thinking with pictures

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Seeing what was here before


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

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

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

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

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



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seeing with your own eyes -certainty or Rashomon effect?

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

illustration of 3 nested frames for a subject

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

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


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


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


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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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Holding a hammer, you look at the world seeking nails…

clipart of 9 different types of camera

Each lens and camera-type will shape the photographer’s eye and hand. (credit – clipart)

The observation about one’s tools affecting one’s vision or standpoint applies to hand tools, power tools, earth moving equipment, one’s means of transportation and style of life more generally. But it also could refer to the camera one takes on a photo walk, or the one that is nearest to hand when a subject arises unexpectedly and the photographer hears the light speaking and wishes to respond by composing, capturing, then communicating the image to others. “Form factor” is a related concept: when comparing two cameras of similar capabilities, often it is the weight, shape, or configuration of the one over the other that determines which tool becomes one’s camera of choice.

Returning to the title and the adage about just having one tool in one’s toolbox, perhaps the case of cameras can usefully be compared. Video versus still image-making is a fundamental split, although many people start with one and branch into the other so as to become bi-lingual, so to speak. Then within each of these there are important levels of complexity and quality, from consumer (casual, point-and-shoot) to prosumer (enthusiast) to professional. And finally, looking at just one camera, each lens presents a different tool for engaging the world (zoom lenses, of course, are a sort-of Swiss Army knife with so many focal lengths rolled into a single attachment to the camera body).

Take, for example, the 20mm lens that I got for my APS-C mirrorless camera. Expressed in film camera terms the field of view (crop factor of 1.5x) equates to about 30mm, just a little narrower than an off-the-shelf 28mm lens. After using a 35mm equivalent focal length for most of my shooting on another camera, this 20mm lens seemed a little too wide at first. Later, though, I began to practice composing a scene at idle moments while walking or driving. I have now learned to visualize the frame and determined my best shots have something of interest in the near to middle distance, within the length of one or two cars from the lens. In contrast to this lens that never leaves the mirrorless camera body, a similar mental exercise for seeing the world in terms of a slightly telephoto lens (85 or 105mm equivalent) brings different subjects and approaches into mind. Clearly the lens affects the subjects that come most naturally into your compositions, either the mental ones or the camera viewfinder ones. But the camera configuration, size, ease of carrying and use habits also affect the subjects that come most naturally into your compositions. Similarly the choice of moving or still image capture, or combination of both, also affects the subject that comes most naturally into your compositions.

So the next time you think about going on a photo walk, pack up for an assignments, or just casually reach into a coat pocket to grab a spontaneous memory, consider both sides of this coin. Ask how your particular camera seems to guide you to compose and capture certain subjects in certain ways, according to your working habits and the constraints of the particular technology. But ask the other question, too: ask how your particular camera seems NOT to take certain subjects and NOT to use certain ways of composing and capturing your subjects. In other words, develop a stronger awareness about how your gear and your mind work together best (for good results) and worst (restricting or adding friction to the process of shooting some subjects, compared to other ones). After all, when you only have a hammer in your toolbox, then you seem only the nails in the world all around you.

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When the light speaks to you

Never mind ‘chasing the light’ or ‘writing with light’ (graphos+foto), instead listen for when the light calls your name and you respond by a double-take to look with renewed care at the scene as it presents itself, or as you foresee that it will come to be after a few minutes or hours or days.

street photo with dark clouds leaving a band of brightness on the horizon

When the light is low and the dark is high–an inversion of normal, it calls out to one’s eye.

Consider the case of music – some tunes and lyrics may speak to you, while others do not. Worse, some combinations of rhythm and chord sequences may actually irritate or contradict your own sense of harmony and consonance. The same could be said for other sensory experiences like the way food is arranged on a plate, the way that people dress, or the emotional response to things in the landscape (cityscape, or social landscape) you inhabit: certain features and patterns can be a calming source of continuity that meets the expectations you have about the way things should look and when and how things should arise there.

Turing back to the illumination in day or at night that stimulates the receptors inside one’s eyes, there is a kind of language or patterned sequences of meaning that speak to people. Some have an “ear” for the voice or music of the light falling on the surfaces of places where they may go. Others barely respond when the light declares something in a quiet voice, or shouts at full volume. And still others develop a habit to keep a picture-taking device within easy reach to respond effortlessly whenever the light utters a word or invites a response.

Raising the lens and framing the subject, you can quote verbatim what the light is saying. Then you can share this with others, or add to your album of moments written with light. Even before cameras became commonplace, there were a few people with sketchpad and pencil or pen to capture compositions that they stumbled upon, searched out, tracked down, or synthesized from their own imaginations. But now that digital cameras, phones, and tablets are so wide-spread, the opportunities have improved to sharpen your focus and improve your ear to hear when the light is speaking in its own language. Hopefully, the ability to understand what it is that the light is saying also is improving.

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The moment between past and future – what is present

The stream of commuters at the end of the work day stands for the wider course of one’s lifetime, flowing in one direction like a great river or like a parade of fellow travelers rising and falling on the contours and curves of the land, and passing landmarks along the way that stand out in one person’s mind for memories attached, hopes pinned, or for some thought triggered by the sight.

photo of cars on wet road at stop ligth

Cars pause at traffic signal [click for full image]; cf. visual experience of video clip, below,

But there is something curious that goes on in the minds of the people in their cars on the road of life, day by day, outbound at the start of work and returning at the end of work. It is the same for the rest of us outside the stream of cars, too. All of us feel that the present moment is wider than the fraction of a second captured by a photographer’s finger releasing the shutter. And yet, objectively speaking, there is less than a fraction of a second that occurs between what is yet to come (the future) and what just took place (the past). Our minds show us that an hour is a very long time (when we are pre-school age), or slightly long (when we are school age), or not long (during young adult and middle-age years), or nothing at all (in later life). And yet, objectively speaking, the passage of an hour is the same in all decades of our lives.

Likewise our minds show us that we occupy an arena of present-tense possibilities –things within easy reach that we could potentially accomplish or act upon, as well as things that may be theoretically possible if only we had the social connections, money, will-power, opportunity or motive to act upon. We dwell in this comfortable space of potential; a world of what we could do¬†or who we could be, if we so desired to act upon what enters our minds. And yet, objectively speaking, during the time that we are psychologically occupying this world of possible actions, there is a continuous flow from what is yet to come into what has already passed. It would be truer to say that we live on the knife-edge of what could be (on one side of the blade) and what cannot be (on the other side of the blade) since circumstances have now passed.

The poet from Northern Ireland, Michael Longley, was interviewed in April 2018 by Krista Tippett for On Being,, and described poets as the historians of words who knows their roots intimately. A poet uses the words with precision like living organs – only when all the right words are in the right place does the lyric come miraculously to life. The poet makes ordinary things vivid and lively, making the familiar become strange, new, or exotic. Perhaps the same is true of photo walks and the habit of mind for framing scenes as the light, lines, and colors speak quietly to the photographer. By means of the lens, shutter, and exposure somebody who sees the world with this aid can develop more intense vision of the ordinary things all around. The routine things along the road of life become even more vivid than they already are. And so we can see the world in a grain of sand, or look at the line of commuters paused at the red light and imagine the illusory wide-open present possibilities that we all occupy, against all objective forces that limit the actionable present to the fraction of a second between that which is yet to come and that which has already passed by.


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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.