thinking with pictures

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seeing with your own eyes -certainty or Rashomon effect?

Kurosawa’s Rashomon and before that Shakespeare’s Hamlet showed audiences the same events told from several viewpoints; the actions and outcomes do not change, but the connective tissue, standpoint, depth of field, focal length and field of view affect the meaning and the ability to tie the matter to other subjects. This simple illustration takes a slightly different position, not rotating from one set of eyes to another, as with the stage productions, but instead by altering the frame of composition, making it ever more inclusive (or the reverse; more exclusive).

illustration of 3 nested frames for a subject

Three ever wider frames to see with own eyes: composition, camera & composition, context of all.

Lawyers and students of psychology are taught that eye-witness accounts can sometimes be unreliable. In the first generations of photography, the popular belief was that “a photo does not lie,” so closely does its verisimilitude correspond to the scene in front of the lens at the moment of capture. But closer examination has shown careful forgeries or frauds are possible, even in the days before digital manipulation. And yet when our eyes present a composition, we seem to hold everything in the frame as a complete statement; as if it were all that we need to know and that the context outside the frame, behind the scenes, or the events before or after the frozen moment will not contribute to the certainty or reality of visual grasp of the things within the frame.


As a result of this high denomination of truth value attached to visual information, whether staged or spontaneous, we tend to accept as necessary and sufficient proof whatever is produced in visual form. Similar certainty of one’s viewpoint holds by extension to cultural (mis)communication, ethnic differences, religious worldviews, or tendencies that distinguish masculine and feminine communication patterns both verbal and non-verbal. In other words, a perfectly rational person of goodwill and wide experience in the world can easily hold a firm view of how the world works, his or her place in the scheme of things, and what master narrative should be applied to interpret one’s past, present, and the intended course to come in one’s future aspirations and reference points. And yet a second person who is equally well-adjusted to a very different part of the world may hold very firmly an understanding of the world that diametrically opposes the first person. By looking at the illustration, above, the role of adjusting one’s frame and composition can be seen. There will be times when one person’s perspective differs to another person’s perspective, and yet the underlying facts can be agreed upon: the scene is the same, but the frame drawn around the subject, indeed the choice of which should be the main subject, can differ.


All this rambling is to say that the primacy of visual understanding can lead to feelings of certainty, or possibly a sense of superior vantage point to trump any alternate view. But by returning to the simple illustration, above, the principle of reframing can be seen as a way to permit diverse interpretations to coexist, much in the spirit of the Buddhist parable of seekers climbing the same mountain, but starting from different sides and facing the sun and moon and wind and weather accordingly from different angles before coming to the same summit and meeting the others there to share that mountaintop experience.



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Shutter speed cure -thaw the ‘frozen moment’ and bring it back into life

collage pre1970 pics

Four generations in Yorkshire, UK

For the fraction of the second when light is exposed to film or electronic sensor, the world stands still; the subject is arresting; the moment stands is sharp clarity instead of motions blurring from one scene to the next. And when looking at others’ work published on the shelves of library, walls of museum, or a personal collection; or the albums of one’s own family or those of a friend, an occasional image has the power to transport you back to another language, society, location or point in time -whether it is one’s own narrative,  that of someone familiar, or belonging to a person unknown. Perhaps there is a technique to make nearly all images return to living things, rather than to remain static and disconnected to the preoccupations and ambitions of our present moment?
Watching an out of date, out of fashion movie or recorded broadcast source may at first give one a smug feeling of being modern and not tied to the old fashioned ways; a feeling of superiority for a life today of possibilities that must seem more vivid, consequential and available to us than we assume was true of those older times. Just so, the same psychological distancing typically occurs when viewing something (old or new) not in our own native language. Somehow we take ourselves and our habits and life chances to be normal and all others deficient to the extent they fall short to our standard of practice. But something magical happens when we let go of our presumed normality and (moral) superiority. Then the foreign scenes that flicker before us become plausible, real, and perhaps worth aspiring to; we join the game and seek to know the rules of the unfamiliar culture, language and society. Then the black and white drama of our parent’s or grandparent’s moment in history no longer seems quaint, ineffectual, or unimportant. Instead we can begin to identify with the characters and allow that they –in their time and style and historical moment,– had as much gumption, ambition, and grace as we attribute to our present time. In particular there is something important about the eyes; “the window to the soul,” as has been observed by others.
So whether the photo is a barely-dressed person – youth, prime of life, or frail; or whether the photo is an heavily dressed person – young, middle, elder, it matters not if their skin and hair and gender mirrors our own, or is alien to our own place in life. No matter, It is still possible to non-verbally and powerfully lock into a shared human identity that transcends decade or social status. The secret lies in the eyes, a certain look of strong intention and presumption of competence in the scope of the person’s own cultural and social landscape to get things done that they have learned need their attention; their confident knowledge of what represents a risk and what indicates an opportunity.
In other words, as a viewer of present-day or distant still images, the trick to giving the frozen moment some life and weight of meaning is to extend to the subjects in the scene that same urgency and purpose that animate your own waking moments now. Look at the persons in the scene and tell yourself they, no less and no more than yourself, have about them a quickness of spirit and earnestness of heart. When you have given the subject in the image such life-like meaning, then they cease to be 2-dimensional objects and they take on a personal presence; someone with name and face, someone with relatives, someone with a past and ambitions for a path for the future. Call this look in the person’s eye “mien.” It is a meaningful look – not some secret shared between the person in the frame and you, the viewer of the image, but a look that carries meaning and future intention. Breathing life into the 1/250th of a second just takes some practice. It starts with a closer look at the eyes; not to dismiss the person as remote istant in time or distant in culture different to one’s own, but just the opposite; to invite yourself into that person’s time and place and find meaning on the playing field they actively inhabited before and after the shutter release was pressed.
It is facile to gloss over important differences in rhythm, texture, taste and language of a time or place and declare “every one is the same, deep down inside.” And yet going partway along that line of reasoning is what it takes to make a flat photography take on 3-dimensional presence again. There is an equally simplistic pigeon hole for “one of us” or “one of them” to break down. The true vision is somewhere in-between, sort of like DNA of human populations around the planet: almost entirely the same, but the differences that do exist are important to acknowledge; not as barriers, but as part of one’s definition and sense of self, as well as sense of other. And so when viewing (or making) photographs, it is not that all subjects are deep down inside made of the same assumptions and ideals as we ourselves; nor the opposite extreme, that the people are unconnected and irrelevant to our own trajectories. Instead it is good to get past whatever differences at first signal to you they are not like you; “not from around here.” But bridging the surface differences of time or culture, you then become part of that subject in the frame, and they also can inhabit your time and place, right now. The result is the frozen images thaw out and once more are alive with possibility; not relics, or curious artifacts. As the distance between self and photo disappears they become living in one’s world, but the reverse is true, too: we viewers of today touch the world of frozen moments, since one day others will view photos in which we are the 2 dimensional, distant image.

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looking beyond the crop lines

much of value and meaning lies outside the crop lines

much of value and meaning lies outside the crop lines

The wonder of on-screen editing of digital images is the ease of trial and error. Instead of darkrooms, trays of chemicals, drying times and for color work, even more complexity of temperature and chemical selection. Now a person can start with the captured composition and go hog-wild with filters, effects, multiple crop renditions, and various other post-processing expressions. Ansel Adams, trained originally as classical pianist, spoke of the captured image on negatives as a musical score containing all the information a person would need to carry out various interpretations in the live performance. In other words, while vision to composition and capture was essential, what mattered as much or more was the next part, producing a final print for others to see.

Taken to the extreme, one might wish all locations, subjects or events to be portrayed in 360 degree spherical capture, thereby producing an inclusive moment. The difficulty is not so much technical as human: too much information (all inclusive context) can be as unfriendly as too little information (out of context). Possibly a middle ground is the panorama, not 360 spherical degrees, but 145-180 degrees to simulate the human eyes’ field of view; produced not by peculiar optical formula, but instead by software stitching multiple frames into a single fabric, based on the proportions captured with a ‘normal’ focal length (35-65mm, expressed in terms of a 35mm film camera).

As a photographer or an audience member develops an eye for light, line, composition and significance of social observations, the ability to identify a picture in its surrounding context grows wider. That is to say, a beginner may require a tightly cropped presentation to see a subject in its glory. But an intermediate, serious enthusiast, or full-time amateur (leaving aside the constraints on professionals) may instead be able to see a subject in its splendor and wonder without that tight frame. The well-developed vision allows a person to see the subject together in its context and then convey this wider field of view while still centering on the subject itself. In other words, the crop lines can grow ever wider as experience or expertise expands. In the picture above, the suggested crop lines make a simple statement: children view sunny harbor. But the original image, outside these crop lines, in fact is Whitby harbor on the North Sea coast of England in middle February, mid-week during the half-term school holidays. On the horizon is St. Mary’s on the left and the ruins of Whitby Abbey on the right. Surely this wider context adds much meaning to the image. To give the verbal context with the narrowly cropped picture does restore some of the meaning excluded in the suggested crop lines, but still this central subject of the cropped lines can still be observed in the original, wider frame of the image. However, depending on the sensitivity of the viewer’s visual faculties, little of note may stand out without the aid of the crop lines.

In summary, in photographic vision as in living, daily perception, experience in reading a scene has its rewards. No two people will see things the same way, of course, since they bring their store of words and images to their reading (of book, scripture, film, social engagement, problem-solving deadlines, etc). But to this difference in standpoint we can add also a difference in depth of experience. The tighter the crop lines and more simply centered the subject, the easier it is for a person to perceive the significance. The simplest of all is a subject isolated from background. This corresponds to the syllable or word or phrase level of expression: worn out tennis ball on pavement, for example. The opposite extreme is a composition that seems to invite an entire episode or series of events within its frame as the eye travels along the several compositional lines from near ground to background, and from corner to center and side to side, passing between image and one’s own internal landscape of memories, associations and imagination. A private version of just such a vision is a “memory place” (Pierre Nora c.1993 wrote of “les lieux de memoirs”), but a shared or public version is a composition that invites a viewer to explore its detail again and again. In between the “word level” and the “story level” are most photographers’ work – sometimes expressing a single subject, other times giving a measured but small context. By adding narration (audio) or caption, the verbal layer can weave threads of meaning to the form a bigger context. Therefore, when admiring a picture, consider also what lies outside the crop lines – not just distraction or competing elements to the main subject, but a native setting in which the jewel that first caught the photographer’s eye can be found. The more that one can appreciate the gem in the natural setting (not just set into a platinum band, polished and displayed in a velvet box with track lighting spotlights), the more likely one will be able to spot other treasures in their own daily life, too.

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context – 6 photographers make 6 different portraits

Experiment: each photographer was given a different story about the person coming in for a portrait. Results varied widely when told the subject was fisherman, self-made millionaire, parolee, beach lifeguard, psychic, and so on.

six different backstories led 6 photographers to make differing portraits

six different backstories led 6 photographers to make differing portraits

Perhaps the same contextual framing and predisposition affects documentary projects, archival work, ethnographic field studies, or transposing a biographical sketch from one language to another for readers of a different culture or era. In other words, if the lens can stand for a perceptual grasp of a subject, then the same assumptions that these photographers baked into their choice of composition and lighting and shutter release also may reveal how one goes about engaging with the world in general: we prejudge people and settings, we view the world as half-empty instead of half-full, for example; or at the time of middle age we feel that so many opportunities remain, rather than feeling that so few days are left before extinction.

And while this portrait experiment misled the photographers who were doing their very best creative work to interpret the man, based on the sparse backstory provided, the end result of this decoy experiment powerfully demonstrates to journalists, archaeologists and other scientists (predisposed with the working theories or hypotheses they bake into their research design and deployment of available methods), philosophers and novelists, as well as social observers of all stripes that assumptions and prior knowledge frame one’s boundaries and the placement of one’s subject within that context.

By extension the frame we paint for our selves (presentation of self; self-image; concept of self) is colored by the assumptions we adopt, discover, aspire to, or have been given by others we know and have been labeled by society more generally.

see the experiment, or jump to the time mark showing the resulting portraits

Blurb: A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what’s in front of it. To prove this we invited six photographers to a portrait session with a twist. ‘Decoy’ is one of six experiments from The Lab, designed to shift creative thinking behind the lens.  [November 2015]

De-humanizing, Re-humanizing a place

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De-humanizing, Re-humanizing a place

I’ve joined some of the user groups at flickr. One is ‘urban landscapes’ and seems to show few people inhabiting these built spaces. The persons present, as in this case, are normally anonymous –without face or name or intention or purpose. How different, then, to convey not only the wonder of the built space, but also to show individual lives in the frozen moment; a hint of where they have been in life and where they are aiming to go in the footsteps that follow the shutter release of the image. By personalizing the built spaces, the city becomes warmer, more accessible to meanings and ultimately more humanized. [creative commons thanks to’s Sea Turtle]

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more than pointing and shooting

A friend paraphrased Ansel Adams when he gave workshops and confined his own shooting with the students to a small camera, maybe analogous to the Point-and-Shoot camera of our time. At the end of the training and practice, everyone’s work would be displayed and judged. If anyone beat his score, then he’d refund their workshop payment. But none ever did beat him. All this is to say that the eye or vision of the photographer grows with experience, practice and command of one’s tools all along the workflow from preparing to set off with gear, to capturing, to producing and presenting the finished work.

Numerous essays and postings from Alain Briot at develop this idea of one’s deepening vision and extending the range of one’s technical powers, as well.

To begin with there is the intersection of date, location, time of day and position relative to the sun or other light source. Then there is choice of subject, its composition (lens, lighting, framing, connection or separation from adjacent and surrounding context), and moment of capture. Overlaying these tangible factors they may well be less obvious but still significant context of news value, cultural meaning, or social significance to the subject immediately and personally, or as a symbol or illustration for a more general expression; or even at the most abstract, an overlying meaning that is more abstract of all, derived from the play of color and form, texture and shading.

And so, while aiming the lens and pressing the shutter can produce a visual memento of a subject at a particular place and time, there is surely much more that goes into the decision to be at the right place and the right time before composing, recording and finally producing a vision of the scene.