thinking with pictures

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Aging and one’s wide-angle lens on life

photo of shinto shrine stone gate

Shrine torii at edge of Sanri-yama in the town of Imadate, Fukui-ken JP

On a fine sunny Saturday, with the early March air still cold enough for gloves and hat, but by noon no longer needed, I pedaled along with camera in pocket on the lookout for light or locations of interest as single shots or to be stitched into something more immersive*. Part of the route around the skirt of the mountain (about 10-12 km in circumference) was familiar from 30 years ago when first living and working in this valley, and then at intervals of 5-6 years thereafter. But usually those members were just passing by, almost always by car or bus. So to take some of the narrow lanes and the walkway along the river by bike was a new experiences. Thinking about how those earlier memories differed to this pleasant Saturday morning, it seems that the main difference is middle-age. Much of the life work of establishing oneself and one’s family, the circle of births and deaths, job changes, moving, and so on already is done or at least very much less of a preoccupation. As a result, if the decades of 20s and 30s was like a 55mm or 80mm lens (using the film reference to a 35mm camera), a series of moments, often discrete and disconnected, then now there is less need to prove, to achieve, to accumulate. So it is enough to “be” rather than to “do.” I can quietly roll along the paved surfaces reflecting on the lives underway around me, or the signs of better days at the sites of relic buildings, agriculture worksites, and so on, “reading” the landscape and social space around me. Perhaps the set of constraint, expectations, and bills to pay made the idea of setting off without a definte route or destination or timeframe in mind unimaginable in those earlier life decades. Whatever the reason that I did not do something so enjoyable as today’s excursion, at least I am glad for the ride and photos along the way on this occasion; and I truly look forward to many more times like it. Having a wide-angle lens experience of life is satisfying, since the many moving parts can be seen all together, the context and the arc of developments all add meaning and let one’s own presence fit into the whole, as well. It makes sense that one’s 20s-30s-40s are lived in a narrow angle of view than the wide-angle that I speak of. But even so, I am pleased with the wide view of today!

*Simulating the angle of view in human visual experience is one of the main reasons to play with photo-stitching software. See the handful of slides in this set to see the logic of doing so,


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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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documentary-maker’s 10 Commandments

The current scholar-in-residence this year at U-Michigan is Kazuhiro Soda. His Feb. 9, 2017 lecture will probably be video recorded (in English mostly). Commonly these days the events are recorded and can be viewed online in 2-3 weeks.

=-=-=-=-= Excerpt from announcement link,
The Power of Observation: How and Why I Make “Observational” Documentaries
Kazuhiro Soda, Toyota Professor in Residence
[guiding principles]

1 No research.
2 No meetings with subjects.
3 No scripts.
4 Roll the camera yourself.
5 Shoot as long as possible.
6 Cover small areas deeply.
7 Do not set up a theme or goal before editing.
8 No narration, title, or music.
9 Use long takes.
10 Pay for the production yourself.

His filmography includes “Campaign” (2007), “Mental” (2008), “Peace” (2010), “Theatre 1” (2012), “Theatre 2” (2012), “Campaign 2” (2013), and “Oyster Factory” (2015).

Kazuhiro SODA, documentary maker

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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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A taste for light – connoisseur at the winter solstice

DSC01664About an hour before the sun settled onto the horizon in the west, the broken pattern of clouds opened up and the low-hanging sun, just a week before its final ebb of the year at the December solstice, shone across the fresh, snow-covered landscape and dramatized the silhouettes of the trees now bare of leaves. With the low angle comes an extra measure of atmospheric haze that the rays of light must pass through and the blue and purple wavelengths are mostly absorbed along the way, leaving only the longer wavelengths of yellows, oranges, and reds to cover the wintry scene in a warm, golden blanket of photons. The course of human life has resulted in visually sophisticated skills with something like 20 or 25% of the brain dedicated to processing patterns, color, texture and light. But some people develop their visual function beyond everyday uses and become visual artists or designers, or if not makers then with an appetite that allows them to appreciate good, better, and best quality of light and visual interest. Photographers represent an unusual medium since the bar to making photographs has been set so low ever since the Kodak “Brownie” box camera 100 years ago; the original point and shoot, fixed focus lens that made home photography accessible to the wide public. The equivalent device these days perhaps is the cell phone, equipped with camera for both still and video capture, not to mention audio portraits with the built-in (voice) recorders.

As with other muscles and skills, the more you use it, the stronger or more refined and specialized it becomes. This learning curve is both physical and mental: physical because actions and habits of response involve flesh and effort with repeated use leading to stronger apparatus. As a simplistic illustration, the more times you press your finger to the shutter release button, the more familiar the action becomes and stronger the feeling and function becomes. The more often one’s eye goes over a composition in the viewfinder or in reviewing the work of others, the more quickly one can compare to other instances and see both good and bad points in the current image.

But besides the physically expanded powers gained by repetitions, there is also a mental side to the work of making images or reading the ones made by others; indeed, in seeing the views that present themselves to one’s eye day by day, like the winter late afternoon light, above. “Practices makes perfect” is not only about the physical motions and habits that form little by little, it is also the growing familiarity with the range of conditions, the angles of view, the technical compensations possible to make when correcting the literal, mechanical recording of the lens and sensor in order to produce a scene closer to one’s human visual experience (correcting the camera by adjusting color temperature or averaged exposure setting; example of moonlit snowy nightscape, below). The more pictures one makes or views, the more discerning one comes to be: capable of distinguishing slight variations in the temperature of the light (bluish cast vs. overly warm tone; natural versus artificial light sources; direct versus indirect, reflected illumination), or the quality of shadows and the likely changes to expect to the composition when a cloud bank threatens to cover the sun, or the way that the rising light of the passing morning hours is going to transform the scene if only one is patient enough to wait and also to move to a viewpoint right for the moment in the future one is seeking.

moonlit - camera's capture vs. human visual experience of the light

moonlit – camera’s capture vs. human visual experience of the light

In summary, to spend more and more time observing the visual scenes throughout one’s day, with camera in hand or purely by eye, on screen or in one’s waking life, then the more one’s responsiveness, capacities, fine-motor skills, and mental familiarity with conditions will grow. One result is increased awareness and appreciation of the visual banquet that many people take for granted, like those who wolf down their meal in haste versus those who linger over each bite. Both may exhibit a healthy appetite, but one savors the texture, temperature, color, flavors, taste and smell of the food more than the other. One more than the other “reads” more deeply into the presentation and eating of the food, enjoying the company of others at the table at the same time. The same is true of the ubiquity of daylight or reduced illumination of nighttime: many will take it for granted, see past it in their preoccupation with other matters, or regard it as incidental background to what really is demanding their focus. But instead to take the time to view the light itself as a worthy subject to observe, record, and savor can lead to great pleasure, as was this hour of golden light on the bright snow as it shone through the windows, etched the outlines of twigs and tree trunks in gold, and caused shadows on carpet and walls to move across the room. The blanket of warm light on the cold afternoon was truly glorious (click video link, below, to watch source file at MAQ01667

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Are you focused in like telephoto lens or reflecting on the big picture like wide angle lens?

color among the cedars

color among the cedars

This morning my loaner bicycle took up along a road I hadn’t traveled for 31 years, and never by 2 wheels. It was an unseasonably mild November Sunday morning around 7 a.m. and the road grew narrower until it finally stopped; at least the paved surface ended. On one side was a catchment pond for run off to collect from surrounding mountains and from there feed into the cascading steps of rice paddy, now empty after the harvest. On the other side and also continuing up the narrow valley, but now overgrown and very coarsely covered in stone pieces there were roads to reach the timber in wood lots on the faces of the mountains. To someone local perhaps there was little appeal in pedaling uphill to the end of the blacktop and then walking a little ways into the mountain where signs warned of wild boar and till up patches showed signs of their recent search for eatables. After all when all that is in your vicinity, it goes unnoticed, or is taken for granted. Instead those places and spaces are utilitarian work sites or in earlier years no man’s land, suitable for abandoning unwanted TV or bicycle, for what I saw. In other words from the hustle and bustle point of view, those nearby features are only salient when there is work to do , money involved, or social obligations affected. Routine days and weekly schedules are dictated by an instrumental mindset, a linear set of tasks, a narrow field of view – much like a telephoto lens.

By contrast my eyes were filled with wonder at the immense silence of the woods, the light filtering through the canopy, and the occasional fall colors of a deciduous tree amid the many market valued cedars. And I felt a sleight trepidation at the possibility of gaining personal experience of a pack of wild swine. The occasional Shinto shrine along the way up the valley was a reminder of the customs from premodern times that live on in some ways in recognition of the seismic pulse of the Japanese islands and possibly generational respect for forces unseen. So my mental angle of view was more like a wide angle lens, taking in the novelty of the surroundings, hyper aware of smells, sounds, colors and light. And yet these same footsteps to a local person might not detect any of this mental process that was running through my senses.

The same must also be true of every reader’s situation – the routine pathways, spaces and places of weekly activity become dull in some way; unremarkable. Although to a visitor from out of town or out of the country perhaps the same locations would trigger all sorts of responses. Perhaps the richest experience would be to have a little of both; benefiting from the local knowledge and layers of memories there, but also enjoying the sense of wonder and fresh eyes that an outsider brings.