see2think

thinking with pictures


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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Watching an out of date, out of fashion movie or recorded broadcast source may at first give one a smug feeling of being modern and not tied to the old fashioned ways; a feeling of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


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Vision and memory as a still images, not moving images

Credit, sampling of pages taken from Battle for Korea : A History of the Korean Conflict by Robert J. Dvorchak

In looking at a friend’s portrait photo or a stranger from a news event, we take in the details and the overall image to create a moment of recognition or memory place to attach other information and images in a cumulative, longitudinal process. In other words, much as the visual experience of moving images is created by recording 24 or 48 frames per second (the cinematic flowing feeling) or at 30 f.p.s. ( the TV broadcast rate in USA and other NTSC countries; 25 fps in countries with the PAL or SECAM video standard). At its root are still images, but by skipping from frame to frame the experience of motion is effected. The analogy to the eye movements on a page of text (but not on an electronic screen of text, where scanning motion is more pronounced) comes to mind; that is, one’s eye jumps from point to point, gulping whole chunks of text at a time – not letters, syllables or words, but entire phrases or possibly paragraphs. Due to this episodic series of static points adding up to a complete image, something perceptual happens to one’s sense of time; namely, we view individual still frames in the “continuous present,” much like the author’s voice in some classic ethnographic accounts of faraway societies in which “the xyz tribe hunts in December, migrates to winter grounds in January, and does not return to their encampments until the following April,” for example. Readers are left to imagine this description as being true and ongoing from the time of the fieldnotes to the moment of publication to the day that the reader opened the pages to read, and yet the whole span may be a generation, a century or even longer between initial observation and the present reading experience. Just so of still photos, the “continuous present” seems to be in effect, whether sepia toned image of the 1800s, a Korean War battlefield scene at front lines or in rear areas, or snapshots from one’s office party last week. Viewers a left with the impression that these individual compositions are eternally acccurate then and now. Furthermore, by viewing a series of the images, as in a photo essay or abundantly illustrated text like the example included here from Dvorchak’s story of the Korean War (at least the United States segment of the allied forces), then viewers tend to compile the multiple frames into a larger whole, something like the Frames Per Second that go into moving pictures that play back the frames to give the impression of “live” conditions captured and relived in the viewers’ minds. In summary, both the appearance of an ongoing, “continuous present” (or fraction of a second, frozen in time) and the appearance of moving pictures caused by playing back the group of discrete still images are distortions of some bigger perceptual reality in which the frozen moment was followed by some other moment that was not photographed; and another after that, on and on up to the present such that the reader who opens a book of images is seeing not a current visual likeness, but one in which a series of events lead up to the moment of shutter release, and a series of events followed the moment of shutter release. Stating this flow of time seems obvious, and yet how easily the viewers’ minds are tricked into the feeling of a continuous present, unchanged from shutter release. Only when confronting the source location and then looking at the image captured at that place sometime in the past will one sharply see the lie “frozen in time.” Armed with that knowledge, one can go forward engaging in recent or very old photographs and fill in some of the events that connect moment of capture to today. This same confrontation happens outside of photographic perception, too, as when revisiting a childhood memory location later in life and matching memory to today’s impression; events may have altered the physical fabric of the place, or even if physically unchanged, then one’s life experience of the intervening years is bound to change the significance and scale of things there. So next time you flip through a photobook or even the visual representations captured in the years before photography emerged, treat the image with this added caution – that the likenesses frozen by the shutter are part of a wider, living, and persisting stream of events that are not bounded by lens frame, f-stop, or angle of view. Treat the subjects that are portrayed as living, fluid things for which a still image is only a fragment of the larger subject.


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Hungry to see through… how much to satisfy the appetite?

House demolished, south of central Echizen-city, Japan - memories lost

House demolished, south of central Echizen-city, Japan – memories lost

Early to bed, early to rise makes it easy to go for a morning walk when things are quiet and the light grows strong enough to perceive colors. Generally there are two sorts of scenes can catch my eye and call out for a panorama, photo, or video snapshot (holding still with usually few moving subjects or sound). Certain qualities of light (mild or strong, clear or suffused by dust or mist or haze) and the shadow that is half-filled by light from indirect reflection of sky or nearby structure is one kind of scene that attracts my attention. The other one seems to be things that demonstrate something about social life here, or changes to past ways of living and making livelihoods – abandoned worksites, dwellings, public spaces in disrepair when certain recreational pursuits go out of practice or fashion (jogging and gateball grounds seem to be going away but ‘walking’ in the fitness sense is gaining ground, at least among those age 50 and above who have the time, or who make the time to do so). A detective, an archaeologist, and forensic specialist all can read the scene while most others are functionally illiterate. They can view a situation and interpolate, extrapolate, and extend the time frame of clues to come up with a picture or movie that most untrained eyes miss. The same is true of a farmer’s eyes when reading a field, an architect when reading a ruin or a blue print, a pianist when looking a written music or hearing it performed. For the person with a camera though, the subjects of light and subject matter itself are what speak with the loudest voice. Light is a subject of universal interest and source of beauty, but social observations are specific to a place and time. A trained social observer can see through the surfaces and read a more complete story in the scene. Extrapolating to a few more weeks or even decades of morning walks with camera in hand, the question arises, “how much (seeing) is enough”? Or “when will you have captured all there is to say on the matter”?

It is true that walking around with a lens in one’s hand or camera-phone in one’s pocket can lead to a preoccupation with composition, patterns and textures, visual rhythms and quality of light that shifts with the sun’s progress across the sky and then the motion of moon or artificial source(s) of light at other times. But the ability to point and shoo

t social observations, too, as an aide-de-memoir or writing prompt is a great tool for opening up subjects that otherwise might pass unnoticed and without remark. But after a dozen or a hundred of these visual records, (1) what is the result? (2) What do we see or know different to before? (3) What of significance comes from it? (4) And how much is enough to accomplish the goal of figuring out what it is that the eye encounters (when enough dots are in place, the overall shape can be seen without the need to complete the picture with all data points in place).

1) Result of accumulated social observations (visual or written notes).
Many things happen after capturing, annotating and sharing sets of visual observations. For the person making the pictures there is a learning curve whereby observations are sharpened, a taste for such matters grows, interest in other’s similar work gets stronger, and the ability develops to verbally express what the image points to. In other words, for the person with the eye and the lens, thinking is enriched and vision begins to reach beyond the surface (or maybe this is a function of middle-age, equally distant from one’s birth and one’s death). As a result, whether imagined or real, there is an increasing awareness and sensitivity to what one witnesses in the many social contexts public, commercial, or private, such that some of the underlying intentions, ideals, and tensions are perceptible; that is, what was invisible before can now be accommodated in one’s glimpse of a place or person, taking into account the moment, but also what came before and what likely will come after the frozen moment – one’s angle of view (to use a lens analogy) is both wider and longer to see not just the minute or the calendar day, but also the generational changes and continuities. Even the lives of the plants and animals enter into the frame of view when gazing at a social setting.

So the eye (sensitivity to light and meaning), the hand (lens work), and the heart (aware of lives outside one’s own; even of one’s own species and one’s own culture/language) all amplify their earlier range of powers as a result of feasting on social observations and capturing them with camera. To a lesser degree these same results echo in people who view, read, watch the body of visual materials coming from the one making these pictures.

2) What we can see different to before amassing images. Before undertaking sustained effort at recording those places and moments that speak loud enough to attract one’s lens, the landscape of meanings and materials is mute, or means something just instrumentally. The subject matter is only important to those who work there daily, or live nearby or who built and maintain an organization or structure; to all others who are passing by, the location or activity is no more than background to their own purposeful patterns of life course, life stages, and arc of life story with self as main character. But by framing the picture and then commenting on it, the subject gains definition, presence, and meaning for people other than those directly (instrumentally, functionally) concerned. In other words, the act of describing and engaging others who have no interaction normally builds a bridge to introduce the subject into their own worlds of meaning. And even among those who daily interact with the subject, the location, the structures, a certain routinization leads to blindness or taken-for-granted feeling for the thing. But now by re-seeing (literal roots of the word ‘respect’ is re+spectating; or seeing with new eyes, seeing for a 2nd time) the familiar subject from an outsider’s point of view, the thing is put into a new frame or a new light. In conclusion, what is revealed was always there, hiding in plain sight. But by going through the exercise of the visual project the outlines of meaning are traced in bold line and stand out to reveal: (a) the passage of time (the present closely ties to what came before and what will follow), and (b) the connections between those directly engaged and knowledgeable of the place or subject and those who have regarded the thing as mere background and cut off from their own concerns.

3) What of significance comes from the project. For the picture maker and for those who appreciate the results, the surrounding settings and moment in time becomes richer, more resonant with meaning, and more relevant to one’s own place in the passing seasons and lives. And in the event that one of these viewers or picture makers occupies a position of decision making (public arena for discussion, or seat of authority), then perhaps this wider angle of view on the world will lead to actions, budgets, enforcement, and public campaigns that will encourage others to take the wide view; something like the “7 generations” philosophy among some Native American peoples: in addition to the concerns of those living at present, take into account the wishes and accumulated wisdom of one’s parents, grandparents, the other generation before them; but also into the future, take into account the impact on one’s children, grandchildren, and the ones that follow them. A person’s life experience and scope of direct memory can only apprehend that window of 150-200 years, but it is sufficient to spread the weight of a decision beyond one’s own hands. By gathering and verbalizing scores of social observations sparked by visual observations, then perhaps something of this wider experience of one’s cultural landscape and social geography will gain prominence as part of one’s everyday appreciation of one’s place in the scheme of things during their own “3 score and 10 years” of lifetime.

4) How much is enough to outline the project’s subject of Social Observation.
The appetite for reacting to scenes that speak to one’s sense of social significance varies according to the person holding the lens. One person may just make a handful of social observations, while another may go on for years, taking the same picture to express sentiments again and again that first appeared in their earlier work. And for the viewer, too, some will grasp the meaning after seeing a few pictures that intersect their own place or time. But others will never tire of seeing familiar things framed in an unfamiliar way; or to see things altogether novel and unfamiliar for the first time. Perhaps the point of saturation or satisfying that appetite and responding to that hunger comes when the general trajectory of the project emerges; when one can see where the effort is leading and can articulated that sentiment. After that point, not every potential picture needs to be actually captured. Instead, it is enough to compose the image in one’s mind’s eye, then give a nod or a wink as the moment passes, and to feel satisfied with the idea of capturing that observation, without actually going through the motions. Of course, when there is no longer any physical trace of the a-ha moment, then the possibility of communicating the insight to others is lost. So maybe the most productive and valuable circumstance comes after one’s eye has begun to respond, one’s lens is well practiced and one’s heart is interested. That middle ground –no longer naive or unresponsive, but not yet fully understanding where the exercise will develop into– is maybe when most of the pictures and commentary are made. But while the light and the social settings of built-landscape or seasonal events speak to one’s eye, then let the picture making continue!


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You are what you carry – size matters

Attending a young friend’s funeral, I offered to snap some overall scenes for the mother to keep with her memories. I chose my shirt-pocket-sized Canon s110 rather than an APS-C camera, both for the silent shutter release and for the palm-size form factor. Others have written of the (intended or unintended) consequences of carrying a professional-looking kit: others label you, impose expectations, fears, assumptions, and so on. But a (high-end or simple Point-and-Shoot) small camera raises few eyebrows. And in the age of selfies (and over sharing) to rely on a phone’s camera of your own, or one you borrow, even fewer people may notice or feel intrusion, obstruction, imposition of the lens onto the event.
So while lens surely shapes the compositions that one forms in mind and perhaps executes, the camera’s form factor (space it occupies, weight, name brand -if not blackened out, and recording technology -wet plate vs. dry vs. roll film small, medium, or large vs. digital) may be equally important in affecting one’s visual horizons; if not the actual creation of a photographic result, then in determining one’s engagement with the social environment, cultural landscape, and physical conditions where one is shooting. Consider how streamlined one can move through an event with a small point-and-shoot camera vs. Polaroid instant color camera vs. something mounted on tripod that involved film holders and chemical post-processing.

camera choice alters what seems worthy to shoot

camera choice alters what seems worthy to shoot

There are circumstances that call for one camera instead of another; or indeed of carrying a few different photographic recording devices simultaneously. The image of a worker’s toolbox comes to mind: with just a hammer, all jobs look like opportunities for pounding. But with a full set of tools, the available responses for solving a problem or overcoming a challenge is much wider, carefully considered, and artfully produced in the end. Supposing that “you are what you carry,” the question to ask of yourself is: who are you? Do you traverse the visual landscape in a vehicle that is massive, micro, stylish, or non-descript? Perhaps all of them will carry you across the ground you wish to cover, but some can also go places the others cannot because they are too light-weight, or the contrary, they are too heavy for the surface.


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Reading the land, reading the people

“It is only with the heart that one can truly see, for what is essential is invisible to the eye.” -Fox to the Little Prince, 1943, Antoine St. Exupery

Early morning, springtime – flag at local cafe in downtown St. Johns, Michigan USA

It can be eye-opening to accompany an outdoors expert and find out how the person reads the visible landscape (signs of life, tracks, plants now in bloom, fruits soon to attract certain creatures, and so on), as well as the invisible landscape (what recently took place, or soon will do so). Possibly a shaman would also read another layer of invisibility on the landscape, one filled with meanings, dangers, and opportunities. And a person attuned to historical events and contexts could declare certain places to be a “lieu de memoire” (memory place – national, local, or personal).

By training one can learn to see better. By practicing once can establish a discipline of seeing well. One can then go forward with renewed vision for what one encounters and regards to be significant, including the ability to recognize a composition to capture with lens and camera.

Gaining visual power to sense, distinguish (resolving power; granularity of detail), and to increase the depth of vision (from near, middle, to background), and the angle of view (degrees of width and height within one’s mind) in one arena also may translate to habits of mind, heart, and voice for the other arenas, too. In other words, a person well able to read a landscape across time, almost like a crime scene filled with clues but now extending many seasons or even generations of engagement from the livelihood activities or recreational purposes on the terrain, perhaps the same person will also be adept at learning to read people’s life trajectory or even their state of preoccupation at the moment of observation. After all seeing what presents itself is much more than processing patterns and relationships on one’s retina. It is the habit of interpreting the significance of what is present or what is absent, and connecting the new visual information to one’s store of experiences. Only with the heart can one see was is essential about a person, place, or thing. Developing one’s powers of observation, knowledge base, and experiential pool of interactions with people and places is what separates sensory sight from big or deep vision.


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Giving up illusions, giving up meanings

Scouring the rooms and spaces before moving house.

Scouring the rooms and spaces before moving house.

Having a serious financial or health crisis leads to new frame of reference for navigating daily decisions and life events. The relative importance of things like time, fame, possessions then scales back in the light of one’s experiences of mortality (self or other) or imminent demise being averted. Likewise the social death or brush with mortality that comes with leaving one’s home and all the routines, familiar services, and the layers of memories gives a new frame of reference, particularly when the move involves downsizing the accumulated documents, possessions, and half-done projects. This photo is the week running up to the annual curbside bulk removal of all except building supplies (or demolition waste), hazardous materials, and recyclables suitable for the weekly trash service.

Long after growing up and moving away, with children of one’s own, there comes a time when one’s own parents stop archiving the traces of one’s growing up years and rather than discarding things like these bedtime pals of long ago, the leave the disposal moment in the hands of the child who now has become parent. But with sufficient storage areas, such things get set out of the way until moving day approaches and a strict selection process of what to keep and what to dispose of begins.

Seeing one’s own memorabilia left on the road edge for the trash men to haul away to landfills is sobering and is reminiscent of the observation about a yard sale or an estate sale in which once cherished things become so much debris for those picking through in search of something salable, strange, or amusing. Sobering reminders of one’s limited time on life’s stage help to make the days one has taste that much sweeter as a result. Even a slow walk through cemeteries of the world, ancient or modern, can give a hint of this way of seeing the world, a view that breaks through the dominant illusion of consumer (advertised) wants and needs.

The oppression of consumer lifeways (I buy therefore I am; I consume therefore I exist – more is better; just discard what is unwanted and buy more) and what Thorstein Veblen called Conspicuous Consumption is not limited to industrial scale, mass production, distribution and consumption. The N.W. native peoples of N. America were noted for competitive giving away gifts to feasted guests in the Potlatch. And the extremity of spectacles of Imperial Rome or extravagances in royal courts all across known history also excite the imagination. More recently the film, Affluenza (portmanteau word for Affluence + Influenza) illustrated the glut of material excess. A little before the film came archaeologists, whose trade is the material traces of past (and present – see William Rathje, et alia, The Garbage Project), writing Use Less Stuff.