see2think

thinking with pictures


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Omniscient lens? Your glass as your brain and heart (mind).

panorama, 2018 Grand Rapids, Michigan Pow Wow (click for full size)

Doubtless the love of well-made gear, the aesthetic of “form follows function” (functionalism), and the visual delight in capturing a moment in time against the flow of unrelenting change all feed into the Joy of Photography. Before images could be fixed onto sensitized paper, and later glass or film negatives, and then positives, one could only sketch impressionistically, and for some hands, the likeness could be almost photographic in precision and detail. But thinking at greater length, why does it give a person the sense of power and competence when pointing a lens toward a subject or scene that presents itself and clicking the shutter release?

 

Clues from (English) language give some ideas about the connection between camera and feelings of power (omnipotence) or knowledge (omniscience) in one’s hands: expressions like “I see (what you mean),” “the significance is crystal clear” (or muddy), “let’s focus on what matters,” “our insight tells us,” “can you picture this,” “we envision that,” “do they foresee complications,” “in hindsight we now know,” and “out of sight – out of mind.” In these phrases the act of visual processing and mental recognition or evaluation are joined together. And since a lens is a way to magnify (telephoto lens) or expand the field of view (wide-angle lens), and since a camera is a way to document a subject or a context, it only seems natural that this same experience of “seeing is knowing” should be applied to picture taking, whether by Point-and-Shoot cellphone camera or with tripod-mounted heavy equipment. In other words, a camera fits directly into the equation that seeing is believing, pictures never lie, and photographic memory is a blessing  and a curse.

 

In all these instances it is the lens that touches one’s mind’s eye, one’s awareness, one’s caring about a subject. And while English language uses one word for emotional response (‘in my heart’) and a different word for analytical response (‘in my mind’), a language like Japanese uses just one word to refer to one’s waking self that combines heart-mind (‘kokoro’). Seen from another angle, the English language combines knowing  a subject by personal experience (“I know that place well”) with knowing a subject descriptively by a set of facts (“I know the answer to this arithmetic problem”), but languages like Spanish or French use separate verbs to mean ‘know a fact’ versus ‘know a subject by personal connection or through one’s own experience’.

 

So to return to the question about reasons why shooting pictures can fill a person with feelings of power, potential, control (complexity is frozen in place, can be measured or studied), it seems that the psychological equation of “to see it is to know it” leads directly to the derivative logic, “to record what you see is to know it even better.” But, of course, photographers who have revisited earlier places or earlier images they have recorded will admit that many meanings have escaped their younger mind and their lens. In summary, fancy or simple gear may induce feelings of competence and documentary clarity, but the true and complete meaning only comes with interpretation and what is brought to the visual record.

 

The lens is just one step in producing knowledge for self and for others of this time and future generations, too. And as other photographers have said, taking pictures is a way to seek answers to what is on one’s own mind. In some instances it concerns what is behind the lens as much as it does what fills the composition in front of the lens.

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Snapshot statement vs. Photo paragraph

flickr2018sep19explore

Most people make a single statement with single emphasis; others invite the eye to wander across the field of view [credit: flickr.com/explore for 19 September 2018, screenshot sampling]

In the beginning a person with a camera is drawn to single subjects in isolation from the context of meaning, status, space or time. It is the thing itself that they wish to capture as a frozen moment – unchanging for eternity. As one gains technical skills at controlling the composition and exposure with increasingly sophisticated gear and post-processing tools, the production values improve and the thing in and of itself attracts attention. It gives visual pleasure for the rich quality that is faithfully communicated, or even improved more than the visual experience of the original subject in its actual setting, as light quality is enhanced, color is given added or decreased saturation, distractions are minimized, and so on. The art of timing and standpoint may develop, too, culminating in the wonder of and the appreciation for Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.

But after seeing and composing enough single-subject photos, some people become interested in the contrasts, juxtaposition, or interplay of surrounding ideas, symbols, or other subjects nearby or ones suggested by their absence. These photos are analogous to paragraphs or even short stories, compared to the single declarative sentence or question that is expressed by a snapshot that attracts the viewer’s eye only momentarily. Instead, these wider or more complicated scenes invite lingering looks all around the frame, traveling from background to middle and foreground and then in return. Perhaps the eye follows the lines of composition, figures placed in each field of the frame, or the play of texture and light/shadow. Whatever it may be, these photographic tableaux seem to be full of meanings, interpretations, or settings for what is about to take place (or the scene of something that is now underway; or what has happened at the scene).

Once one’s taste for photographic scenes goes beyond a single statement, exclamation point, or question mark, then it becomes easier to spot compositions of this kind. Likewise, it becomes easier to notice, compose, capture, and convey scenes like this to others. But how far along this path could a photo go: beyond the single phrase and then an extended paragraph, could a photo all by itself, without the support of caption or indeed with no accompanying written context, be able to convey several paragraphs of meaning, or even present an entire (dramatic) story from the setting and cast of characters, to the complicating factors or antagonists in view (or suggested), to the resolution? That is an open question; one worth consideration and worth trying to photograph, too. Norman Rockwell‘s visual representations succeeded this way, again and again.


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handy tools – life before cameras

photo showing knife in left hand, smartphone camera in right hand

ubiquitous cameras affect the ways we move through life as a series of framed, captured moments

Setting off to buy a few groceries on a glorious cool morning filled with bright light, my eye scanned all the attractive subjects that might be worth photographing (or making a video snapshot, if audio or isolated bit of motion were just so). For some reason, I stopped my daydream and wondered how different the sunlit scenes would appear to a person living at a time or place where no cameras were known, or at least were rare and unfamiliar in one’s ordinary routines of daily experience. Since cell phones bring recording of still and moving images, as well as sound capture into the hands of so many people, it is hard to appreciate the absence of visual representations available by the simple motion of nothing more than to point and shoot.

As a child I grew up with film cameras: first was the family’s slightly bulky flashbulb point-and-shoot device using a roll of 120 or 620 film. Then came the Kodak Instamatic for color snapshots of the late 1960s and middle 1970s before moving to the even more compact form factor of the “Pocket Instamatic” 110 cartridges of film (13x17mm negatives) that were so cheap that we children got our very own camera and could appear on the other side of the lens. In those days, picture taking was fairly informal, encouraged by the consumer advertising that showed happy people snapping away with abandon. But with film sold in 12 exposures and later 20 exposures (28×28 mm negatives), each shutter release brought you nearer to the end. So shots tended to be used somewhat sparingly, with many of the shots commemorative (family events or vacations and photo spots with signage to direct tourists to fixed compositions).

Later in high school and the chance to join the photo-club with reusable 35mm cassettes of black and white film bringing the cost down to a few pennies per shot, plus the price of darkroom chemicals and paper, I began to shoot more and more pictures and carried a camera to places and subjects that might not have seemed typical when using the old consumer, point-and-shoot gear. But even with the capacity to shoot rolls loaded with 36 exposures, since there was a price in money and chemicals and DIY effort involved, the act of recognizing an interesting subject, lighting, or angle would involve some consciousness of expense. In other words the picture-taking experience was not frictionless because there were (for a teenager of limited means, at least) costs involved every time a picture was framed, the focus double-checked, and any adjustments to the light meter’s suggested exposure were figured into the shutter release.

What remained the same in those earliest moments of parents allowing me to take a picture with the family camera, and later with me taking my own shots with my own enthusiast equipment, was the sense of clear boundaries and intention about setting forth to “take pictures.” In other words, some deliberateness and possibly preparation was needed before packing a camera and rolls of film, and then seeking out a specific subject; or in a photo walk, waiting for spontaneous subjects to present themselves. By contrast, the presence of a good cell phone camera within one’s reach most anywhere and anytime in which price per exposure is practically no-cost means that people have gotten used to snapping pictures for many purposes other than recording a family event or special trip. Now it is common to use a camera to remember parking location, product information, insurance claim or inventory, special food or drink, maps and other helpful signage, and so on.

The visual anthropologist Richard Chalfin has studied family photo albums in the time before digital photography, both in USA and in Japan, among other places. In his book, Snapshot Versions of Life, he says that pictures express who belongs in or out of a group; it is a kind of boundary of inclusion or exclusion. As such the lens we use to capture subjects of significance, value, or memory will reflect who we are; who we wish to see ourselves as, or what we hope to be true or one day to become true. With the lack of friction or cost of cell phone snapshots, the selfie is perhaps an extreme extension of Chalfen’s observations of the sociological frame that the photographic frame expresses. With self posed near famous site, person, or occasion, the resulting photo says “I was here” and “this who I am” and by process of association, I claim some of the halo effect that glows from this precious place, person, or thing.

So the long history of photography seems to culminate at this moment with a flowering of self-representation, self-examination, and self-referential meaning; looking inward rather than seeking to engage and understand the surrounding landscape of cultures, risks and opportunities, or the Big Questions of life that the humanities is filled with. But is it possible to travel backward along the sequence of developments: from digital cameras on so many portable devices, to the consumer film cartridges of 12 exposures color and before that black and white, to the large-capacity Kodak “Brownie Box” camera of the 1900s – 1940s, back to the advent of portable 35 mm photojournalism with the original Leica, and before that the 4″x5″ film plates of the news photographers in the early years of the 1900s, and before that the clunkier glass plates of studio and field cameras like those of Matthew Brady and the others traveling out west and around the battlefields of the U.S. Civil War. Going back into the 1840s and earlier is the realm of experimenters of the Daguerreotype. Before a scene could be focused onto a chemically treated metal plate and fixed with permanence by chemical treatment, there was the camera obscura that painters and sketch makers and map makers could use: the lens could focus on the ground glass at the rear, and under the shielding darkness of a cloak, the artists could trace the lines of a composition with precision on paper and produce a final image that is almost photographic in detail and perspective, thanks to the precision lens. Each of these moments in camera history affected the kinds of subjects that were worth recording, sharing, or publishing for sale.

In the beginning it was very costly to make a picture and only very high value incidents would be memorialized and displayed or sold. Most people in the industrialized societies seldom saw a photographer or appeared in the frame until the 1920s or later, when low cost Box Cameras like the Kodak Brownie (spools of 127 film, slightly smaller than the 120 rolls) and the associated system of film processing and photo printing facilities were running. Around this time and in the generation before there were subscription services to deliver a few stereoscopic postcards of world events or famous places to homes to enjoy with their very own stereoscopic viewer frame. But the act of making one’s one decision about what is worth capturing and then going about the composition and pressing the shutter only came with the cheap and increasingly common point and shoot cameras. Even then, however, it would not be a casual affair to tote the box camera around in search of subjects. Instead it would be a wedding, funeral, family reunion, or some other part of the life cycle that would be recorded. The rest of one’s waking consciousness and daily routines would be less about documentary considerations of representing one’s day or lifetime, but instead would be focused on fulfilling obligations, watching for liabilities to avoid or opportunities to seize. In other words, in the time before ubiquitous cameras to record self or others, the way to view the world was in terms of instrumental goals: things to accomplish, respect to gain, criticism to avoid, expectations to fulfill, dreams to launch, and so on.

One’s eye took in the surroundings differently to today’s lens-preoccupied thinking. Life was not a series of photo opportunities, but was a big and wonderful adventure that one was immersed in; a player on the field, rather than a spectator on the sidelines. As such, a person in the time before cameras would set off in the morning with money in pocket, hat to protect from the elements and signal one’s style, and perhaps a pocket knife, pocket watch and gold chain, pad and paper, make-up mirror, or some other handy tool that was useful in the day to day events in one’s life.

Back in 1984 a relative of mine traveled abroad to visit my location and the people I had gotten to know there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime voyage and yet I was puzzled by his lack of camera. During his military service in the 1950s he had obtained on tiny Minox spy camera, not much bigger than a pocket lighter. So he must have once had some photography interest or knowledge. When asked about the lack of camera now, he answered that carrying a camera tended to blinker his vision to see and seek subjects that conformed with ideas of what would make “a good picture.” There is not too much harm from picture taking; indeed, many people discover that their powers of (detail) observation sharpen when carrying camera or binoculars. They tend to use whatever tool is at hand to engage the world. But he made the deliberate decision to experience the time and place with only a journal and pen.

Who can say: does formal, deliberate, ponderous (e.g. sheet film or tripod-dependent) camera shooting add value or add boundaries to one’s engagement in a place and time, and the relationships one forms as rapport builds and context deepens? Does less formal, simpler, point-and-shoot photography streamline the form factor so that many more occasions can be captured than by the slow shooting, above? And if camera work does indeed amplify the value to self and the ability to communicate those experiences to others, does it follow that better camera skill and a bigger scale of visual recording will also increase the communication power of the work? Taken all the way to the extreme, does ubiquitous camera use with the proliferation of cell phone shooting lead to saturation, so that life and the recording of life blur together such that the meaning of engaging a place and time is not about actively grappling with conditions on the ground (a player on the field), but instead consists of experiences of representing the conditions on the ground (a spectator on the sidelines).

I suspect that cameras that are rarely seen or experienced (1870), or ones that are ubiquitious (2018) act like a mirror. They are extremely useful and they are sources of fascination. They may produce additional narcissism and they may distract a person from active engagement in their social environment and physical ecosystem. On balance they seem to do more good than harm, but like most things that are good, they must still be used in moderation and with some degree of care; not used in ways that are thoughtless or mindless, but instead taken into one’s hand and brought to one’s eye deliberately. It is hard to appreciate truly the experience of a place or time in which all cameras are absent and only hand-drawn visual representation is possible. Simply locking one’s own gear in a drawer for a week or a year cannot remove the built-in habits of thinking and seeing accumulated from years of taking pictures.


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Camera vision as slice of time or river of time

Whether the subject is creatures residing in a zoo, or an event in one’s own community of work or family or the wider society, the effect is very similar: during the time you are present, you selectively perceive the things in front of you and to a lesser degree the things in your peripheral view. Some people develop a habit to turn deliberately to view what is behind their field of vision, or to peer behind those things that occupy the space in front of them. But after departing the scene, new subjects occupy one’s visual field and fill one’s head with fresh preoccupations, relegating the earlier scene to a status of “suspended animation,” seemingly frozen in time until one returns and the experience of engaging is renewed. In sum, by habit or by physiology we see what is in front of us, but all else we imagine to be frozen in time – something that matters, offers opportunity, presents risk, or carries responsibility during the time that we personally are present in vision and in body. Why does this matter? A bigger, more mature and multi-sided understanding requires effort to overcome that habitual and false perspective on one’s world.

source, https://www.flickr.com/photos/gpwitteveen/38291811532/

Sabae-city zoo – Lesser Panda [2017 by author, flickr.com/photos/gpwitteveen/38291811532]

Still photographs record the scene when the shutter is released to form an exposure of a fraction of a second normally. Video clips and “video snapshots” by contrast capture a few seconds of sound and image. But even here the playback experience tends to lead to the idea that the scene is forever unchanging; each time the moving picture plays, the same actions are repeated and the same sounds are expressed. So while video frees the subject from static representation, both still and video lead the viewer to think that the scene is frozen in space and time.

In this photo on a weekday afternoon, mostly middle-age and older people are looking with interest at the several resident Lesser Panda Bears, possibly for diverting 3-D movement and contrast to ordinary home or work scenes; or possibly to read the label text and improve one’s edification; or possibly as regular visitors who have something like a personal relationship to the individual creatures that spend the days and nights of their lives from youth to death in this place. But no matter what circumstances bring the visitors here on this day, and no matter what reason they may come, and no matter what they take away from the time spent indoors or peering at the outdoor enclosures, what is common to all of these people is their sense of time: while they are on site, then the lives of the resident bears are ongoing, unscripted, and filled with many possible activities. But after leaving all this behind, for some reason we set aside those dynamic lives and suspend them; putting them “on hold” until the next visit weeks or years later.

A truer understanding of the experience of visiting a place or person, a country or a company, is to resist the habit of putting “on hold” all the things falling outside one’s own, limited visual field and consciousness. Rather than to fill one’s mind with the subject at hand and in plain sight, but disregarding all else, it is worth training one’s mind (and one’s mind’s eye) to accept that all subjects – both in one’s sight and outside of one’s sight, intelligible to one’s own language and also those languages one does not know – are dynamic. All subjects can be protagonists in their own story, not limiting lived experience to placing oneself as the hero and all other living things and inanimate subjects as unmoving background elements to one’s own adventure story.

When looking at this zoo scene as a collection of protagonists, human and animal, going about their own lives, no matter if one’s eye falls upon the bears during visiting hours or not, then a richer experience comes to life: no longer is one’s personal vision all that narrowly matters. Instead, out in the world, there are diverse and conflicting, as well as supportive and serendipitous, intersections in the many lives of people on their own life course, animals with their own life stage purposes and individual expressiveness, and the rest of the living world of plants, insects, and all other life forms to complete the portrait of the world. Expanding on this multiplicity of subjects leading their own lives around the clock, not just when one’s own mind sees them in person, it is possible to rewind or fast-forward the flow of time and the rate of flow to comprehend these many lives not just in one slice of time like a single day or the fraction of time in a shutter release, but across generations or centuries.

Of course, going through one’s day in vision of this wide-angle perspective can be too much information when it comes to directing one’s own routines and decisions and making of plans. Pragmatically speaking, there is a reason why most waking consciousness restricts a person’s mind to just one protagonist, or with empathy perhaps more than one protagonist. But there are still benefits that come from confronting the limitations that result from disregarding all the other lives going on, and pretending they are frozen in time except for the moments one is present. By periodically stopping to acknowledge one’s incomplete view, and to develop a new habit of accepting the many lives that go on in parallel to one’s own, even when out of one’s sight, then one’s own life becomes richer; not confused by accepting multiple protagonists and diverse stories going on in real time, but instead seeing one’s own place and trajectory is just one among many; not the only one, and probably not the most important one all alone or disconnected from those other places and those other subjects that are not visible at all times to one’s own mind.

Seeing the world framed and captured through a camera lens makes some of this vision clearer than before. This is one more reason to keep some sort of camera within hand’s reach at all times!

 


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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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Light of limbo; time traveler

early evening photo of waterway and group of ducks

ducks at dusk near Funaoka shrine, Echizen-city, Fukui-ken, Japan (click image for full view)

Dusk is such a mysterious time The shadows and luminosity change perceptibly; and within just 45 minutes full daylight turns to semi-darkness. So one’s sense of time is challenged: no longer is there a feeling of ‘eternal present’ and the ordinariness of normality. Instead it becomes effortless to blur the boundary in one’s waking consciousness that usually so sharply separates present from past and future. This scene could easily be 2015 or 1950 or 1815, apart from the paved road and utility poles and wires.

Perhaps something similar happens in language learning. Once the fundamentals are mastered and one can interact with little effort in the new language, then a bit of blurring begins in the line that used to separate “us” and “them,” or “foreign” and “familiar.” It may become hard to remember whether a given conversation or source of  an idea was conducted in one’s first or second language as the two become more porous in one’s mind.

And again, from a different field for analogies, perhaps something similar happens in rising levels of proficiency and fluency in a sport, hobby, or other skill-based form of expression. As one picks up momentum, eventually the static parts begin to blend and produce a certain rhythm and pace which one can effortlessly transpose or move across and within. A dialog begins between oneself and the particular medium one is working in. In all these cases a similar blurring effect happens – blurring of chronological moment (orienting one’s place in the flow of time), blurring of self-perception in first and second languages, or the power of mastery that results in “flow” or effortless fluidity in the particular field of actions.