In part one of this pair of articles on seeing photographically, we examined our mental expectations of art, and considered whether it was a product of nature or nurture, and if it could be taught; in part two, we’ll approach seeing from the opposite end of the continuum: what if you can’t stop seeing? The images used to decorate this article are a series of perhaps non-obvious compositions that may not have appeared immediately apparent to the unconscious observer.
Although I touched on this somewhat in the article dealing with the stages of creative evolution of a photographer, I think there are several ‘levels’ to seeing; and by seeing, I mean the ability to create an aesthetically pleasing and balanced composition that conveys the meaning or message intended by the creator, lit in a way that enhances the presentation and makes the subject obvious. Firstly, one needs to be aware and conscious of any available opportunities, interesting subjects or potential frames present in one’s surroundings. Next comes awareness of light and the quality of light; where the shadows fall and how harsh/ hard those shadows quite seriously affects the overall balance of the composition. Such shadows must be thought of as additional shapes within the frame, not extensions of their parent objects – they can overlap their parents (thus reducing apparent size) or be projected onto other parts of the frame, thus requiring space in their own right to ‘breathe’.
After that comes the ability to create a composition using available subjects, elements and light; I like to think of it as the ability to find a frame, or create some semblance of order out of chaos. The photographer isn’t so much creating something as isolating and presenting something that’s already there in a way that makes it stand out to the audience. This in itself is not an easy thing to accomplish, and most photographers never pass this stage; our world has so many potential images from so many perspectives which change as the light illuminating it changes, which means that it’s more than possible to never exhaust this source of composition. It’s related to but not the same as the idea of a strong image being constructed of a near infinite number of smaller sub-compositions – and you can read about that in my article on the subject here.
The next step is perhaps best encapsulated by the motto of one of the higher end Swiss watch brands: “Inventit et Fecit” (F.P. Journe) which roughly translates to ‘invented and made’. The photographer needs to not only be able to see and create a composition from what’s already there, but also to imagine what could be. In the simplest way, this could take the form of changing the light through selective metering or flash (which of course changes the shadows in the image, and changes the balance of the composition); it can increase in complexity by degrees to the point where you not only engineer the various elements of the composition through subject/ object choice and positioning, but also light; taken a step further, the artist/ photographer envisions things that aren’t quite physically possible to achieve, but must be accomplished with the help of some postprocessing. I suppose that becomes borderline digital illustration, and this ‘final state’ ties in quite nicely with the final stage of creative evolution.
At some point, after taking enough photographs and looking at enough of other people’s work, I found myself basically seeing frames everywhere I looked – it was a compositional awakening of sorts. I was no longer tied to the situation, the subject or the equipment; I could make images that satisfied me at any time. This was an incredibly liberating feeling. I was making images in more or less a stream-of-consciousness fashion; I’d shoot literally hundreds of frames a day, most of which – barring technical errors such as camera shake or over/ underexposure – would be compositionally sound. And then came the point when I had to process them. Whilst I enjoyed being prolific for several months, the sheer amount of time required to get through that many images was becoming a challenge. Sorting, editing and completing my output was draining, and as a result, the quality of my work took a bit of a hit.
This ‘awakening’ actually came about because of an equipment switch; I went from the D3 and a full slew of pro zooms to a Leica M8, one lens, and one point and shoot. It wasn’t the equipment per se that made me open my eyes, but the process imposed by that equipment: the Leica was manual focus, and for the most part, used with manual metering; it forced me to either slow down, think and be deliberate (static subjects), or be highly observant, anticipative, and always ready – I would constantly change focus distance and exposure settings based on my surroundings. The single lens (initially, at least) forced me to previsualize one focal length, and become accustomed to its properties, leading to stronger compositions. The point and shoot, on the other hand, forced me to decompose every scene into form and consciously think about subject separation by every means other than depth of field – since there’s no way to achieve isolation this way with a small-sensored camera. I experimented with light, color, texture and motion, reaching a point where the objects and subjects in a scene decomposed down to pure form. I suppose I shot so much and analysed my images so intensively through that six month or so period that something clicked, and it all made sense.
The demands of my day job then forced a several month long hiatus from photography; when I returned to the rangefinders, none of it felt intuitive anymore, and I was missing shots and unable to previsualize the scene. (With everyday practice, I could zone focus at f2, compose from the hip, and compensate fairly accurately for the frame lines.) I returned to the DSLR fold, but fortunately managed to retain the ability to see, and would land up working on visualizing the end result.
At this point in time – shooting something pretty much every day, but actively trying to discipline and restrict myself into not shooting something unless I think the results are going to hit all four of the critical criteria* or the image is necessary strictly for documentary purposes (or client satisfaction, I suppose) – I see compositions everywhere; I see both what exists in situ without interfering with the object or subject, but I also see what could be with some mild intervention on the part of the photographer, whether it be changing light, adding or removing elements, or postprocessing. This applies to both complete scenes and objects – the former would be photographing in a reportage situation, the latter would be in studio, with an object or watch and full control of the process. I look at objects and see abstractions to pure form brought on by the shape of the object, and the way light interacts with its surfaces and textures; I see in color and black and white, and generally know when to use either – though in some situations, both can work. I’m aware of the strengths and weaknesses of my equipment and the various formats that I use, and I think generally make the right choice to present my intended image in the strongest way possible, though I could probably make do with whatever camera I had at the time. In short, my images look the way I intend them to, and I can see those images in the real world before they exist in the camera.
*Quality of light, clarity of subject, balance of composition and transmission of the idea
The problem is that it’s actually getting to the point where my ‘photographic eyes’ are affecting the way I see the world even when I’m not photographing. I can no longer seem to see in any other way; there are times when I want to switch off that vision and just enjoy the scene, but instead I’m seeing floating frame lines and imaging how many millimetres I need, what format might work best, or how things would look if only the light were from this angle and of this color (i.e. at a certain time of day)…I actually sometimes wonder if I see things that don’t exist, or can only exist through the fixed point of view of a camera. I actually suffer from the anxiety of feeling like there’s always something I have to capture; it’s a compulsion that becomes quite uncomfortably acute at times.
It’s not the same as wanting to carry all of your gear with you all the time in case you miss not having the 300mm or 12mm; the problem is that I can see a workable composition with 300mm, 12mm, and everything in between. And I feel almost pathologically driven at times to lift a camera to my eye – any camera – to record it. It can be tiring, and stressful; when travelling in a foreign city, I almost can’t stop shooting – I have to literally force myself to slow down and absorb, enjoy, think – rather than just shoot. If I didn’t, I’d probably produce thousands of images in a single day. As it is, a productive day will probably yield at least a hundred I’m pleased with.
Dorothea Lange once said “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera” – and in many ways, perhaps this is true. The quest to become a good photographer forces you to be aware and curious: aware of what’s around you, and curious about how it might look projected into two dimensions. Returning to the initial discussion on art, however: I personally believe that photographic images still need to have some sort of visual anchor to help the observer place what they are seeing: either in terms of scale, orientation or simply something familiar to relate to. Anything lacking this – must be so completely abstract as to completely avoid distracting the observer into trying to identify it, but rather simply appreciate the balance of form, light and texture. Unfortunately, the photographer that produced that picture – assuming they can consistently create work of a similar level of quality – probably didn’t really appreciate the scene, but instead saw light and was trying to figure out how to map the tonal range of that scene against their sensor. I know I probably was. You’ll notice that almost all of the images accompanying this article are of the ‘abstraction of form and light’ kind – it seems to be a common theme for me of late. Don’t read too much into it; does the cigarette butt bottom-center in the image above hold any significance or particular meaning? No, it’s just there; the rest of the frame was composed to a pleasing balance, and the details are just a sort of visual garnish.
Where do we go from here? I think that this ‘continuous seeing’ isn’t much use if you can’t focus and control it; I suppose it’s a bit like having the ability to speak coherent sentences – even discourse that makes logical sense and is well-reasoned – without knowing the value of silence, or that a few well-timed words can make a much greater impact than a deluge. As always, self-awareness and self-assessment are both highly useful traits for not just the photographer but the person, too. Spending some effort in curating one’s own though process is probably a good way of tightening the quality and consistency of one’s output. Personally, I want to recover that sense of wonder and discovery and somehow convey this in my images; I need to find new ways to see, but at the same time, even further strengthen the part of me that serves as editing gatekeeper – both immediately before capture, and after. I don’t want to create images that my audience can’t relate to; whilst there is a niche for this, it isn’t what I do and probably will never be. I want to find and share the extraordinary in the ordinary; I suppose that hasn’t really changed since through the years I’ve been photographing, but the method and the output has hopefully evolved somewhat. Here’s to the journey – and to not forgetting to stop occasionally and appreciate the view without the camera. MT
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