see2think

thinking with pictures


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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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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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A taste for light – connoisseur at the winter solstice

DSC01664About an hour before the sun settled onto the horizon in the west, the broken pattern of clouds opened up and the low-hanging sun, just a week before its final ebb of the year at the December solstice, shone across the fresh, snow-covered landscape and dramatized the silhouettes of the trees now bare of leaves. With the low angle comes an extra measure of atmospheric haze that the rays of light must pass through and the blue and purple wavelengths are mostly absorbed along the way, leaving only the longer wavelengths of yellows, oranges, and reds to cover the wintry scene in a warm, golden blanket of photons. The course of human life has resulted in visually sophisticated skills with something like 20 or 25% of the brain dedicated to processing patterns, color, texture and light. But some people develop their visual function beyond everyday uses and become visual artists or designers, or if not makers then with an appetite that allows them to appreciate good, better, and best quality of light and visual interest. Photographers represent an unusual medium since the bar to making photographs has been set so low ever since the Kodak “Brownie” box camera 100 years ago; the original point and shoot, fixed focus lens that made home photography accessible to the wide public. The equivalent device these days perhaps is the cell phone, equipped with camera for both still and video capture, not to mention audio portraits with the built-in (voice) recorders.

As with other muscles and skills, the more you use it, the stronger or more refined and specialized it becomes. This learning curve is both physical and mental: physical because actions and habits of response involve flesh and effort with repeated use leading to stronger apparatus. As a simplistic illustration, the more times you press your finger to the shutter release button, the more familiar the action becomes and stronger the feeling and function becomes. The more often one’s eye goes over a composition in the viewfinder or in reviewing the work of others, the more quickly one can compare to other instances and see both good and bad points in the current image.

But besides the physically expanded powers gained by repetitions, there is also a mental side to the work of making images or reading the ones made by others; indeed, in seeing the views that present themselves to one’s eye day by day, like the winter late afternoon light, above. “Practices makes perfect” is not only about the physical motions and habits that form little by little, it is also the growing familiarity with the range of conditions, the angles of view, the technical compensations possible to make when correcting the literal, mechanical recording of the lens and sensor in order to produce a scene closer to one’s human visual experience (correcting the camera by adjusting color temperature or averaged exposure setting; example of moonlit snowy nightscape, below). The more pictures one makes or views, the more discerning one comes to be: capable of distinguishing slight variations in the temperature of the light (bluish cast vs. overly warm tone; natural versus artificial light sources; direct versus indirect, reflected illumination), or the quality of shadows and the likely changes to expect to the composition when a cloud bank threatens to cover the sun, or the way that the rising light of the passing morning hours is going to transform the scene if only one is patient enough to wait and also to move to a viewpoint right for the moment in the future one is seeking.

moonlit - camera's capture vs. human visual experience of the light

moonlit – camera’s capture vs. human visual experience of the light

In summary, to spend more and more time observing the visual scenes throughout one’s day, with camera in hand or purely by eye, on screen or in one’s waking life, then the more one’s responsiveness, capacities, fine-motor skills, and mental familiarity with conditions will grow. One result is increased awareness and appreciation of the visual banquet that many people take for granted, like those who wolf down their meal in haste versus those who linger over each bite. Both may exhibit a healthy appetite, but one savors the texture, temperature, color, flavors, taste and smell of the food more than the other. One more than the other “reads” more deeply into the presentation and eating of the food, enjoying the company of others at the table at the same time. The same is true of the ubiquity of daylight or reduced illumination of nighttime: many will take it for granted, see past it in their preoccupation with other matters, or regard it as incidental background to what really is demanding their focus. But instead to take the time to view the light itself as a worthy subject to observe, record, and savor can lead to great pleasure, as was this hour of golden light on the bright snow as it shone through the windows, etched the outlines of twigs and tree trunks in gold, and caused shadows on carpet and walls to move across the room. The blanket of warm light on the cold afternoon was truly glorious (click video link, below, to watch source file at flickr.com). MAQ01667