thinking with pictures

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Tourist eyes or old-timer eyes, which are you?

narrow lane with several houses fronting it

Side street en route to library, Echizen City, Japan

Discovery, Uncovery, Recovery –Part of the joy of street or field photography is stumbling onto something that seems significant (treasure by some definition) or at least on the surface (texture, color, light play or shadow) is worthy to view and possibly record. Perhaps this is something like Serendipity or the kind of things that seemed to happen to Forrest Gump fortuitously again and again.

Taken to the extreme, there is mystery and beauty in something as taken for granted as a single breath of clean air or a sip of cool, life-giving water. More often, though, it takes something more obvious to get our attention and trigger the impulse to compose and capture a moment. By contrast, to the person who lives next to a famous photo prompt, perhaps the subject is static background to the plans they make or obligations that give structure to their own discretionary time, intention, and energy. On a larger scale this native versus newcomer phenomenon explains why residents only visit the sight-seeing places when accompanying visitors. The fact that the particular event, site, collection or restaurant is always available and potentially the long-term resident supposes therefore that by osmosis there is some inherent ownership or relationship they accrue, therefore the need to actually buy a ticket and go inside seems to have very little urgency or necessity about it. There is always tomorrow to do so, it seems.

Thinking about this insider-outsider difference from another angle, there are tourists on a 5 day or 3 week timeline who feel each waking moment should be filled with relevant experiences, reading, relaxation and relating to local people, opportunities, occasions, events and so on: they are focusing on inputs, not processing or reflecting or making outputs of their own. Meanwhile that same person returns to their routines and cultural infrastructure that makes their life somewhat predictable and stable. Now perhaps the opposite mode is primary; that is, rather than keeping hyper alert and observing the surround life and people and language of the place (the input side of things), instead the person navigates through the day and the landscape on autopilot, already thinking several steps ahead to the next obligation or moment when there is a break from responsibility and routine. Now the emphasis is on output: not taking in everything that is playing out in big and small ways around one’s life and in the longer time frames of seasons, years and even decades. The person’s mind and attention is not in the present moment or one lately past. It is on plans for what to do next, what to watch out for, what to fulfill as promised.

Jumping now to the metaphor of music performance, the audience member might be dwelling on the sweet sound of a chord or splendid passage of melody as it unfolds in expected intervals or with some unexpected surprising transitions to spice things up. But the well-rehearsed musicians are a few measures ahead, so they know not just the tuning and blending of the present moment as it passes to the one that follows, but that they have a wider horizon of view and know the place where the current passage is heading, thus to connect smoothly and with musicianship all the parts between now and that future point, and from that point to the one that follows. In other words, a person with no prior experience of a musical style might be baffled or charmed or mesmerized by the first exposure, but their awareness is very much momentary, since they lack the vocabulary to make articulate sense of the larger production and don’t know where it is going, nor what it hearkens back to in the wider body of related music. An aficionado will have some of the same depth that a musician has while performing, thus being able to appreciate what goes into the finished experience of all parts interacting. But only the practiced musician has the full and richest viewpoint on the piece of music, at least from the notes that guide them in their own part of the whole.

With tourists to a strange land and language, too, there are these different levels of proficiency to understand the meanings all around them: the most fluent native will have a wide ranging mind, aware of so many details and able to express the finest gradations of emphasis or distinction. But this high speed ability to navigate the local terrain of meanings comes at the expense of savoring the texture, rhythm and surfaces that the tourist is preoccupied with. Perhaps it is the intermediate position that is richest of all: somewhat able to move across the meanings, but not well enough to master them and dwell at the high altitudes of awareness and preoccupation, nor yet at the beginner level and stumbling over rudimentary aspects of the local society and language. Here in the middle ground there is some awareness of the finite time schedule; that one is not going to be in the current set of circumstances forever and therefore it is worth making the time to do certain things with all due deliberateness and purpose; but not so overly pressed by the time schedule as to make hasty, careless, or ill considered decisions, big or small. Instead there is a kind of wisdom in using time well (sometimes conserving it; hyper-conscious of its passing, but other times letting go of it, letting the hours freely pass), just as there are wise ways and foolish ways to use whatever money comes into one’s life (sometimes sticking with thriftiness; other occasions being lavish).

Buddhists talk about how precious it is to strive to have the mind of a beginner, not weighed down by larger matters, and fascinated in a fresh and uncomplicated way with the surfaces of things. But the thread of these paragraphs, above, argue for the value of something that comes after the beginner’s mind; not the tourist or newcomer to a place absorbed with the inputs, and neither the old-timer who no longer sees the wonder and novelty all around. Instead there is great merit in the middle ground of someone beyond the surface level and not yet fully rooted to a place and oriented to action, accomplishment, and similar outputs.

The person at the middle ground can still be amazed by little details, can still set aside high quality time and full attention for local inputs (a camera can frame the seeing process and force some decisions and deliberately slow-down the capture process, simultaneously serving as a trail of breadcrumbs or record of the forays in the local surroundings). But the person at the middle ground can also do some of the things the long time resident can do – make plans, dream dreams, dive into possible futures and dwell on the interior life; in short, the middle ground person can have both input mode of consciousness like a beginner or temporary visitor, and also output mode of consciousness like a long-time resident who has some institutional memory of a place and how it got to be like this now. Yes, there is indeed delight in discovering or uncovering or recovering something that is precious for a fleeting moment or for an eternity. But there is also pleasure in seeing past the surfaces to observe the longer cycles and flow of events before one;s existence and after one has gone. The vision of the momentary and fleeting, intensified by the sense of transient life, as well as the vision of things much bigger and longer lasting than one’s self make the walk-around with camera in hand a worthy pursuit.


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Lens as curator in the Museum of Life

collage of images marked "favorite"

flickr “favorites” pattern emerges

One begins at the far end of a lens; first meeting a camera while only an infant in many cases. Later in life one may become curious and peer through the other side of the lens and one day be given a camera of one’s own to play with. Many people are bitten by the photography bug and find meaning in the hobby or even therapeutic power in articulating single frames or entire story sequences visually, either for personal significance or to share with others in person or online.

In the course of taking pictures of favorite people, places and things (the proper nouns of one’s world) eventually a sizeable collection accumulates. Then, much like the curator of a collection at a museum, the photographer is faced with the challenge of organizing the content: sorting images that are usable, can be given away as mementoes, ones that exhibit a set of meanings most clearly from ones that are less effective. In the end a few of the images will be shared, while most will be saved and a few will be deleted or destroyed altogether.

Thinking back to the first few cameras that I worked with and my appetite to flip through back issues of the National Geographic Magazine, I can now see how the photos that I viewed and the ones that I then took somehow corresponded: of the many that I viewed, only a few arrested my attention. Of the many visual experiences, only a few called me to raise camera to eye and release the shutter. In sum the lens has given tangible form to things unspoken or too vast to articulate verbally, yet in the fraction of a second some of that meaning can be telegraphed visually. The lens allows us to see patterns and themes that speak to us, but which otherwise are too diffuse and subtle to perceive ordinarily in the flow of lived experience. Just as a curator plucks what best communicates an idea from the storehouse of collections, so too does the lens pluck what is meaningful from the stream of experience: the composition and photo making process results in stacks of images, much like a museum collection from which one portion can go into the gallery for public engagement and comment.

Extending the metaphor of lens as curator further, we can consider the entire life cycle of the museum enterprise. Once a collection has formed, then a suitable site to archive, research and exhibit the materials follows. In other words, the discovery and collecting phase is only the beginning. Working with the collections to find patterns and meanings inductively, then drawing inferences and tracing deductions is the next phase. And finally there is the presentation, publication and exhibition that completes the life cycle; for without communicating the findings and subject, the value of the undertaking is limited.

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equipment and one’s eye

The truism that a workman’s tools determines how and what he interacts with in the world can be seen for camera work in a few ways. (1) One’s screen size alters the scale at which one can perceive detail. Having a digital camera with 5 cm LCD allows crude viewing compared to one that is 10 cm. And reviewing images on a tablet is more restrictive than a big-screen TV or large monitor, muchless the scale of a cinema projector. (2) The same change in vision of what one sees is also a function of sensor size. The smallest sensors of digital camera toys capture a crude likeness of a scene, whereas most of the low-end Point-and-Shoot cameras from the big makers can produce fine snapshots or even small enlargements when set to bigger capture (file) sizes. The pro-sumer and professional cameras have sensors many times the surface area of these other devices. The resulting range of light values and subtlety of color amplifies the vividness and tactile impression one can make on a viewer. By knowing one’s gear and its limitations, one frames the world of photo and video opportunities accordingly. (3) Lens of choice also shapes one’s vision, not only in terms of magnification, but also the relationship of foreground, middle and background. A standard or ‘normal’ lens approximates the relationships of the human eye, while a wide-angle exaggerates the space between near and middle foreground. A telephoto foreshortens the space between near and middle background. The “speed” of a given lens (how far open the aperture can go, thus permitting low-light photography at speeds faster than a lens without the same aperture) also figures into one’s vision of what could or could not be captured visually. In sum it is important to know one’s gear intimately so that response to a given situation is automatic and well practiced. And while the equipment does not ‘make’ a photo, it surely colors the vision of the person who ‘plays’ it.