Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Some Thoughts about "Seeing"

This post was prompted by Guy Tal and Dan Baumbach’s inter-blog conversation on the role of seeing in photography. In my youth I enrolled in the Famous Photographers Course which was a part of the Famous Artists School. They also ran a Famous Writers School as I recall. All three were based on lessons prepared by or under the advice of well known practitioners. The group behind the photography course consisted of Richard Avedon, Richard Beattie, Joseph Costa, Arthur d’Arazien, Alfred Eisenstaedt (one of my heroes at the time), Harry Garfield, Philippe Halsman, Irving Penn, Bert Stern & Ezra Stoller. Needless to say the course had a distinctly photojournalist/commercial bent. There were no art photographers on the list, indeed at that time (1963) photography as art was still a debatable topic although it was making headway.

The reason the Famous Photographers Course comes up now is because of one of the beginning lessons which talked about seeing, a lesson that immediately came to mind when reading the above mentioned posts by Guy and Dan. The lesson began by defining “seeing”. They said (paraphrased) that most people only “look”, they don’t “see”. Looking will show you where the door knob is so you can open the door, it helps you navigate your way through the world but you don’t truly see what is around you. Looking does not help you relate to your surroundings in a deep way. That lesson has probably been the most influential force on my photography in the ensuing 50 years.

I have learned (and taught) a great deal about photography, mostly of a technical nature, since then but technology changes, sometimes subtly as with the development of newer films like the tabular grained B&W films, to the more radical switch to digital. And the technology is important as a tool for translating what you saw into an image. Likewise the aesthetics of composition (leading lines, “S” curves, the so-called “rule” of thirds, etc.) are tools, but none of that is the message. The message is what you “saw”, the experience of the subject, the vision that impressed itself enough on your consciousness to inspire you to photograph it.

Even experienced photographers and artists spend a lot of time looking but not seeing. It is a necessary function of life. Not just “where’s the doorknob” but where is my fork, where is my coat & hat, etc. A generalized awareness of your surroundings is necessary to daily life and survival. Seeing is a kind of concentrated attention that deliberately shuts out the non-essential of a specific experience. If you have ever fallen in love you have done it (beauty is in the eye of the beholder). For the photographer/artist it is a practice similar to meditation in which you consciously devote your attention to the aspect of the subject that has inspired you to make a photograph (or draw or paint) and what needs to be done technically and compositionally to force your audience’s attention to that same aspect of the subject. This is true whether you are trying to show an object itself or the way the light falls on the object or some other aspect to tell your ‘story’ of the subject. The techniques you use should support what visual aspect of the subject inspired your vision of it. For me seeing is the core of photography. The rest is details.

Although I have been photographing for more years than anything else, in college I studied fine art, courses in drawing, painting, printmaking and ceramics (my major). Those who draw and paint do essentially the same thing in terms of visualizing their subject matter that photographers do but I have to say they have a distinct advantage when it comes to creating their images. If something detracts from the image, the draftsman/painter can simply change it or leave it out entirely. The photographer has to figure out how to work around such things, minimize them visually, find a different viewpoint, etc. The details of photography.

Of course in Photoshop we can eliminate such things but those of us who come from a photo journalistic background have a tendency to avoid major alterations in post exposure processing. I guess it’s partly that old habits die hard but it is also true that I tend to relate to things as they are. I know artists who can paint abstracts from nothing but a concept or fantasy images of things that exist only in their mind but I am fascinated by the world as it is and when I edit images I try to do it in a way that accentuates the particular aspect of the subject that attracts me.

I have often been asked by students “What should I photograph?” and have even read where some teachers have told students of landscape photography that to get good photos they have to go to where the good landscapes are, the Western National Parks. That advice might get you a remake of some of Ansel Adams photos, or some other more contemporary photographer but it won’t give you your photographs. You need to develop your own vision of the landscape. I used to show a lot of well known images in my classes and encourage the students to look at images they like while asking themselves why they are attracted to those images, why the images ‘work’ visually. It might be partly the subject and partly the composition but frequently an image grabs the viewer even though it violates “the rules”. The trick to making good images is to look deeply and deliberately until your looking evolves into seeing. Technique will help you render an image that communicates your seeing but only if the seeing was there first. And those occasions when you see something that you can capture with little effort?  That does not diminish the quality of the seeing or the image. Just say a quiet thank you for the gift.

Links to the posts by Guy and Dan are attached to their names above.

The photo at the top was one of those fortuitous images that presented itself to me and, with nothing more than judicious framing, I was able to capture exactly what I wanted, the diagonals of the individual lines and the overall shape against the reflection of the evening sky on the gently rippling surface of the pond. Plants emerging from the earth through water reflecting the heavens above. 

As always please do not repost without permission. Respect my copyright and link to this page if you wish to share.

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