see2think

thinking with pictures


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Quick camera finger ready to release the shutter

dumping rice chaff at side of garden

There is an adage dear to the hearts of designers, maybe some would say also of the Creator of the Universe, “Form Follows Function”; that is, the first principle should be the purpose, use, or function to be accomplished. And based on that goal, the structure that enables the process or function will come out of those defining conditions. In the arena of composing and capturing a still or moving picture, there is also an intimate relationship between form and function.
These days “form-factor” is used to refer to the physical characteristics of a product like a camera -its weight, the number of exposures from its battery, whether or not it comes with physical or touchscreen controls, and so on. One consequence of form factor is that big gear tends to left at home, unless there is a pre-determined, scheduled subject to record. Otherwise it will be the cellphone camera or pocket-sized enthusiast model that is within reach for catching moments that arise unexpectedly, or arise with only a few precursor clues that a prize composition is about to come together in front of one’s eyes.
The story about legendary landscape artist and concert pianist Ansel Adams comes to mind: for some of his courses he challenged students to use camera of their own choosing, while he restricted himself to a point and shoot model. Among the final assignments and display of best work, he often stood out for his eye and the darkroom magic of experience he applied to a composition. That echoes the saying about “the best camera is the one you happen to have in your hand.” Even if you have a powerful, advanced piece of technology in your cupboard, it is not much use when not within easy and immediate reach.
Another adage comes into play here, “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” This one has been attributed to the man on the U.S. legal tender, the $10 bill (Alexander Hamilton, the first national Treasurer). It means that the flush of serendipity one feels when the planets align and one is recipient of great good fortune requires two things – preparation & opportunity: one’s mind, experience, gear all has to be ready to seize an opportunity in the event that it appears. When those two things come together, one is overwhelmed by a feeling of having been blessed; magically the recipient of “luck.”
In the arena of composing and capturing a moment in time, this means being prepared mentally and technically to recognize the potential for a great photo as it comes into being (quickly drawing the camera, making any fine-tuning adjustments of focus, exposure, or framing before releasing the shutter) or, better yet, being able to divine the elements coming together ahead of the moment they will intersect and one will be ready to capture the composition as the clouds drift from the sun and produce the desired shadow play, or the second when the figure and ground line up, for example (Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”). This foreknowledge or premonition corresponds with the celebrated hockey player’s knack for being at the right place at the right time. Wayne Greztky famously explained his success this way, “You don’t skate to the puck; you skate to the place where the puck is going to be next.” The same can be said of Preparation Meeting Opportunity with camera in hand and composition in one’s mind. Look to what is coming next.
Pedaling along the skirt of a mountainside in rural Japan (above video clip), the scene ahead of me was unfolding. In a trice I could see the farmer in the middle of the process of offloading heaps of rice chaff at the roadside of his field. My mind was on the lookout for “video snapshots,” scenes that are mostly static, but are recorded using the video function in order to present the soundtrack for that composition, sometimes with a bit of motion to tease the viewer’s eye. So in this instance an opportunity was met by preparation as I reached into coat pocket, launched the camera/video app of the cellphone, positioned my bike for the composition, pressed record and then waited for the anticipated sequence to play out. This clip is not a spiritual revelation or moment of profound significance, but by its ordinariness it merits a kind of meaningfulness of its own. Being alert for social or cultural meanings that (are about to) present themselves, and being ready (and practiced) to compose and capture them can be very satisfying. It is a visual way to engage with the flow of significance all around and to escape from the dull routines that form when taking for granted one’s surroundings, blind to what is happening, desensitized to the many meanings in play.
Traveling around the valley in the early Saturday morning of harvest time by car or by foot would probably make this video snapshot unlikely since the speed of car forces one’s eye to the center of the road. On the other hand, travel on foot means one’s circle of awareness tends to be arm’s length or perhaps 50 or 100 meters to the front and sides, occasionally backwards if one turns full circle to take in that prospect. But the variable speed of bicycle (lazily drifting at foot speed, pressing ahead at full-speed to cover some distance, or somewhere between) means that one’s ears and eyes and nose can take in all the clues to what is going on across the surrounding space of land and sky, or (better yet) clues to what is ABOUT to go on across the surrounding landscape with time enough to compose the shot and wait for the moment of shutter release.
Stretching the analogy of seeing as a form of thinking and being, perhaps one’s passage through the day or indeed through an entire lifetime really is shaped by one’s vehicle; the form-factor of one’s camera (well matched to one’s needs, automatic in one’s reflexes and ability to capture what is in the eye of one’s mind) and the form-factor of one’s vehicle (passing along life’s byways on foot, bike, car or by hot-air balloon).
The adage about “Life is a Journey” can be read in reverse, as well; “Journeys are a lot like life.” The means of transporting yourself along the way can determine what comes into view and what passes in a blur. The gear one carries to pass the time and engage with the social and physical environment also shapes what one sees and records, seizing on what is significant now, or was significant in the past, or will one day come to be significant. Things like framing selected parts and excluding others; centering a particular subject or using focus, exposure, leading lines, light and shadow, color and contrast to represent a scene visually also affects the way it is perceived and remembered in one’s mind, too.
So give a care to choice of gear, choice of transport, and the nimbleness to read the scene not just for what is at play in the meaning of the scene at that moment, but also looking for what is in process and is about to take place in the moments to come, or at a slower timescale, in the process for taking shape over the full season, an entire generational time frame, or indeed a lifetime to which one is witness.

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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.