see2think

thinking with pictures


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When the light speaks to you

Never mind ‘chasing the light’ or ‘writing with light’ (graphos+foto), instead listen for when the light calls your name and you respond by a double-take to look with renewed care at the scene as it presents itself, or as you foresee that it will come to be after a few minutes or hours or days.

street photo with dark clouds leaving a band of brightness on the horizon

When the light is low and the dark is high–an inversion of normal, it calls out to one’s eye.

Consider the case of music – some tunes and lyrics may speak to you, while others do not. Worse, some combinations of rhythm and chord sequences may actually irritate or contradict your own sense of harmony and consonance. The same could be said for other sensory experiences like the way food is arranged on a plate, the way that people dress, or the emotional response to things in the landscape (cityscape, or social landscape) you inhabit: certain features and patterns can be a calming source of continuity that meets the expectations you have about the way things should look and when and how things should arise there.

Turing back to the illumination in day or at night that stimulates the receptors inside one’s eyes, there is a kind of language or patterned sequences of meaning that speak to people. Some have an “ear” for the voice or music of the light falling on the surfaces of places where they may go. Others barely respond when the light declares something in a quiet voice, or shouts at full volume. And still others develop a habit to keep a picture-taking device within easy reach to respond effortlessly whenever the light utters a word or invites a response.

Raising the lens and framing the subject, you can quote verbatim what the light is saying. Then you can share this with others, or add to your album of moments written with light. Even before cameras became commonplace, there were a few people with sketchpad and pencil or pen to capture compositions that they stumbled upon, searched out, tracked down, or synthesized from their own imaginations. But now that digital cameras, phones, and tablets are so wide-spread, the opportunities have improved to sharpen your focus and improve your ear to hear when the light is speaking in its own language. Hopefully, the ability to understand what it is that the light is saying also is improving.

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The moment between past and future – what is present

The stream of commuters at the end of the work day stands for the wider course of one’s lifetime, flowing in one direction like a great river or like a parade of fellow travelers rising and falling on the contours and curves of the land, and passing landmarks along the way that stand out in one person’s mind for memories attached, hopes pinned, or for some thought triggered by the sight.

photo of cars on wet road at stop ligth

Cars pause at traffic signal [click for full image]; cf. visual experience of video clip, below, http://www.flickr.com/photos/gpwitteveen/39643658470/

But there is something curious that goes on in the minds of the people in their cars on the road of life, day by day, outbound at the start of work and returning at the end of work. It is the same for the rest of us outside the stream of cars, too. All of us feel that the present moment is wider than the fraction of a second captured by a photographer’s finger releasing the shutter. And yet, objectively speaking, there is less than a fraction of a second that occurs between what is yet to come (the future) and what just took place (the past). Our minds show us that an hour is a very long time (when we are pre-school age), or slightly long (when we are school age), or not long (during young adult and middle-age years), or nothing at all (in later life). And yet, objectively speaking, the passage of an hour is the same in all decades of our lives.

Likewise our minds show us that we occupy an arena of present-tense possibilities –things within easy reach that we could potentially accomplish or act upon, as well as things that may be theoretically possible if only we had the social connections, money, will-power, opportunity or motive to act upon. We dwell in this comfortable space of potential; a world of what we could do or who we could be, if we so desired to act upon what enters our minds. And yet, objectively speaking, during the time that we are psychologically occupying this world of possible actions, there is a continuous flow from what is yet to come into what has already passed. It would be truer to say that we live on the knife-edge of what could be (on one side of the blade) and what cannot be (on the other side of the blade) since circumstances have now passed.

The poet from Northern Ireland, Michael Longley, was interviewed in April 2018 by Krista Tippett for On Being, onbeing.org, and described poets as the historians of words who knows their roots intimately. A poet uses the words with precision like living organs – only when all the right words are in the right place does the lyric come miraculously to life. The poet makes ordinary things vivid and lively, making the familiar become strange, new, or exotic. Perhaps the same is true of photo walks and the habit of mind for framing scenes as the light, lines, and colors speak quietly to the photographer. By means of the lens, shutter, and exposure somebody who sees the world with this aid can develop more intense vision of the ordinary things all around. The routine things along the road of life become even more vivid than they already are. And so we can see the world in a grain of sand, or look at the line of commuters paused at the red light and imagine the illusory wide-open present possibilities that we all occupy, against all objective forces that limit the actionable present to the fraction of a second between that which is yet to come and that which has already passed by.

 


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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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mirroring – resonating with the scene’s features, its significance, or context

gallery for Impressionism at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Visiting an art gallery can be motivated by many reasons; sometimes multiple reasons simultaneously. The psychological phenomenon of “mirroring” or empathy seems to be part of the experience, though, as one clicks through an online gallery, or wanders from room to room to gaze at some pieces but glimpse other ones in passing, without looking at the label or encroaching on the frame and surface to immerse oneself in the place and time of composition. The experience of mirroring is a kind of sympathetic resonance or a recognition that there is something in the scene that touches one’s own interior; something of a similar or related kind. So a piece of particular beauty that speaks to one person may not speak to a different person in the same way, or to the same degree. This limbic system of emotional response works slightly differently among people, but it does seem to explain why a person is attracted to certain art and not to other pieces.

Now in the age of digital photos and cellphone snapshots, it is possible to visit gallery, museum, historical site, or series of famous tour sights to see and collect photos to document one’s experience of having seen particular points of interest that spark a feeling of significance or a recognition of personal insight and meaning. The lens frames and focuses the eye. It becomes a tool to interact with the scene and to communicate that moment of meaning to others, meanwhile overlooking other parts of the context and focusing only on the bit that seems important at the time.

Some may snap a memento to share on social media on the spot to say, “I was here & this was a delicious moment.” Others may go through the day and week snapping away, but feel satisfied that they have added to their own cumulative stock of life experience, potentially able to review or show to others, but feeling no urgency to revisit the now captured moments. Perhaps only a few people will systematically look through the day’s shooting or longer period of picture-taking in order to discover the pattern: what subjects, what lighting, what composition, what intentions seem to recur in one’s snapshots? By regarding one’s camera(s) as the recordkeeper that extends one’s eye and awareness, much can be discovered about self and about the society one moves through.


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the urge for a satisfying, ‘perfect’ picture

close-up photo of lens face pointed at mirror

‘perfect’ photos are in the mind of the beholder

Browsing a few years of photos and the collection of my personal “favorites” marked at flickr, there seem to be a few patterns among the pictures that speak most clearly and eloquently to my mind’s eye. Setting off to make compositions like that tends to be the most satisfying experience. And even to daydream about a prospective photo walk can satisfy some of that same urge for a perfect photo, as defined by the sort of shot that brings me back again and again to grasp more of, understand with more depth, or embrace more vividly.

Subjects tend to be landscapes, or other static scenes of the present (or imagined of the past or future at the spot), but compositions are most delicious that convey motion by pattern of line, texture, color, or light; often with field of focus extending from an arm’s length or two all the way to the horizon. Beyond the abstractions of composition, though, the moment of shutter release should capture something of human (cultural, social, personal) significance, or equally meaningful, something of non-human (animal, botanical, marine, geological, or seasonal or weather related) consequence. In summary the craving for taking a ‘perfect’ photo includes motion and a moment that communicates some of the context for interpretation to tell a viewer that something of meaning is being witnessed, if only one pauses to reflect on it.

As a thought experiment, given a budget for modest travel for 6 weeks or 6 months, what sort of itinerary or day to day routine could present opportunities to compose and capture ‘perfect’ photos as described here? One approach is the Walden Pond way: within a walking-distance radius, observe the small events hour by hour and season  by season, either far from human society, or the reverse, in the thick of people’s lives and patterns swirling around one’s lens. Another approach is the trekker or seeker approach, always venturing over to the next hill or around the next bend in the road to seek another horizon. Travelers, guidebooks, or wikivoyage offer lists of scenic spots, sort of like the Victorians rambling in search of spacious or historical views. And the photo-sharing sites sometimes show clusters of photo spots that have attracted camera enthusiasts and professionals during the 5 or 10 years that the sharing services have operated.

Lists of historical matters can be sorted by theme (battle sites, natural disaster locations, places of literary or scientific or political significance) to form a “bucket list.” Even if the trekker model produces few ‘perfect’ photos, the effort of travel will produce various insights, reflections, reactions, and unexpected good and bad occasions. Attention span may be preoccupied with logistics, safety, and direction finding, so that relatively little energy remains for creative expression, writing and reflection, or depth of observation.

A similar mix of positive and negatives comes from the Walden Pond way: some days feeling little motivation, having no external demand to move on, or lacking a contrasting difference to spur a reaction or reflection. And yet, there will be a few rare moments when conditions are right to produce some depth of understanding or insight or wondering because all creative energies are available and not diffused by the effort of travel and unfamiliarity. One’s deepening familiarity with the surrounding scenes allows for even very small variations or developments to be perceptible; something that a “just passing by” sort of observer would wholly miss.

Between these extremes of “staying put” and “trekking far” is a happy and productive middle way: keeping the routines and modest scope of movement to form a dense foundation for creative work, but now and then venturing far away, if for no other reason than to derive the joy of “going home,” the sense of familiarity and comfort that comes after dealing with unfamiliar faces, languages, and outlooks. Finding this balance will depend on the person and the point in life they occupy, of course, but here are one or two examples of splitting time between “local depth” and “distant vision.” The second one fits the expression “don’t just sit there; do something” and the first one is the inverse, “don’t just do something; sit there.” The second one takes creative spark from external excitement, unfamiliarity, exoticness, outsider perspective, and novelty/newness. The first one takes creative spark from an internal frame of reference: conditions that are not unfamiliar, point of view of an insider, and lack of novelty. In other words, the scene is not changing much, but the eye of the observer is shifting to discover things that were buried in plain sight until finally embraced with deeper vision.

A world map makes a good starting place. The planet is the widest field from which a few destinations can be plucked and prioritized. One’s own national boundaries and neighboring countries can shorten the list of possible destinations. Then a day’s drive from one’s home can reduce the universe of possible destinations still more. Finally there is the circumference of bicycle or travel by foot to define an even closer world of subject matter, with the views of changing light and skyscapes from one’s doorstep as the smallest circle of all. The model in each case is to strike a workable and productive balance between sameness and routine (familiarity) on the one hand, and novelty on the other – serendipity is an enlivening element in both cases, surprising one’s routines or adding excitement or easy solution to a problem far from home. For example, on the planetary scale of things, an adventure of 3 weeks to a single hub (urban center than can be transected on foot within 1-2 hours or less) or set of 2 or 3 hubs (sea, city, highland) should have some structure as well as latitude for spontaneity to chase the light, the shifting composition, or the events at hand. The same model fits things within a day-trip by car from your home base hub: begin with some structure, but leave room for spontaneity. Again this model works for places far from home but within your national borders or neighboring countries: hub locations for routine and refreshment of creative forces, with some structures and routines, but then leaving room to follow one’s eyes and the light or the subjects that emerge.

In summary, the urge for a ‘perfect’ picture is a craving that can be satisfied as conditions permit, either from one’s doorstep with keen observation of a small world, or far from home in unfamiliar worlds. Planning and daydreaming can be the first course in a feast for the eyes and mind. But of course, so much of what gives meaning and value is in the eye of the beholder; the one who puts in the effort and lays a foundation to appreciate what finally comes to pass. Pictures from the photo walk or expedition are a pale likeness of the full, sensory experience of the place, the composition decisions, and the circumstances leading up to the shutter release. For a person coming across your ‘perfect’ photo, it may look like a postcard view or a curious trick of the light. And without knowing the things contained in the frame, the effort required to bring one’s eye and mind into focus at that moment, the full depth of the vision will escape the casual looker. That ‘perfect’ photo will be treasure that hides in plain sight and perhaps only a few will savor the result.


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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