisfaction of adding more and more puzzle pieces to one’s map of the wider area being explored can be fully enjoyed as a kind of psychological “flow,” immersing one in the mode of play rather than work; enjoyable for its own sake, not something to be dispensed with in order to reach some other destination. Taking along a camera or two helps to make a trail of breadcrumbs so that one can retrace the steps later with still another kinds of vision, the seeing of hindsight.


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Aging and one’s wide-angle lens on life

photo of shinto shrine stone gate

Shrine torii at edge of Sanri-yama in the town of Imadate, Fukui-ken JP

On a fine sunny Saturday, with the early March air still cold enough for gloves and hat, but by noon no longer needed, I pedaled along with camera in pocket on the lookout for light or locations of interest as single shots or to be stitched into something more immersive*. Part of the route around the skirt of the mountain (about 10-12 km in circumference) was familiar from 30 years ago when first living and working in this valley, and then at intervals of 5-6 years thereafter. But usually those members were just passing by, almost always by car or bus. So to take some of the narrow lanes and the walkway along the river by bike was a new experiences. Thinking about how those earlier memories differed to this pleasant Saturday morning, it seems that the main difference is middle-age. Much of the life work of establishing oneself and one’s family, the circle of births and deaths, job changes, moving, and so on already is done or at least very much less of a preoccupation. As a result, if the decades of 20s and 30s was like a 55mm or 80mm lens (using the film reference to a 35mm camera), a series of moments, often discrete and disconnected, then now there is less need to prove, to achieve, to accumulate. So it is enough to “be” rather than to “do.” I can quietly roll along the paved surfaces reflecting on the lives underway around me, or the signs of better days at the sites of relic buildings, agriculture worksites, and so on, “reading” the landscape and social space around me. Perhaps the set of constraint, expectations, and bills to pay made the idea of setting off without a definte route or destination or timeframe in mind unimaginable in those earlier life decades. Whatever the reason that I did not do something so enjoyable as today’s excursion, at least I am glad for the ride and photos along the way on this occasion; and I truly look forward to many more times like it. Having a wide-angle lens experience of life is satisfying, since the many moving parts can be seen all together, the context and the arc of developments all add meaning and let one’s own presence fit into the whole, as well. It makes sense that one’s 20s-30s-40s are lived in a narrow angle of view than the wide-angle that I speak of. But even so, I am pleased with the wide view of today!

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*Simulating the angle of view in human visual experience is one of the main reasons to play with photo-stitching software. See the handful of slides in this set to see the logic of doing so, bit.ly/seepano