thinking with pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where does the time go?

The present momentarily connects past to future

The present momentarily connects past to future, but quickly passes by

On the radio a psychologist pointed out the illusion of the present, which normally we perceive as a relatively stable and unchanging background to our own protagonist lives, experienced as a connected thread of people and places and things along the path of life. We make plans, dream dreams, and follow the aims we intend. On the one hand there is the past which can’t be changed. On the other hand there is the future which is yet to take final form. The thin film between what could be and what already happened is where the present exists; a very thin place indeed. And yet as children it sometimes feels like the time between breakfast and lunch is enough time to cross the continent. And between bedtime and rising in the morning is a vast unknown space. Later we perceive the days passing more swiftly, until each one is a blur that speeds past and we look at the year as a set of months that quickly come and go, the season making their appearance in due course and the transient flow of people and events come to be heightened in our minds.
Photographers perhaps think about time more than most people, at least when it comes to stopping motion with a suitable shutter speed, or revealing things that human eye can’t see unaided by strobe light or high speed recording. Going the other way, a photographer can express blur and contract the moving subject to the unmoving context by choosing a shutter speed slow enough, but too slow as to blend all features into undefined mush. Timing is everything in comedy, in rocket launches, and aircraft carrier landings. And the rise and fall of the sun and moon, and the shift from daylight to twilight to artificial light, not to mention the special properties of the golden hours and the blue hours, all attract the eye of photographers and videographers, not to leave out visual artists unaided by a lens and chemical or digital recording medium.
And so the question remains from the title, above: where does the time go? If we live in an endless series of “becomings” with unplayed out future finally taking final form and thus relegated to the past, then perhaps the way to see a lifetime, or a single day, or a solitary breath, is not as a protagonist moving against a static background of other people and contexts. Instead the present is the position we occupy in relation to the future-becomingness; that is, we are something like a glass-blower handling molten material. In the brief time and space we occupy, there is quite a bit of molding we have the power to do. But all too soon the window of opportunities closes and the lump of glass we held now is unworkable and static, possibly transformed into beauty, or maybe not a lot changed from when we pulled it from the source.
Shakespeare’s words about the seven ages of a person are still true today; indeed, we are moving subjects, never the same person who went to bed the night before. But in addition to embracing our fleeting selves, it is perhaps more accurate to perceive the present not as something we control, or own and consume. Instead we are just links on the bucket brigade of the generations, handing the water to the next person in line. We are stewards who can engage with the people, creatures and plants all around us; we are in the middle of becoming something else, but so are all of them. The impression of unchanging order is just not so. Our lives are less a set of frozen moments (like a still camera creating pages for an album we cherish) than a series of composing and capturing those moments of beauty or significance around us. It is the doing and what happens in-between the shutter release where the present time can be found.

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The figure to ground relationship – where are you in the picture?

Are you the figure (subject) or ground?

Are you the figure (subject) or ground?

There are times when one strides through the landscape, mostly unaware or unconcerned about the processes and purposes all around in that seasonal moment, time of day, or ecological context. Instead, everything becomes static background to one’s own narrative spreading across the year or forming one’s life trajectory. But by slowing down, or through aging, infirmity, or meditative discipline, there comes to be less self and thus more space to see, hear, smell and touch the textures, patterns, and rhythms all around. What once was out of focus background now becomes the main subject. What once was fly-over country, now becomes the center of the universe, at least for a moment. One’s self then blends with the larger process, metabolizing right along with everything in sight. At one extreme perhaps one’s physical self can be perceived as a literal background for the myriad small dramas played out on the skin’s surface or internal micro biome!


And so, the selective focus of self (close-up lens that gives a shallow Depth of Field) can be alternated with the slow exposure times and very widest depth of field to capture everything from near (self) to far (background). The result is a richer lived experience, less about action and achievement, and more about being part of the bigger picture; not a star performer, but an ensemble player in the complete cast of characters.

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seeing the forest instead of the trees

The expression about fixating on immediate details (the trees) and being unaware or blind to the wider picture (the forest) is a familiar one to many people. Another one with more urgent meaning is “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” (worrying about tidy appearances while the ship is sinking). Looking out the window, below, one can see how the point of focus alters the viewing experience. By fixating on the screen and its delicate detail, the wider or deeper view is lost. This is not just a photographer’s problem about selecting a desired Depth-of-Field, but a life problem: there is the point about obsessing about detail at the expense of other experience and vision, of course. But from an anthropological perspective, too, everyone has a filter or screen to make sense of past experience, present S.W.O.T. (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, perceived threats), and future horizons. To the degree that these screens preoccupy one’s mind and heart, then the wider reality in the distance is lost. It is necessary to live with mental (cultural and linguistic and material cultural/world view) screens. But by being self-aware of them, or by speaking more than one language, culture, religion, etc, then one is more readily receptive of the bigger picture; one that goes past the foregrounding filter we see.

your vision often is screened and distracted

your vision often is screened and distracted





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You are what you carry – size matters

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

camera choice alters what seems worthy to shoot

camera choice alters what seems worthy to shoot

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

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Seeing it in a different light.

Seeing something in a new light or a different light is a figure of speech that means the subject is perceived with different face or complexion due to the shift in contextual frame, circumstances, or additional factors. But there is a literal meaning to this expression, too.

composite of 4 photos

Seeing things in a new light

The play of shadows, the angle, intensity, and temperature of the light affects the viewing experience and emotional response or resonance to the subject. Is the ability to infer meaning from the quality of light specially tuned to primate visual cortex (up to 25% of brain volume among present-day humans), or do other vertebrates also have emotional response to the character of light they see? It is not uncommon in the elementary grades for teachers to cover the overhead banks of fluorescent lights with fabric or paper to affect the color of the light and the amount of light. A more dramatic non-verbal signal to young students to hush comes from turning off the room lights.

So “seeing it in a new light” means reconsidering or seeing all-over again with fresh eyes the things one faces. And so the next time a problem seems unsolvable or subject seems dull or flat, then alter the lighting (literally or in the figurative sense of shifting its contextual frame, the color and angle and temperature and amount of illumination.

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Reading the land, reading the people

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

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

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

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

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