Monday, 2 March 2009

A new perspective

Learning to see:
looking out of The National Gallery
Nelson's Column anchors the picture
The London Eye centers it

For most of my life, I was the person who always forgot to bring her camera on holiday. My family used to joke that by the time we got a roll of film developed, we had no idea what we would find on it: a bit of Halloween, somebody's birthday, a random school event, everyone dressed up for Easter. We took a decidedly casual approach to our recorded memories . . . and now I'm starting to wonder about all of the things that we've forgotten.

I've almost always owned a camera -- but something just basic; something that I didn't really know how to use.

One of the many unexpected things that blogging has brought into my life is a fledgling interest in photography. Although I've always had a reverence for words, I've just begun to appreciate the possibilities of images.

It has also occurred to me that my notoriously unobservant eye needn't remain that way. We can actually teach ourselves to see -- not just with an eye for more detail or better recall, but with an expanded sense of possibility for what seeing actually means.

At its best, blogging is a reciprocal dialogue. Lately, I have been noticing a fascinating confluence of ideas.

A flowing together of two or more streams.
The point of juncture of such streams.
The combined stream formed by this juncture.

As an example, on Friday I visited The National Gallery in London. As I was exiting the museum, I noticed how a glass hallway made an interesting vertical frame for some of the most iconic images of London. I truly don't think I would have noticed this view if I hadn't had a camera in my hand. Even just a few months of trying to record -- not just what I see, but something much better -- has started to expand the lens I look through.

I was thinking about this idea when I read Reya Mellicker's essay: Photography Changes How and What We See. I strongly urge you to read Reya's essay in its entirety-- and also her thoughtful and wonderfully inspiring blog The Gold Puppy -- but in the meantime, I'm going to share some of the thoughts that jumped out at me.

The more we look at photographs, the easier it is to perceive what we’re accustomed to ignoring.
Not long ago, Lucy (a brilliant photographer) happened to mention how photographs tend to show up all of the power lines/signage/trash bins that we are accustomed to just visually tuning out. It was one of those random confluences, as I had just had that realization myself. My attempts to take pictures of the countryside have made me so aware of the signs of human encroachment: power lines everywhere! (More confluence: As I went back to find the link, I discovered that Lucy had mentioned this again.)

In photographs, we are given a glimpse of the world through the eye, and in many ways through the heart, of other beholders. Suddenly we are able to see things and people, situations and landscapes, perspectives, angles, colors and shapes that we might never have noticed on our own.
This idea is all mixed up in blogging for me. The personal aspect of blogging -- the fact of being able to participate (through commenting) in what you see and how it makes you feel -- has transformed the idea of "the world" for me, both shrinking and expanding it. I've also realized that some people will find what I see (whether it is Trafalgar Square or the view outside of my window) exotic and interesting . . . just because it is different from what they see. Somehow, this enables me to appreciate my life in a different way: To think of it as something that I am crafting everyday.

Photography creates a bridge between what we expect to see, and all there really is to see.
How profound is that? And it makes sense on so many levels. Yesterday I was reading an interview of David Lynch and he mentioned -- with much excitement and awe -- that his highly pixilated camera could capture "something like 4,000 pieces of information per photograph." I don't even have 20/20 vision or artistic vision . . . much less the pixilated kind. Strangely enough, this mechanical device actually reveals so many mysteries.

The truth is that visually, we scan for what we know, for what we expect and for what we value, ignoring all the rest, which is a pretty narrow view when you think about it. But put a lens between the human eye and the world, capture an image, and many possibilities open up. Photography presents us with a way to see the unseen, to notice what isn’t usually obvious, and in so doing, opens the mind’s eye in many ways.


A Woman Of No Importance said...

Beautiful today, Bee - Very thoughtful - I have an award for you today, over at mine - Bless you!

willow said...

Coming from a long line of photographers, starting with my ggg grandfather when photography was new, I've always been into taking pictures. But blogging has given it a whole new angle! I've still not quite gotten into the hang of chronicling my every move for my readers. And I still forget to throw my camera into my handbag when I leave the house.

Great post, Bee. It's my lucky one of the day, posted at precisely 11:11!

Anil P said...

A camera is the third eye. What the camera does is goad us into recognising moments, and then to frame it so it stills the moment.

It is when one learns to visualise how a camera might see a moment (as opposed to a scene) that we will begin to wield the camera to its potential.

Sometimes the camera will make us take pictures simply because somewhere deep down we're driven to finding out 'what else' perspectives there are on offer in a moment structured by time.

And unless one can freeze a perspective, to be savoured in leisure later, there's no knowing a moment in all its dimensions, because at other times motion blurs a moment into passing away.

Then there's the geometry, the balance where contexts seem to fall into place, giving meaning to the captured moment.

In time a moment will come to define the identity of a memory, a moment captured by the camera.

I would suggest seeing Raghu Rai's works.

marja-Leena said...

Yes, yes to all of this! Even as a visual artist used to looking at things with some heightened awareness, the camera sees differently. Digital images are especially amazing in how easily we can explode the image larger and suddenly see more than our own eyes could see. This has inspired me to try to get closer and closer and now I crave a macro lens. An expensive obsession.

She said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
She said...

I usually lurk here, but this is such a beautifully rendered post that I wanted to let you know that it touched me deeply.

I love the thought of a "new perspective" for many reasons.

But most of all because you are right. We often simply (without thought!) resort to SEEING ONLY what we expect to see, and as a result, ignore the bigger picture.

This is true in photography, and I've found it to be true in relationships.

We see people through our lens of what we've come to expect of them, and we often miss so much of their inherent beauty and gifts.

I love the photo you took. It frames a perspective that I would have missed even had I been standing right next to you.

Expanding our vision is an art form, no?!

Dumdad said...

Hi Bee,

Thanks for visiting my blog: now here I am at yours. Interesting post.

I take lots of pix but I don't have any real talent for it. But photos are a great record (my kids as they grow up) and, of course, are fun to illustrate blogposts with.

Fantastic Forrest said...

LOVED this post and the comments too. You've inspired me. Consider yourself warned. My photos are not going to be nearly as great as yours. At least for the next year or two...but I'll figure it out eventually.

Prepare to see the great Pacific Northwest on my blog soon. Going out now, camera in hand.

Nimble said...

@ Anil P: I have never thought of a camera being one's third eye before. That's great!

Bee I like that picture. It's so much in such a compact space.

Over the past two years I have sorted through lots of old photos with my mother. Sometimes it was wonderful and sometimes it just made me want to start a fire. Archival is a big responsibility.

Beth said...

Your picture brought back such wonderful memories ! (Although I didn’t see things from that great vantage point.)
Not only does blogging enable you to see the world through the perspective of others, it makes you view your own world in a different way (i.e. is this blogworthy? shall I write about that?...).
Continued success with the photography – both for your sake and for those of us who follow your blog.

Bitty said...

Continuing with Nimble's comment: I love, love old photos, especially of myself as a child and of my family from times before I existed. One of my favorites is of my grandmother's kitchen at the time I was a pre-schooler. I remember its location in the house, the location of the doorways and the table. But the huge, glass-fronted cabinets and the range that was probably old at the time the photo was made were a surprise. I take in all the details, trying to imagine a time when those appliances were the norm, those products on the shelves were commonplace.

We take things for granted when they're "everyday" items. But the everyday quickly becomes the historical.

When that photo was taken, someone was just trying to take a picture of my grandmother. Now the photo has a life of its own.

Dave King said...

What never ceases to surprise me is that no matter how carefully I compose and try to edit the picture, the camera always finds something there that I had not noticed. Sometimes it ruins the image, sometimes it makes it. Great post. Astoundingly good.

herhimnbryn said...

Just look, then see....then click!

I carry my camera with me everywhere now. You are right it does open your eyes.

ps. I bought Diana Athill's book 'Somewhere towards the end'. Thankyou for recommending it. What a stunning writer, so honest too. I shall seek out the rest of her work now.

Bee said...

A Woman -- Thank you; you are so kind!

Willow - And eleven is my lucky number! The only problem with my new camera habit is that my children tend to sneer, "Is that for your blog?" (Why can't I have children who take pics of ghosts for me and think that blogging is cool?)

Anil - My goodness, your comment is astounding! It is exactly what I was trying to say (or maybe think) -- only it extends it. Photography is obviously a subject to which you've given much thought. I will look up Raghu Rai. Thanks for the recommendation.

Marja-leena - I've only had my camera for a couple of months and I'm already starting to want to experiment (particularly with close-ups) past its abilities. I wonder why this love/addiction has suddenly struck?

She - I'm so glad that you came out of the shadows. I'm interested in your comparison of a camera lens with our heart/mind lens. Please check out Reya's recent posts on love for more interesting thoughts in this direction.

Dumdad - Yes, even "bad" pictures are better than no pictures at all! Thanks for visiting me.

FF - I'd love to see the Pacific Northwest through your eyes. Believe me, I'm the merest neophyte when it comes to picture-taking . . . but I have a hunch that when you look at a lot of good pictures you start to get the sense of why something ïs interesting or pleasing to the eye. Capturing it, and sorting out light issues, is another story!

P.S. I am obsessively listening to that Zazie song, Je Suis Un Homme.

Nimble - Thanks for pic compliment. I took another one of the same scene -- which had a lovely couple in it -- but the lines just didn't work as well. Sometimes the tiniest variations make such a big difference.

Archiving! Organization is definitely not my talent, unfortunately.

Beth - Exactly! I suppose that artists are like that all of the time: always responsive to what something might mean/look like/be transformed into.

Bitty - If you look at the Smithsonian website where Reya's article was published (follow my link) you will find an article that says EXACTLY what you have just said -- with a speck more detail. We can construct the past with a photograph . . .

Dave King - Thanks for your generous comment. The mystery of it all . . . there is so much to unpack here.

Herhimnbryn - I'm so glad that you got the book. I've often thought of it again. She does have an unusually honest, lucid voice, I think.

(I mostly just "click" too!)

Reya Mellicker said...

wow, what a post! Of course I've been thinking about all you've said lately.

Blogging is a phenomenon, creating diverse communities of people all around the globe. Sometimes I'm reading someone blog and realize I'm reading something that was written tomorrow but commenting on it during my today. So blogging takes us not only across huge distances but also across time as well.

It's so great to finally connect with other bloggers of my approximate age. I used to only read DC bloggers who were, for the most part, much younger. Great bloggers but I didn't share much with them.

It blows my mind how much I share with bloggers who live all the way around the world.

So much looking forward to more photographs from you, too.

I could go on in this comment but I will stop now!

Delwyn said...

Is that a ferris wheel in the distance?

You have elaborated on these points of Reya's giving us more depth and additional things to consider.

This newfound artistic expression of ours - combining the word and the leading us up exciting garden paths both physically and metaphorically.

Delwyn said...

P.S. I am one of those who is writing from the future...I am 10 hours ahead of you...

Pigtown-Design said...

Beautiful post, Bee! I carry my camera with me all of the time, as a result of my time living in the UK. There was always something so interesting around every corner!

I always am looking at things with an eye towards framing them for a photo.

♥ Braja said...

Hey, I know Persephone Books :)

And I love that last true...

Lisa said...

This post was such a joy to read and I very much enjoyed Reya's post, too. I've become one of those people who carries and camera everywhere. And I'm constantly contorting myself, trying to make the powerlines and landscape clutter get out of my frame!

I bounce between landscapes and still life set ups.

But the thing that most amazed me was the fact that I really only got to know my own face after I started dinking around doing self-portraits.

Now I'm really loving photo editing and dabbling in video. It's something that gives me great creative satisfaction since I'm not very good with my hands in the visual arts. (My brother got all the drawing genes, apparently.)

I really look forward to following your journey as a photographer. You have such an interesting and unique way of viewing the world, I can't wait to see how you interpret that through the camera's lens.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

I never realized how much life rushed past me until I started taking photos. Photography, like journal writing (on paper, not the blog), is something of a meditation, I think.

Lovely photo. I truly enjoy seeing the world through your eyes, friend.

Fantastic-Forrest, hurrah! I've been hoping for pics of the great NW!!

Bee said...

Reya - There is a little group with great mental energy swirling around you right now. It is really exciting to be a part of. Like you, I find the global connection bit really cool -- and mind-blowing, really.

Delwyn - The ferris wheel looking thing in the London Eye. It was built for the Millenium. You can see a vast amount of London when you are on it -- which is both thrilling and a bit scary.

Pigtown - I guess that's when you know that you have become a photographer!

Braja - I'd love to know more about your time in London.

Lisa - Your feedback hit on something that I hadn't really thought about. I, too, have always thought of myself as lacking in any kind of artistic talent. I cannot draw to save my life and I'm not craftsy, either. I don't have a good imagination. But photography gives me the satisfaction of creating something which is visual. (I love photo editing, too, by the way.) I feel like my artistic intelligence is almost wholly undeveloped . . . and there is an excitement about waking it up after 42 dormant years.

JAPRA - I would really like to pick your brain about photography. Thanks for the kind comments.

Indrani said...

Lovely post! Photography means a lot to me today and I have started observing many minute things which I would have ignored earlier!

Bee said...

Indrani - Your photograph of the painted elephant bum was truly "colorful." (Thanks for visiting!)

Imogen Lamport said...

So is that why photography is my favourite form or art?

I once had an experience in the olden days (before digital cameras) of finding a finished film amonsgst my camera stuff, so taking it off to get developed and when I got it back I knew no one in the photos - it was of some 12 year old girls netball team - a very strange occurrence! Never did figure that out.

linda said...

this is a wonderful post~so glad I followed your link over at lisa's!

and so true indeed...I have discovered a new love with my camera I never had in the world of film and having to make the trip to have it developed(hence-add to pile)... to have had my camera when my children were young, I would remember so much more that I KNOW I have misplaced somewhere in my memory bank!

Barrie said...

Very thought-provoking. And, like you, I wonder how many memories I've forgotten or lost because of negligent photo taking.

Bee said...

Imogen - Which bit convinced you that photography is your favorite art? :) Funnily enough, when my husband and I went to the National Gallery on Friday I REALLY wanted to go to the National Portrait Gallery next door. I'm not sure why, but photographs seem to "speak" to me more than art. I like what is real.

As for your random picture story, it amused me because I just came back from a netball match . . . and your anecdote reminded me that I forgot to take pictures! (I'm still always missing opportunities.)

Linda - Yes, the world of photo editing and instant gratification makes photography so much more exciting. I'm glad that you visited me from Lisa's!

Barrie - I was pretty good when the kids were babies, but we've lost big chunks of the "middle years."

Gifted Typist said...

fantastic insights for looking at pictures. I'm fascinating both by looking at pictures - good and bad - and by creating them. That shot of the National Gallery, ahhhh, makes me miss my jaunts up to London for a day at the museums and galleries.

Lucy said...

So much good stuff here, Bee, and in the comments too.

One of my readers who doesn't see herself as a photographer, or even a very visual person, says she actually loves seeing all the tat and clutter in old photos, as those are the things that change - people's clothes and hair, cars, signboards for defunct products, etc, so in terms of making a record, perhaps we shouldn't seek to edit out too much!

I think anyone can benefit from the contemplative discipline of photography,including reflecting and adjusing our ideas about what it's for, and what it can't do. I love seeing so many people doing so, and their photography evolving and developing. And really, the possibilities are limitless, though I sometimes reach a dry point with it. But even that should a possible moment of opportunity.

So glad to read this!

Bee said...

Gifted Typist - It always gives me a thrill to go up to London -- so much rich history all densely packed together.

Lucy - You are one of the people who has helped me fine-tune my vision this past year. Much thanks!

Dick said...

A fascinating post, Bee - so acute on how photography changes how and what we see. The camera's on charge as we speak and, inspired by all of this, I'm off into the brief sunshine!

Bee said...

Dick -- I thought of you today, as I tried to capture -- in a photo -- the freshness of the flowers.