see2think

thinking with pictures


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handy tools – life before cameras

photo showing knife in left hand, smartphone camera in right hand

ubiquitous cameras affect the ways we move through life as a series of framed, captured moments

Setting off to buy a few groceries on a glorious cool morning filled with bright light, my eye scanned all the attractive subjects that might be worth photographing (or making a video snapshot, if audio or isolated bit of motion were just so). For some reason, I stopped my daydream and wondered how different the sunlit scenes would appear to a person living at a time or place where no cameras were known, or at least were rare and unfamiliar in one’s ordinary routines of daily experience. Since cell phones bring recording of still and moving images, as well as sound capture into the hands of so many people, it is hard to appreciate the absence of visual representations available by the simple motion of nothing more than to point and shoot.

As a child I grew up with film cameras: first was the family’s slightly bulky flashbulb point-and-shoot device using a roll of 120 or 620 film. Then came the Kodak Instamatic for color snapshots of the late 1960s and middle 1970s before moving to the even more compact form factor of the “Pocket Instamatic” 110 cartridges of film (13x17mm negatives) that were so cheap that we children got our very own camera and could appear on the other side of the lens. In those days, picture taking was fairly informal, encouraged by the consumer advertising that showed happy people snapping away with abandon. But with film sold in 12 exposures and later 20 exposures (28×28 mm negatives), each shutter release brought you nearer to the end. So shots tended to be used somewhat sparingly, with many of the shots commemorative (family events or vacations and photo spots with signage to direct tourists to fixed compositions).

Later in high school and the chance to join the photo-club with reusable 35mm cassettes of black and white film bringing the cost down to a few pennies per shot, plus the price of darkroom chemicals and paper, I began to shoot more and more pictures and carried a camera to places and subjects that might not have seemed typical when using the old consumer, point-and-shoot gear. But even with the capacity to shoot rolls loaded with 36 exposures, since there was a price in money and chemicals and DIY effort involved, the act of recognizing an interesting subject, lighting, or angle would involve some consciousness of expense. In other words the picture-taking experience was not frictionless because there were (for a teenager of limited means, at least) costs involved every time a picture was framed, the focus double-checked, and any adjustments to the light meter’s suggested exposure were figured into the shutter release.

What remained the same in those earliest moments of parents allowing me to take a picture with the family camera, and later with me taking my own shots with my own enthusiast equipment, was the sense of clear boundaries and intention about setting forth to “take pictures.” In other words, some deliberateness and possibly preparation was needed before packing a camera and rolls of film, and then seeking out a specific subject; or in a photo walk, waiting for spontaneous subjects to present themselves. By contrast, the presence of a good cell phone camera within one’s reach most anywhere and anytime in which price per exposure is practically no-cost means that people have gotten used to snapping pictures for many purposes other than recording a family event or special trip. Now it is common to use a camera to remember parking location, product information, insurance claim or inventory, special food or drink, maps and other helpful signage, and so on.

The visual anthropologist Richard Chalfin has studied family photo albums in the time before digital photography, both in USA and in Japan, among other places. In his book, Snapshot Versions of Life, he says that pictures express who belongs in or out of a group; it is a kind of boundary of inclusion or exclusion. As such the lens we use to capture subjects of significance, value, or memory will reflect who we are; who we wish to see ourselves as, or what we hope to be true or one day to become true. With the lack of friction or cost of cell phone snapshots, the selfie is perhaps an extreme extension of Chalfen’s observations of the sociological frame that the photographic frame expresses. With self posed near famous site, person, or occasion, the resulting photo says “I was here” and “this who I am” and by process of association, I claim some of the halo effect that glows from this precious place, person, or thing.

So the long history of photography seems to culminate at this moment with a flowering of self-representation, self-examination, and self-referential meaning; looking inward rather than seeking to engage and understand the surrounding landscape of cultures, risks and opportunities, or the Big Questions of life that the humanities is filled with. But is it possible to travel backward along the sequence of developments: from digital cameras on so many portable devices, to the consumer film cartridges of 12 exposures color and before that black and white, to the large-capacity Kodak “Brownie Box” camera of the 1900s – 1940s, back to the advent of portable 35 mm photojournalism with the original Leica, and before that the 4″x5″ film plates of the news photographers in the early years of the 1900s, and before that the clunkier glass plates of studio and field cameras like those of Matthew Brady and the others traveling out west and around the battlefields of the U.S. Civil War. Going back into the 1840s and earlier is the realm of experimenters of the Daguerreotype. Before a scene could be focused onto a chemically treated metal plate and fixed with permanence by chemical treatment, there was the camera obscura that painters and sketch makers and map makers could use: the lens could focus on the ground glass at the rear, and under the shielding darkness of a cloak, the artists could trace the lines of a composition with precision on paper and produce a final image that is almost photographic in detail and perspective, thanks to the precision lens. Each of these moments in camera history affected the kinds of subjects that were worth recording, sharing, or publishing for sale.

In the beginning it was very costly to make a picture and only very high value incidents would be memorialized and displayed or sold. Most people in the industrialized societies seldom saw a photographer or appeared in the frame until the 1920s or later, when low cost Box Cameras like the Kodak Brownie (spools of 127 film, slightly smaller than the 120 rolls) and the associated system of film processing and photo printing facilities were running. Around this time and in the generation before there were subscription services to deliver a few stereoscopic postcards of world events or famous places to homes to enjoy with their very own stereoscopic viewer frame. But the act of making one’s one decision about what is worth capturing and then going about the composition and pressing the shutter only came with the cheap and increasingly common point and shoot cameras. Even then, however, it would not be a casual affair to tote the box camera around in search of subjects. Instead it would be a wedding, funeral, family reunion, or some other part of the life cycle that would be recorded. The rest of one’s waking consciousness and daily routines would be less about documentary considerations of representing one’s day or lifetime, but instead would be focused on fulfilling obligations, watching for liabilities to avoid or opportunities to seize. In other words, in the time before ubiquitous cameras to record self or others, the way to view the world was in terms of instrumental goals: things to accomplish, respect to gain, criticism to avoid, expectations to fulfill, dreams to launch, and so on.

One’s eye took in the surroundings differently to today’s lens-preoccupied thinking. Life was not a series of photo opportunities, but was a big and wonderful adventure that one was immersed in; a player on the field, rather than a spectator on the sidelines. As such, a person in the time before cameras would set off in the morning with money in pocket, hat to protect from the elements and signal one’s style, and perhaps a pocket knife, pocket watch and gold chain, pad and paper, make-up mirror, or some other handy tool that was useful in the day to day events in one’s life.

Back in 1984 a relative of mine traveled abroad to visit my location and the people I had gotten to know there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime voyage and yet I was puzzled by his lack of camera. During his military service in the 1950s he had obtained on tiny Minox spy camera, not much bigger than a pocket lighter. So he must have once had some photography interest or knowledge. When asked about the lack of camera now, he answered that carrying a camera tended to blinker his vision to see and seek subjects that conformed with ideas of what would make “a good picture.” There is not too much harm from picture taking; indeed, many people discover that their powers of (detail) observation sharpen when carrying camera or binoculars. They tend to use whatever tool is at hand to engage the world. But he made the deliberate decision to experience the time and place with only a journal and pen.

Who can say: does formal, deliberate, ponderous (e.g. sheet film or tripod-dependent) camera shooting add value or add boundaries to one’s engagement in a place and time, and the relationships one forms as rapport builds and context deepens? Does less formal, simpler, point-and-shoot photography streamline the form factor so that many more occasions can be captured than by the slow shooting, above? And if camera work does indeed amplify the value to self and the ability to communicate those experiences to others, does it follow that better camera skill and a bigger scale of visual recording will also increase the communication power of the work? Taken all the way to the extreme, does ubiquitous camera use with the proliferation of cell phone shooting lead to saturation, so that life and the recording of life blur together such that the meaning of engaging a place and time is not about actively grappling with conditions on the ground (a player on the field), but instead consists of experiences of representing the conditions on the ground (a spectator on the sidelines).

I suspect that cameras that are rarely seen or experienced (1870), or ones that are ubiquitious (2018) act like a mirror. They are extremely useful and they are sources of fascination. They may produce additional narcissism and they may distract a person from active engagement in their social environment and physical ecosystem. On balance they seem to do more good than harm, but like most things that are good, they must still be used in moderation and with some degree of care; not used in ways that are thoughtless or mindless, but instead taken into one’s hand and brought to one’s eye deliberately. It is hard to appreciate truly the experience of a place or time in which all cameras are absent and only hand-drawn visual representation is possible. Simply locking one’s own gear in a drawer for a week or a year cannot remove the built-in habits of thinking and seeing accumulated from years of taking pictures.

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Bird in the distance gives me a flight of fancy

big heron looking for breakfast in the Hino River, Fukui-prefecture, Japan

This morning while I walked across the bridge for early morning exercise I saw a great blue heron in the shallows of the river with morning light shining off the surface and giving partial silhouette, while not completely blotting the color and detail of the bird’s body. Something about the light or the large bird’s slow, deliberate movements attracted my eye caused me to wonder what sorts of triggers were in this tranquil scene to captivate me. Several elements came to mind, step by step as I mulled over the image in my mind and walked on. The volume of the bird just taking up space on the blank canvas of the lit up water surface is one thing; that is a visual appeal. The mass of the bird; the pull of gravity between the bird and the Earth and theoretically between the bird and my own mass is another sensory layer that stirs in me – feeling or imaging the bulk of the living creatures as it breaths in and out while I stand by to observe. Besides the visual contours and the physical presence of the bird, its behavior or seemingly intentional search for food, awareness of fellow herons, and lookout for possible threats in the sky or on the ground (or in the river), all these things seem to animate the tall animal. Merely watching it turn this way and that, later to crouch and bring the big wings into play and then lift into the air, this, too, is a magnet to my eyes.

When we talk of passing the time before a flight or some event by “people watching” perhaps that means a mix of entertainment or info-tainment. One part of the appeal of looking at fellow people is to benchmark or compare to ourselves and those we love and respect: are these strangers conforming to the range of normal and expected ways of walking, sitting, talking, dressing, eating, and so on? By extension, any behaviors that fall at the margins of our own definition and experience of “normal” become tacit challenges – is this difference a threat or rebuke to our own “normal”; or the novelty may be a source of delight, stimulation, or insight. And anything that goes past these outer boundaries of what is known, expected, allowed, or (culturally) normal becomes a fascination to watch because it is alien; an outlier, or outlandish in a literal sense of “not from around here.” So there is people watching that interests us much like TV or movies or novels (even non-fiction, perhaps). It is this endless appetite for comparison and reminding ourselves about what is normal, desired, trusted, worthy of respect or aspiration, and so on.

But as with the great blue heron turning his glance this way and that way in the cool still September morning, also with people watching there is interest in observing intentionality play out. We watch to see if we can grasp what the others are doing, are about to do, or meant to do. In other words, we like to supply captions to the images that present themselves before our eyes. There is comfort in knowing (or telling ourselves that we know) what is happening in a given scene. On familiar ground and among one’s own cohort probably the accuracy for interpreting what is going on will be very high. But among strangers in a strange context, the chances of understanding the meaning or purpose may be very mistaken, particularly when there is a different language or society involved.

These things, then, seem to be what was speaking to me as I walked across the morning bridge over the Hino River this morning before cars filled the road. There is the visual presence of the bird occupying the space of the bright surface of the water. There is the physical mass of the bird as a fellow creature with beating heart and lungfuls of air. There is the purposeful movements and pauses that comprise the bird’s minutes there in the water before setting off for another location upstream 100 meters. But unlike “people watching” this bird is not a peer reference group (nor do I know enough herons to watch this one as point of comparison to those others to judge if this one is ‘normal’ or an outlier). However, just about the same was watching people, I did look at the sequence of movements and try to imagine some realistic interpretations to tell myself “I know what the bird is trying to do; what the bird’s goal is.”

Having distilled some of the layers of interest in the scene that caught my attention this morning, I will look at other times when I am drawn to the light or shadows filled indirectly by skylight or other sources and ask myself analytically what sorts of things tug at my heartstrings and cause me to pause and frame the subject just so before releasing the shutter.


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Light values (dynamic range) vs. slight values (preoccupations)

In summer the early morning is a good time of day for walking around the town –cars are few, light is warm, air is cool, and thoughts are clear. Moving along the sidewalk the angled light casts long shadows and touches the surfaces of things in a glittering way. Even without looking through a camera lens the familiar elements of composition come to mind as I mentally form some scenes in passing. The colors of store fronts, the texture of weathered wooden walls and rusted metal sheathing, the warm tone of the first hour of daylight, the line of one subject in foreground and another in background to give shape to the composition, and the play of shadow and light values brightest to darkest all come to mind in the morning walk as one subject after another comes into view.

bright sunlight on streetscape surfaces

looking at line, light, texture, color, juxtaposition

For a person of school age there will be other concerns and interest to fill their minds than the light talking to the streetscape. So, too, of a parent taking care of a household with people of younger and older generations. For a retired person there will be still other interests and preoccupations. Perhaps only someone in a contemplative, reflective, or philosophical frame of mind will pass these shops and houses along the street and think about the composition of light values, textures, colors, and lines of foreground and background. Instead the young or old will be too busy paying attention to costs, time, safely crossing the street, making sure not to forget to return a phone call or avoiding peer criticism for overlooking one’s obligations. In other words, more attention goes into safely crossing the road than in pausing to really see the road: its color, texture, line, and lighting. Most people are too busy with actively playing the game of life to be able to stop their forward motion long enough to look around and see exactly how things look and the way that light abundantly touches most everything directly, or indirectly, or how it is suggested by its absence (shadow). We readily emphasize the BUSINESS of living instead of the business of LIVING.

Perhaps the recent attention on “mindfulness” associated with Buddhism and specifically the writings and recordings of Thich Nhat Hanh when one is walking, eating, meeting others, and so on can also be applied to this situation of walking early in the morning and really seeing, touching, smelling the passing views from one minute to the next. Too often in a conversation the listener is not hearing the meanings but instead is dwelling on the next question to ask, the reply to the speaker’s point, and so on. Too often in walking through one’s day, similarly, the person is too busy dwelling on what comes next rather than to abide in the present moment and to see all there is to see of a place. “Wherever you are, BE there,” is one form that the mindfulness instruction takes. Notice the shapes, color, light, and light. Hear the summer morning sounds of cicadas. Smell the breakfast cooking, the wisp of tobacco smoke in passing, or the river smell as you walk its bank.

So there is a basic tension between looking that just skims the surface in search of familiar cues and landmarks in one’s hurried routines, but does not deeply look at what is there –on the one hand; and the inverse: looking past the surface and seeing the complete context with the sort of augmented* reality of an experienced archaeologist excavating, a forensic specialist reading clues, or a hunter tracking the signs of what happened earlier at a location. In the typical mindset, much in a rush to accomplish the day’s plans, there is usually little extended reflection on the flow of events, since the biggest consideration is instrumental or functional; getting something done, paying debts, meeting the deadline, avoiding liability, putting food on the table. In the inverse, the task accomplishment is secondary, while the reflecting about the way things are takes priority. One extreme is to be a walking canvas, sensitive to the visual details and meanings, in and of themselves of value and interest. The other extreme is to be blind to these visual values and instead be preoccupied with “things to do,” including places to go, people to meet, money to spend. Surely somewhere in the middle is best: busy with normal life, but also filled with the beauty and feeling of awe from the wonder of light all around you. Go forth with list of errands in one hand, but with camera in the other hand to make a record of what you see and think along the way.

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* Augmented by seeing history, past circumstances, and individual aspirations, as well as futures circumstances that may be probable in a location; seeing whole generations expressed in material forms; visualizing social networks and burdens of ownership in caring for property, businesses, or fields and forests; imagining dreams achieved but also plans gone awry; envisioning cultural expectations and ideas that shift sometimes in a single generation.


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Learning curve – end points, acceleration, pausing

When it comes to exercising one’s eye for pictures, there are many elements to become conversant in: light values (source, indirect – reflected, surfaces, angles and qualities of light per season and latitude), composition (timing and shutter speed of capture, aperture and depth-of-field, focal length of lens/angle of view, alone and in conjunction, lines, proportion, positioning, fore – mid- background, shadow and light), and subject treatment (alone, in context, in contrasting setting, applying filters – lighting – hdr or other influences); not to mention post-processing options and advisability to enhance and clarify versus over-do and separate viewer from intended subjects. Typically of a new photographer’s mind and eye there is a sequence of steps on the road to maturity and developing one’s “voice” –to use a writer or musician expression for the confident walk that a person is able to take once having mastered conventional elements and rules in order to express one’s original compositing, pastiche, or indeed expression and message.

search string, Learning curve, gives visual representation of the idea of expanding mastery

search string, Learning curve, gives visual representation of the idea of expanding mastery

A beginner in the digital camera age has the advantage over the film learner because result of experimenting are instantaneous and the easy and low cost of sharing or producing various printed versions is relatively easy to learn and do singly or in multiples. Thus the cycle of trial and error is sped up thanks to digital cameras, including the ubiquity of cellphone lens and sensors and apps to alter or improve what the phone sees in order approximate what the human eye perceived in a place or time worthy of capture and communication to others. Some of familiar milestones on the road to greater photo experience of seeing, thinking and capturing/producing images include these: cliche shots (well worn compositions from family, work, or community events: blowing out candles of birthday cake, first day of school, sunset at vacation spot, etc), self aware or ironic shots (self in mirror, or reflected in windows; pictures of others taking pictures), visual puns or jokes (antenna that appear to come from one’s head or the shot of a hand that seems to hold a cloud in it), verbal jokes (bumper stickers, posters, public service messages framed against a subject that supports or else contradicts the message; example, “no smoking” but a hand holding lit cigar is foregrounded).

Little by little one’s ability to overcome challenging lighting (mixed, less than ideal, harsh, artificial color temperature), inconvenient shooting environment (rain, windchill, storm conditions, extended effort to get into position, miscellaneous adversity of natural, linguistic, or cultural factors) and the experience to translate what one conceives visually into the limitations of one’s equipment and sensor grows stronger and stronger. One’s sensitivity to the language of light, color, texture and so forth increases; both the ability to “read” and understand these matters, and the ability to “speak” or express oneself in these terms.

The photo sharing sites, and before that the pre-Internet practice of building up visual vocabulary by browsing shelves of library books in the TR 680 classification (Library of Congress system of numbering books) or 770s (Dewey Decimal system), is one way to expand and deepen one’s awareness of locations and qualities of light that others have conveyed already. In so doing daily, one’s learning curve and fluency in the language of lens and light accelerates. The complementary part of seeing other’s work is to be responsive to photo opportunities of interesting location and captivating light qualities in one’s own daily routines. Carrying some form of camera in a holster for quick draw shooting of fleeting scenes is one way to make visual notes during one’s day and year. Some people go further and share their work in a daily blog, 365 or Photo-a-Day, project. Both sides of the exercise –becoming responsive to certain features and qualities from other’s work, becoming responsive to subjects in one’s own photography— work together to move one along the learning curve. Marking “favorite” in the photo sharing sites builds up a collection of images that allow some reflection and searching for the common elements that speak to one’s own eye. The same is true in periodically reviewing one’s own captures to discover what seems to be the connecting thread in one’s shots.


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quoting for photos

A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.
Ansel Adams

I do not object to retouching, dodging. or accentuation as long as they do not interfere with the natural qualities of photographic technique.
Alfred Stieglitz

No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.
Claude Monet

Seeing these and others in print caused me to seek more online. The result is a compilation of quotes by Photographers or about Photography.