thinking with pictures – metaphors that let you see the subject from new angles

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A-ha moments in photo-walks, the thrill of serendipity

red maple leaves newly sprung

New red maple leaves at base of tree trunk [click to view in full]

The Persian story of Princess Serendeep is filled with Forrest Gump moments where surprising events occur, propelling the story forward. Serendipitous flashes of insight, realization, epiphany, or visual delight in the play of shadows, texture, line, and color seem to be a central source of satisfaction for Street Photography and ordinary photowalks in search of subjects to compose and capture, whether the arena is wide-open landscape, building interiors, the macro world, or unfolding live events on stage or in streams of consciousness during the course of ordinary life.

At late morning today the glossy luster of newly sprung maple leaves presented themselves during my walk. So I went back soon afterwards with a camera to capture this picture to serve as a writing prompt for the small thrill of discovery felt when being surprised at a great beauty spotted unexpectedly. A similar excitement can come in the world of ideas and learning a skill or a body of knowledge. Every so often seemingly unrelated pieces intersect and the resulting recognition of something significant fills one’s heart for a moment. Perhaps the thrill of the hunt for new understanding, unexpected beauty, or elegant solutions to a problem is one of the drivers that makes a person press on, looking for the next meaningful thing.

Two quotes come to mind with regard to seeking or mindfully noticing the things one is surrounded with. There is a saying among photographers to the effect that “amateurs talk about gear; professionals money; and artists light.” In other words the preoccupations that fill the person’s mind in each of these capacities can differ widely. The other quote appears in Kenneth Tunnell’s 2019 book, Seeing the Unseen, in which he quotes Ulrich,

screenshot of p.2 Seeing the Unseen

from page 2, Seeing the Unseen (click for full-size image file)

“…Taking delight in… embracing questions and discovery… fundamental qualities shared by both the artist and seeker” nicely describes those serendipitous moments when one stops to pay attention and says “ah – there now is a photo.”

So the same spark of excitement seems to reward the person who looks with care, with or without lens, and the person who thinks with care, with or without recording medium. Truly, seeing and thinking seem to run in parallel and sometimes are integral to one another.


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Living in a world without cameras long ago?

cave painting at Lascaux, France

Visual expression long before the Camera Obscura or glass plates or film or digital sensors [Creative Commons]

Knowing how much one’s daily experience is mediated by the low cost and high quality ability to snap a (digital) photo for work or for play, suppose instead living at a point in time when there were no cameras; or if cameras were newly emerging, then at least they were cumbersome and not a practical part of most people’s waking hours and the thoughts that preoccupy them. This is a vast subject that touches on the many influences of our taken-for-granted visual recording media. There is the habit of thinking about what is recognizable as a “photo opportunity” or an occasion worthy of pausing to document a place, a moment, and an assembly of faces to be included (or excluded) from the frame. And there is the growing awareness of light and shadow, texture and line, color, and depth of field from foreground the background. The more one takes pictures or at least mentally composes them, the more one’s view of the world is affected by this heightened sense of form, light, mass, and so on. Extending this line of thinking to look at the influence of frequent camera use and expectations stemming from familiar presence of a lens (and channels for sharing semi or fully publicly), there are the many purposes that pictures (not to mention video clips, as well) can be used for: aide-de-memoir and for future reference, documentary evidence or claim to be filed, souvenir of places traveled or task undertaken, group photos to mark an event, surveillance (motion-activated sensors), artistic expression (learning process or finished work), social analysis (e.g. non-verbal communication), archiving of process or skill, portfolio of one’s years of career accomplishments, criminal abuses, commercial advertising as well as Public Service campaigns, ephemeral outburst (e.g. private message to others or public Twitter reporting of one’s moment to moment passage through the day), and the many other purposes that have continued since the first consumer-adopted cameras and grow more varied as resourceful users experiment with ways to harness visual communication on portable and powerful cameras.

After an image is created then there is the life of the image that may continue for many lifetimes, far from its original purpose, owners, and visibility by others, public or private, copyrighted or public domain. And when society changes, the original context for a photo may fade away and the new cultural standards may add new meaning to the old picture. The catalog of social gaffes in Richard Chalfen’s book (2012), Photo Gaffes – Family snapshots and social dilemmas, (Dog Ear Publishing) along with his 1987 study of family albums and their meanings, creation, and uses (Snapshot Versions of Life) go a long way to map out the ways that photographs occupy important parts of individual and group lives; both the making of pictures and the display or other social uses of those images.

Returning to the opening question about how different modern life would be with no cameras to record and then communicate beauty or cataclysm, it is truly hard to imagine, so pervasive has image making become. The answer to this question surely has many dimensions, though. In no particular order, and touching both the seeing & making of pictures, as well as their uses thereafter, here is a listing that points to the many effects of having cameras and pictures more or less ubiquitous across one’s life span. Awareness of time is shaped by photography because the viewer can travel back in time to younger years and locations, and even to distant shores and eras far outside of one’s own (visual) experience to the very beginnings of lens-assisted drawings (the camera obscura) and early photo reproduction on copper plate, paper or glass plates. Knowledge and awareness of self by routinely using both the back-facing (outward) camera and the front-facing (photographer’s face) has altered these days. Masses of visual detail and other information frozen in time can be studied to distill meanings, adjudicate the finish line of a race or determine legal responsibility, for example. Memory can be jogged or ideas can be prompted from recorded images, either alone or in photo sets that give multiple perspectives on a matter. Knowledge of the physical world can be extended by macro, micro, or high-shutter speed (and flash) photography to show things ordinarily not discernible to the naked eye. The burden of visual riches, such as annotating, organizing (indexing?), storing, displaying, protecting from fire or sun-exposure, caring for negatives or electronic memory media is seldom acknowledged but does cumulatively consume otherwise productive lives. An entire essay could be written about economic aspects of making, marketing, distributing, repairing cameras; not to mention the many professional services for making and developing film and photo prints and later digital imagery. The market for new and improved devices thrills potential buyers and enthusiasts of technology, functionality, and cleverly designed and crafted cameras. But having to research which camera suits one’s needs at present or one’s ambitions for future prowess is another burden of modern consumers. Once purchased, the property requires mastery of the manual, care and maintenance, among other things. Although pocket-sized cameras in the form of cellphones means that most news events and personal experiences can be captured, still there is a small corner of one’s mind that must remember to take the photo, or indeed to remember to take along the device with a view to recording a subject. By contrast, the days of no camera were free of this need to remember the camera, and to remember to take the photo (possibly to share with others).

In conclusion, to consider the many effects of cameras and the images they produce is to delve into so many different facets of lived experience, from time-consciousness and sense of momentousness (photo worthy; photo humorous; photo documenting) to consumer preoccupations and personal archiving. A book length investigation might do the subject justice, but so pervasive is visual communication by lens capture that this brief blog article can only touch the surface. Perhaps the question of “how life would differ if no written form of language existed” would be similarly multi-faceted. An even more extreme reach back into prehistory would be to wonder in a primate sort of way “how life would differ if no spoken form of language existed.” But for now, it is enough to play with the idea that there are many consequences and then further implications that come from carrying and using cameras everyday for self, for recreation, or for work and public discourse.

The experience of living in a society bereft of cameras and mass produced and distributed visual media surely is different to what is normal, taken for granted, and is expected. In place of engaging with a place or moment with a lens, it would be other visual media or, more frequently, verbal forms of recording and sharing, reflecting or responding that people would resort to. All of the time, expense, energy, aspiration and imagination currently used for picture taking would be free for other cares and concerns. Awareness of self-image (social status or reputation yes, but visual likeness less so) would be less prominent than today. And visual literacy (knowing how to make pictures and use them, judging quality of one image over another) would be less well developed than among people living now, too. All in all the world without cameras would both be richer and poorer; richer for the importance of verbal arts, but poorer for the absence of vast visual detail. Perhaps this contrast in society with versus without cameras is something like a story told in print versus told on the silver screen.

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Surplus capacity – of gear; of eye; of mind

photo of wine glass with water

half-filled or half-empty, space is available in any case

For some people the first thought when hearing the word “surplus capacity” is Karl Marx and his insight into capitalism uses for labor and machinery to squeeze the fullest use from all inputs so that final cost is minimized and everything captured beyond that will be taken in profits. Others think of the flash of genius in the airlines when they realized that routes and schedules are flown by each company no matter how many seats go unsold. They came up with “rewards points” to that loyalty program flyers could claim seats, if they were otherwise going to be unused. The airlines also developed “code sharing” so that one company would carry the ticket holders of another company, thus filling almost all seats. Now this same way of seeing the world in terms of under-utilized capacities can also apply to sophisticated consumer or professional photography equipment.

Looking at the owner’s manual there are myriad features and special settings that can be used in particular situations, such as the “snow or bright beach background” in which the automatic exposure control usually errs in reducing the light reaching the film or sensor to achieve an average exposure for the entire scene, while frequently producing very dark images of people’s face. By using that special setting, the camera is forced to increase the exposure by 1 or 1.5 f-stops from the normal automatic exposure setting. Experimenters or creative photographers could also use the setting in ways unintended originally and try picture-taking in contrasty night locations, at indoor venues, or even for ordinary day-light subjects to create a deliberate aberration.

For most people, though, the owner’s manual gives too much information. So they learn enough to begin and then only return to the manual as needed. As a result, there will be many tools, filters, effects, procedures, and possibilities that never are explored or perhaps never are known about. These unused or under-used capabilities of a camera can be seen as “surplus capacity.” Equally of one’s eye for detail, for light, and for composition, there is a kind of surplus capacity; or a seldom used way of seeing things. For a person who responds to shadow, those instances will drawn one’s eye. For a person who responds to bold composition of lines and light and texture, perhaps an uncluttered and contrasty scene will spark interest and attention. For a person who is more journalistic or sociologically inclined, the moment’s significance will be defined along those lines instead of the visual composition itself.

Finally, moving from capitalism’s way of operating to camera gear to awareness of photo opportunities, there is still another application of this idea. Beyond the under-used power of one’s eyes and awareness, there is also a kind of surplus capacity that pertains to one’s mind and waking hours. That is to say, while a mind and one’s day to day thoughts could be filled with just about anything from the frivolous to what may be life-changing, usually the routines from waking until falling asleep will shape the pathways that one’s mind takes. Preoccupations and worries and hopes might take up one part of one’s attention and energy to care. Routine tasks might take up another part of one’s attention. Occasionally an epiphany or novel experience might cause some new responses. Or an external jolt from personal or spectated risk-taking could stir new feelings. And a few people may feed an active or over-active imagination, as well. But surely the fullest range of uses for one’s mind is seldom exercised. In sum, there is much surplus capacity in the world; not only when a camera is at hand, but even when no photography is involved.

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Four sources that frame meaning

Significance, importance, or value of a moment comes from several possible sources. (click image for full-size view)

What may be said of spotting a photo opportunity, composing, capturing and conveying the picture also may be said of life in general; what one sees without the aid of a camera. There may be many more reasons that a snapshot is regarded as important in its own time, or when researchers find it long after the time of its making. But these four initially come to mind. One source of significance comes from status of the subject; it may be a thing that is seldom seen by most viewers. Value in a photo may come from gaining privileged access to a rare sight, or perhaps not a rare sight but yet of a subject seldom recorded. It may be time-sensitive and lose value by the next hour or the next day. Or it may hold enduring interest and significance, no matter how much time separates the shutter release and the publication or circulation of the image to viewers. In other cases the importance of the image comes mainly from being technically perfect in composing and capturing a subject, whether or not the subject has ordinary or extraordinary significance. Then there are photographs that gain value for the artful play of ideas or subjects that the photographer expresses – the sheer showmanship of the maker that makes even a dull subject curious or even interesting by use of unusual light source, angle of view, or choice of lens and shutter speed, for example.

Each of these ways can add significance to an image, sometimes compounded when more than one of these reasons intersect at the moment of capture. Rare view: No matter how poorly photographed, the fact that the image gives viewers access to something seldom seen will make the image valued. Timeliness or the timing of the shutter release can give dramatic effect to a subject (breaking news on the one hand, or else the Decisive Moment celebrated by Cartier-Bresson beginning in the 1940s and 50s). Pictures that are technically well executed attract admiration, too. No matter what the subject is and its timeliness, a well-made photography can be looked at as a source of delight. Lastly there are photographs that in concept or composition can make a subject that is ordinary or out of the ordinary seem equally intriguing to the eye of viewers on the basis of artful composition or imaginative artifice. In this case it is the genius of the photographer that catches the eye of viewers, apart from the interest in subject or its composition more generally.

In each case, these external factors take a subject that is embedded in its place and time and apply a compositional frame or contingent context that adds to the viewer’s experience of the picture as having special significance or particular value that goes beyond the innate qualities of the thing being recorded. Analytically separating out the meaning of a photo that comes from the subject itself from the meaning that is added by the manner of capturing and presenting the finished image is worthwhile. Doing so can help the viewer and the photographer to become aware of how much of the finished result lies in the presentation and how much resides in the subject, no matter who is photographing it. Even without a camera, these frames for adding meaning to the things appearing to one’s eye can be at work.

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Goldilocks effect – neither surfaces, nor depths

The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears shows the protagonist sampling the chairs, porridge, and finally the beds of the Mama, Papa, and Baby bear. In each case, she finally finds the one that best suits her own situation; the one that is “just right.” Something similar can be said for how deeply one knows a place or a subject matter. At first the impressions are confined to the surface – shapes, textures, line, and colors.

a newcomer notices surfaces, shapes, and other artful abstract aspects of a subject

By contrast, a local resident or someone who knows many details of a place or a subject has a different vision of the scene, based on many layers of experience, memories, and the familiarity that comprises a long-lasting relationship there. This next photo illustrates the same view, but now lit by bright morning sun instead of the backlighting of dusk that strips the details away in the silhouetted picture, above.

an old-timer notices small changes rather than surface impressions of a subject

The Goldilocks Effect seems to apply to this spectrum of one’s experience and relationship of a place or a subject. Viewed in terms of surfaces and abstract, isolated parts of a living thing, a newcomer is most aware of static impressions rather than processual, dynamic significance of what is visible. At the opposite extreme, there is the perception of the longtime resident who is not particularly impressed by the surfaces that soon are taken for granted. Instead the local resident may be looking for risks or opportunities in the day to day small changes that come with the seasons or in the developments taking place in the familiar arena that the resident sees. In between these extremes –of surface and of depth– there is a middle (Goldilocks) position: a person who is aware of local resident’s interests, responsibilities, worries, and dreams can still see some of the abstract elements of beauty, too: the line, color, texture, and other compositional elements.

Looking side-by-side in the following collage at the contrasting views of the earlier photos hints at this Goldilocks perspective –neither looking abstractly at beautiful elements in abstraction, nor looking specifically at myriad daily details that comprise the place. Perhaps this middle standpoint offers the best of both worlds – familiarity, but not to the point of taking for granted the things expressing beauty and aesthetic pleasure AND abstract distance that is ignorant of the flood of detail so that the person can focus on the contours, lines, and juxtapositions that contribute to beauty.

the same spot, focused on detail (left) and outlines (right); early March 2019 [author]

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Why context matters – the wide view

photo subject plucked from its context, September 2018

Whether novelist, journalist, historian, or ethnographic observer making documentary records, the importance of putting a subject in its frame makes sense – not only what is physically adjacent, but also what comes before and after in chronology, and also relationally – what the main subject is connected to closely and more distantly.

panorama grayed except for one piece of the scene
central focus, ignoring immediate context (click for full-size view)

Failing to include surrounding conditions in the picture that is conjured or captured not only excludes rich detail, but also the meanings that touch on the subject being featured or spotlighted will be out of sight. Looking again at the same scene taken in wider view reveals a lot more of the day and the moment of shutter release.

September 2018 pow-wow at Riverside Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan


One of the magical things about using software to stitch 2 or 3 frames together is seeing the composite being generated; reminiscent of darkroom experiences watching the image appear on the photo paper emulsion. But the main source of amazement is the finished scene. It is a similar visual experience to the almost 180 degree field of view that a person with two eyes is familiar with. See this handful of slides to illustrate this similarity in more detail, A main subject fits naturally into its surrounding context of shape, color, meaning, and relationship. And so, while there are lots of appealing subjects that can be fragmented from the larger scene, only the wide views can give a full visual feast. By extension from the world of lens, composition, and exposure to the world of social and cultural interaction in one’s lifetime, perhaps the same thing is true; that the wide perspective helps to show the significance of a subject being considered.

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Poaching pictures, plucked from places

A photowalk with a wide-angle lens lends itself to compositions that feature a main subject in its surroundings, rather than isolating the subject or a small fragment of a larger scene. On the other hand, going about with a telephoto lens, whether moderate or superzoom, lends itself to sniping of far-away subjects, or framing small pieces of a larger whole, abstracting the lines or shapes of just one bit of something bigger.

This photo shows the way that a small detail from a larger scene can be isolated for aesthetic interest, teaching purposes, or visual delight.

cropped view of cactus scene to show a small fragment of the whole

cactus close-up in bloom at Meijer Gardens 1/2019

The next photo shows the wider scene of the cactus plantings from which the flowering detail was plucked and placed in a frame of its own, disconnected from the larger relationships and surrounding context in which the subject lives.

view of new red spines and yellow flowers on greenhouse cactuses
wider cactus scene in bloom at Meijer Gardens 1/2019

Using this insight about close-detail versus wider frame to portray a subject, something similar can be said about social experiences and learning the cultural literacy needed to read the surrounding stream of human life at work, home, or in public places and events. The long-view of a telephoto lens can simplify surrounding distractions, compress the sense of space that separates things in daily experience, and focus the person’s attention on details in a myopic or aesthetic way – perhaps causing delight or thrill, but also ignoring the larger setting and significance of the subject that sustains it where it can be found out in the world of lived experience. In other words, there are times where a telephoto view of the world is a great help in showing things that might be unknown or underappreciated. But this perspective also leaves out much that is vital to know about a subject and its setting.

In summary, the many lenses to look at one’s world have different uses. But in the end, knowing the subject together with its context is what matters most for decision making, engaging, and governing a subject and all the other subjects that may depend on it subsequently. No matter what results come from the other focal lengths, in the end it is the wide-angle lens that should be used as fundamental frame for a subject.