see2think

thinking with pictures


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Passing the time; or time is passing us?

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

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

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

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

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

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Palimpsest – time traveler

palimsest2018jan3aberdeen-street

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

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

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

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

source, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/William_Gibson


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Guide to life – look ahead, look around, look back

photo of walking path at Holyrood Park, Edinburgh

Looking forward on one’s path, often head down and mind preoccupied

Walking along the perimeter to a part of the Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, some wonderful views of the city, the North Sea, and the hillside itself came into focus. Treading the well traveled path where grass had largely been turned to packed dirt, I would stop periodically to shift my focus from the ground surface and nearby 10 to 20 feet ahead of my way. This seemed to be analogous to one’s path through life itself in which most people fall into a routine for workdays and weekends. People keep on the path and are alert to changes only within the smaller arena of their routines, very seldom looking up or looking back. So one lesson of this morning’s walk is to pause from time to time in one’s routine day or one’s stage in life, or indeed within the complete arc of a lifetime and possibly going even wider to encompass the host of ancestors that one forms a part of. In this pause is the chance to look up and to look back instead of pressing ever onward, eyes fixed to the immediate conditions.

slope of Holyrood Park

same path but now turning to look up from trail

trail at Holyrood Park, turning to view the landscape behind

same path but now turning to look back

The other insight coming from the morning walk concerns preoccupation; this time not the field of focus, but instead what fills one’s mind. Some of the individuals walking or running displayed earphone cords dangling to phone or music player, either moving to a soundtrack of one’s choosing, or perhaps radio broadcast, or selected podcast that holds the person’s attention. As an outsider or visitor, the physical and social environment is a novelty, something fresh and able to hold one’s attention. But for a nearby resident who is commuting to work or school, the separation between home and destination, between one’s own time, and the time that is being paid by employer is a sort of emptiness which can usefully be filled by recorded or streamed electronic content.

The result is a disconnection between the things going on all around the person (weather, history, animals and plant cycles) and what preoccupies the person’s mind. In other words, a person rooted to a place may be blind to its wonder. But a person not native to the place may be blind, deaf, and dumb to the wonder and meanings, too. Perhaps the most vivid experience filled with meanings and possibilities comes from the perspective of a person who has gotten acquainted with the people and places but who is not yet taking for granted the sights and sounds that the long-time resident may be ignoring or seeing past.


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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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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).