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

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When the focus is too sharp or too weak, illusion follows

photo of houseplant with leaves in focus and background blurred

A well-focused picture draws in the viewer

The history of lens grinding and mathematical design for engineered glass has led to ever sharper representations of a scene on the recording medium of the time, whether glass plates or electrically charged silicon sensors. And while amateurs, avid enthusiasts, and professionals seem to want ever sharper and even 3-dimensional photographs, it comes at a psychologial cost.

Because of the conflation of “see” with “know,” there is a feeling that the sharpest focus gives the best understanding of a subject. That may be true in documenting shades of reflected light, color tones, texture, and so on, but to interpret a subject in its surroundings, both its physical and its historical context, there are more important things than resolving power for a particular lens. Paradoxically, the pricier the lens and the higher the user’s expectation for sharp focus, the more likely it is for the photographer to be preoccupied with the subject’s surfaces that are expressed so crisply with the pricier lens. As a result of this sharp focus on the image itself, the larger meaning, purpose, or significance of the subject may be overlooked or obscured.

The opposite case, where focus is very poor, also leads to preoccupation with the image qualities rather than the subject being recorded. And so, it seems, the best photo for communicating a subject together with its context or wider meaning is a picture that is well focused, but not so sharp that the viewer becomes fascinated with the tangible, life-like quality of the thing.

After so many generations grown used to photographic illustrations, advertising, documenting and instructional guides, there are high expectations for text or audio to come with images, still or moving. In the current generation the scale of image making has mushroomed by the creation of digital pictures and the exchange wirelessly by phone and computer. And software manipulation of photos has become difficult to detect with one’s eye alone, unaided by forensic tools of digital scrutiny. But despite knowing of trickery, people today still seem to cling to the idea that “a photo never lies; it must be true, just as it appears on the surface.” So the old equivalency between “I see” and “I know” is stronger than ever.

As the focus becomes even sharper than before, perhaps the people of the future will only take that old equivalency and regard it impossible to think otherwise than the appearance of what one’s eyes seem to know. When that state of affairs comes to pass, then it will be time to recall what The Little Prince (Antoine de St. Exupery) learned in his story, that “only with the heart can one truly see.” In other words, the full meaning or significance of a subject is not found in the descriptive lines that capture its surface character, but rather between the lines where the true character resides. Thus there is a parallel between lenses that focus well, but not too well –on the one hand, and knowledge that is comprehensive with granular precision, but also leaves room for ways of knowing that are not restricted to surface characteristics: in both cases the excessive focus on external qualities paradoxically can produce an illusion of certainty of knowledge that will blind the person to possible deeper or wider significance.


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Limits on your best shot – will you hit a wall?

late afternoon box elder tree, December 19

Many subjects and moments cry out to be composed and captured in a fraction of a second to share, to document, for future reference, to commemorate, or for purely aesthetic delight. All along the learning curve, from first-timers with point-and-shoot device to grizzled old veterans of many cameras and compositions, people make an effort to consider their standpoint and the moment of shutter release. Sometimes the photographer is lucky and creates an image that is more than was expected, a happy coincidence of light, intersection of multiple moving subjects, and an exposure setting that faithfully represents the scene. Other times the conditions are very complicated and so only a photographer with deep and wide experience can translate onto the film or camera sensor what appears before the eyes or in the imagination. A person without sufficient technical mastery and experience of the translating process from live scene to captured composition is not able to make a picture in such cases.

Thinking of the very best possible result for a photograph –not its timeliness, dramatic emotional response, or the price that the marketplace will bear — what is the most that potentially can be photographed of a portrait or a landscape, for instance? The resulting image is a combination of a couple of factors: the person’s eye or imagination; that is, the recognition of a potential subject and composition to make. There is the artistic flair to arrange foreground, middle, and background effectively and to make a decision about angle of view (lens size) and depth of field (focus area). Finally, there is the technical mastery of the camera and the post-processing and factors in final presentation (in print settings versus on-screen or as part of sequence used in multi-media or visual essay).

For the sake of this thought experiment, suppose the photographer is blessed with the maximum powers capable in 2018 technology (gear and software), as well as artistic sense, and awareness to respond to subject matter potentially usable in composition: how well-made a photo can be expected from this extreme degree of masterfulness? Is the gold standard to compare the photo to the original scene; in other words, is verisimilitude the best that can be aspired to – a close match to the original subject in its setting? Or can the skill of a photographer go beyond the physical facts of the moment of shutter release and communicate to the viewer something above and beyond what is present in its raw, unmediated form?

Of course, when the goal is unmoored from sensory reality, then a person can be limited only by imagination when introducing post-processing artifacts and miracles of Photoshop inventions. Clearly the result is more than the sum of the raw materials in that case. But when something free of post-processing enhancement and amplification or suppression of original subject matter is the purpose, then again the question remains: will the very best version merely attain an immersive, true to life effect; or will it go beyond what is present on the surface and reveal (or suggest) something more; something that a less careful or less reflective observer perhaps would not notice without the photographer foregrounding something by light, depth of field, or choice of lens focal length, for example?

Thinking of images that make a deep or lasting impression, it is fair to say that the very best photographs (and by extension, also photographers) do produce value-added meaning to the scenes they compose and communicate to others. So there does seem to be an answer to the question about limitations being imitation of the original place and time. A skilled eye and hand makes something better than the raw material begun with: emphasizing certain things while downplaying or minimizing other things that diminish the artistic statement or question being expressed.

By analogy the same thing seems to occur when the ensemble effect of many musicians can produce something greater than one alone. In the case of harmony that is perfectly expressed there can be a ghost-like “overtone” added to the harmonic structure, a note that can be heard that none of the players or singers is making. And in the realm of cooking, too, there are examples of combinations of ingredients that express something that the component elements alone can do. A third analogy is the cultural or natural landscape: experts can “read” things there that may be invisible at first to inexperienced people. So, too, of photographers – by striving to reach one’s peak mastery, it is possible to make pictures that exceed the original subject at the point of shutter release.

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Virtual, vicarious, verisimilitude – observing versus participating

collage of spiderweb + HTML error message

clipart mashup – Web & “page lost” error 404 message

Watching, seeing, viewing, browsing, regarding – there are so many ways to stand outside of an experience or a subject to look at it. Anthropologists who study living societies combine observation (and documentary work) with participation in the mode called “participant-observation.” Whether one is an insider or outsider, by taking a middle position, with one foot in the event and one foot outside the event, there is a unique standpoint created that allows a person to use all their senses as a person on the field of play, but also equipped to put those experiences into words and images, too.

Now in the age of (over)sharing on the Internet and digital cameras (mostly on pocket-sized cellphones) there seems to be more and more spectating and recording of life; Selfie Existence as a master narrative. At the same time there seems to be less (unreflective, unmediated, undiluted) living. We see lots of words like “virtual reality” and “vicarious living” (watching strangers eat food, do farm work, deal with obstacles in “reality” TV programming or online streams and social media like Twitter or Facebook following of others). The more immersive the viewing experience (stereo or multi-channel sound, interactive User Interface, sensory goggles), the closer that the digital copy comes to facsimile to the original, actual subject. Verisimilitude or “truthiness” has become a kind of holy grail among engineers of ever quicker CPU computer chips and the software makers who strive for more and more persuasive, programmed and semi-structured but open-ended scripts.

In the beginning the novelty attracted interest, the challenges attracted talent, and the possibilities attracted imaginations. Now the ripples are flooding the great and the small with unintended consequences and soaking most people unexpectedly, ruining lives is some ways while also enriching lives in other ways. Now the world of virtual and vicarious is maturing and people are less easily smitten with novelty. More people are recognizing the fact of limited waking hours in a day and a fixed number of days in one’s lifetime, no matter how rich or how poor. So no matter how intoxicating, escapist, or infatuating the sound and flickering light of portable and wireless screens, at least there are some people who are ready to draw a line and no longer pay their attention into the bottomless ocean of information and data in search of knowledge or its distilled form: wisdom.

The sign of a fully developed feature of life experience and society is to learn the powers and the dangers of a particular tool so that it may be used well but not to the point of abuse. Hopefully the dissolution of social habits, structures, and compartments that “information wants to be free” has set in motion soon will mature among the young and the old. At that point there will be no fewer cameras capturing moments and sequences, but at least there will be mindful use of those rich records of days lived and lives undertaken. Knowing limits in not something that hobbles; rather it helps narrow down the range of motion and focus the intention and making of meaning.

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Without a camera… feeling lost?

absence makes the heart grow fonder [source: clipart]

Having parked the car, we darted toward the entrance to the botanical gardens. Once safely inside, I realized my camera was still out in the car. The visit was not very long, and another day we would be coming back, so I had to borrow my partner’s cellphone to take a couple of images rather than to use my own familiar equipment. The sense of loss at the absence of a trusty tool like a camera is palpable; a sort of let-down or emptiness. Of course it is not a human default to go around equipped with a device for composing and recording images to print or to share. However, after getting deeper into this habit and way of seeing, step by step, it did stir some strange sort of mild anxiety. But what kind of anxiety comes from NOT being equipped to complete the creative experience of (1) catching your eye on something (colors in conjunction, textures and light, shadows and line; irony, majesty, simplicity or graceful elegance), then (2) composing the subject in mind’s eye, (3) engaging the optical gear to translate the envisioned composition into something fixed on film or photo sensor, (4) post-production tidying up and then sharing.

Maybe this anxiety comes from the broken process of culminating expression; being unable to put a vision into persisting form. When a transient pattern of light, subject matter, and shutter release come into conjunction, then the static picture remains eternally frozen so that it can be shared, compared, studied, or simply added to one’s collected works like a trophy or another breadcrumb on the trail that leads to better and better work. Alternatively, perhaps the sense of loss or void in one’s accustomed way of being in the cultural landscape comes from the usual feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction when the sequence of events culminates with the succinct sound of the shutter release. When there is no camera to engage the subject and place it into a frame of one’s own making, then there is no capture for the hunter of “decisive moments” or chaser of light. Still another possible source of anxiety about finding yourself with no way to document experience or punctuate the flow of events is due to the imagined power that comes from what a camera potentially can do. Leaving the capacity of recording a time-sensitive news event or its opposite, a timeless truth, customarily having a familiar picture-taker within easy reach has the potential of memory assist (in case you forget some important details of the place or subject), the ability to prove a condition by documenting it (e.g. minor car crash or other property injury), the capacity to record something for posterity (a group photo, an achievement), and the power to mark an insight or discovery you have made by long effort or instead by serendipity. Somehow there is a mental equivalency between seeing and comprehending; to see what the person means is to grasp the significance of the thing. The reverse also may be true psychologically: NOT to see (or by extension NOT to photograph) something of value or significance, perhaps, also means NOT to understand or hold the full meaning.

Whatever is at play the experience is undeniable: feelings of missing one’s trusty lens and a sense of loss that goes along with it. Happily this anxiety can readily be dispelled. Unlike the days of having to restock one’s film cassette and also pay for the photo-processing of the film or slides, now the digital workflow encourages generous shooting, selecting, and sorting. So this story can have a happy ending.

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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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Just passing through vs. local roots

cloudscape over farmland in 4 different color filters from L. to R.
Levels of familiarity with a subject or topos form layers to one’s depth of vision. Photo by author.

Visiting a place for the first time, it is the prominent things that shape one’s impression or stir the imagination. Sometimes it is the absence of certain elements that are conspicuous (water and greenery in some desert types, for instance). This composite photo set at various color corrections illustrates the experience of seeing the same subject, event, or location through different eyes, lens, or set of expectations, aspirations, teachings, or memories. In effect the things look different according to level or familiarity; how well one knows the subject.

Suppose you have visited or even worked and lived in Japan as a foreign resident for many years, but now will visit the ancient capital of Nara for the first time. If the period of exposure were many months then the process of getting to know the cultural and ecological landscape would proceed from the surface level of major features to a deeper knowledge of how to navigate without the aid of map or software (phone) app. Locations, markers, and buildings would include names and possibly dates for historical events of significance associated with the place or structure. The seasonal patterns and inter-relationships of the many flora and fauna would become as familiar as old friends or kin. Eventually those initial impressions of the most prominent pieces of the scene would practically be invisible; no longer attracting one’s attention or interest as smaller details fill one’s mind, instead. And for a place that served as imperial capital in 710 of the Common Era, there are centuries of lives and events that layer the visible and remnant cultural landscape. But little of that subtlety is apparent until one is deeply familiar with the place and its stories.

By understanding how one’s level of familiarity changes the vision of a subject, event, or place, it is possible to look into the mirror and regard one’s own home ground, asking how well or how deep is one’s own vision there. And for those times one is passing through, or limited to “fly-over” country and glimpsing the livelihoods far below, or seeing something from a distance through a screen, then this understanding of the value of Local Knowledge and depths of familiarity helps to warn the viewer of the very considerable limitations to what is revealed and knowable at the surface level. So both for knowing self and for knowing others, this understanding of the consequences of surface versus deep familiarity is good to know.

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Snapshot statement vs. Photo paragraph


Most people make a single statement with single emphasis; others invite the eye to wander across the field of view [credit: 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.