thinking with pictures

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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.

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golden hour, blue hour, gray hour, night

fading light Sunday after 4:30, central Echizen City

fading light Sunday after 4:30, central Echizen City

For some reason the fading light of the evening beckoned and rather than climb the steps and make supper, I set off for a walk to the riverside and enjoyed the cool November air and the rising north breeze. Street lights began to shine, headlamps on the cars came on, and the dusk deepened. What is it about the day’s changing light toward the evening (or in reverse order: night to gray, to blue, to golden at sunrise) that is so appeals to emotional response? The time when the sun is low in the sky and the light temperature shifts to the warmer tones seems to amplify and intensify the colors alone and against each other, the shadows are sharpened and darkened, too. As the golden hour gives way to the blue hour with its cooler light tones, it is the opposite effect to the golden hour. Now the reduced range of colors makes those remaining colors seem precious; or at least they seem different to the normal look of broad daylight. Even a familiar location takes on an unfamiliar look in this light. Then the last of the colors become even more muted until the light values that define shapes and relative distances is something like grayscale. Now the full night is not far away, so something magical happens – the boundary between history and the ordinary daily life of the present tense blurs a little. The leap of imagination to step into the past or the future is a small jump. It takes just a little effort to imagine the time has changed. The line between the living and dead thins in the quickly passing twilight as night takes over. What is the attraction of night photography?.Using a tripod changes the pace and length of exposures that now is possible, thus producing images different to ones quickly composed and captured. And the extreme lighting of artificial source versus unlit adjacent space means that point-source light is clearly defined, individual, palpable and 3-dimensional (unlike the all surrounding direct sunlight and indirect sky reflection). All together then the 2 hour span from Golden to Blue to Gray to Night provides a seamless stream of changing light conditions, each of which has appeals on its own. But when taken back to back, it is a feast for the eyes in four courses!

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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!