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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Taking your camera for a walk versus walking with camera

photo of author on bike reflected in shop window

sunny spring glass, shadow,and light

Getting into the habit of carrying some form of camera often brings rewards – either a rare play of light to capture, or an attempt that sharpens your eye and reflexes in order to catch something similar the next time. Or simply knowing that you *could* stop and compose a shot sometimes is enough to lift your awareness of the lines, colors, and textures around you, urging you to compose a picture in your mind’s eye. Yet there is something fundamentally different between setting off to make one or more pictures, on the one hand, and setting off to see what there is to see and letting the camera be secondary to the excursion itself.

In the first case there is a certain deperateness that amplifies the scenes that present themselves and your mind may miss the larger context in the effort to seize a moment or to frame a picture. In the second case, letting the excursion be the main purpose and the camera be secondary, there is more score for wandering and contemplating, being open to the meanings that come into one’s mind.

In the first case it seems to be the camera and goal of releasing the shutter that shapes the overall experience and determines what sorts of compositions meet the threshold of one’s sense of what is worth capturing; what is or is not significant and meets the minimum standard for making a picture. Of course the power to point-and-shoot, compared to the days of glass plates and heavy wooden equipment, means less expense and effort is needed to release the shutter nowadays. But in the second case, by contrast, whether any picture is taken or not, the excursion itself provides a pretext or purpose to venture out into the environment, social or natural, and see what there is to see.

For a person with a new camera to learn, it makes sense to create exercises and reasons to take enough shots in enough different conditions to become familiar or even adept at the tools available when making a picture. But other than mastering the gadget and becoming fluent in the skills needed to capture what appears in one’s mind’s eye, to dwell only on settings and results, and not to pay attention to the subject and its context is a distraction or possibly an obstacle to engaging fully in the space and time of the photography process. The same is true in the wider space of living and the longer arc of one’s lifetime: to dwell on the technical details is a distraction or obstacle to engaging, experiencing, embracing the setting and meanings of the place and time.

So next time you set out to make some pictures, be careful to ask yourself –is this trip for the camera, or for me and my chase of the light?


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

collage pre1970 pics

Four generations in Yorkshire, UK

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


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Exercises to see the past, present and possibly the future

Hiyoshi shrine in west Echizen city along the Yoshino River

It takes some practice to see people and places longitudinally (down the long stream of time) instead of looking only at the present moment, a sort-of cross-section of events of varying length that are concurrent to our own lifetimes. On my late January bike ride in the full but weak winter sun of a cloudless afternoon, I was looking for traces of times gone by, Temps Perdus. My first year in this rural part of the main Japanese island was 33 years ago, for some people an entire lifetime ago. In 1984 the work of consolidating the irregular small paddies and complicated paths of water access gave way to larger rectangles more suited the the pace and capacities of mechanized farming powered by petroleum products and chemical fertilizers. shrines atop the hill, west Takefu 915 japan

While most fields are now large rectilinear spaces with efficient ways to distribute and regulate water levels according to growing season and cycles, there are still hints of earlier times in the form of rusted machinery and decrepit vehicles, abandoned buildings from the 1920s, some earlier, many from the postwar years built in haste but somehow still standing.
To travel back to those times of smaller consumer expectations, more human-powered livelihoods unaided by computers, and the pace of news gathering and what constituted “current” events, the most direct route is the focus on the calendar of activity dictated by rice-growing, the king of the cash crops from hundreds of years ago. Today there are few who are tied to a field or the cycles of farming. But until the 1940s or 1950s it was a sizable minority or even majority whose livelihoods came from forest, field, or fisheries. And so, by looking around at the cultural and physical landscape that meets the eye in 2017, there are some traces or hints of before, and then perhaps some clues to the next generation to come, as well as the present-day functions and features that dominate the scene.

green steel, gray granite marker

Afternoon light on narrow lane, cemetery wall and nextdoor building, Takefu 915 Japan

The habit of looking for the legacies of earlier people, places, language, events and practices takes some effort since there is so much about today that attracts attention to itself, as if it were brand new and has no connection to the previous way of doing things, seeing things, and the dreams that follow from those worlds. But one can make an effort to sniff out those reminders of a different time and earlier sense of what was important and remarkable versus what was not significant or not worthy of respect. By developing a detective’s powers of observation and linking the scattered clues into an inductive vision, there is great satisfaction. One’s mind can travel not only to different points of view in the present, but also get a glimpse of experiences and realities of times long ago, and even ones not too long ago at the time of one’s youth or before that during childhood, for example.
With the habit of seeing longitudinally well established, one can then turn to photos or objects as a starting place to travel back to another time and the frame of reference that shaped people’s lives then. Collecting several glimpses of another time or place is one way to escape the present moment, connecting the reference points into a fully formed picture of another way of seeing.panorama Hiyoshi shinto shrine