Part 2: Looking at Photographs–Perception : Reality

One thing that hopefully is clear from Part 1 is that this whole study of the idea of context is really about expanding our own knowledge base—personal growth– and not really something that is external to us. When we look at images or are out creating them, this is what we draw on and what influences the way we see. When we then run into someone’s work we don’t seem to be able to engage meaningfully, and have the opportunity to learn more than we “saw” through our own filters, we just add to our personal knowledge base.

I think it should also be clear that we grow our knowledge base through pretty much everything we do. Reading books, listening to music, conversations with people, etc– discovering things we didn’t know through whatever means. All of this expands our worldview and we end up drawing on all of this as we navigate our daily lives—including making and looking at images.

So, in the first installment of this series, we discussed processes that we can undertake when looking at an image to learn things outside of our awareness, or our worldview. But I would contend that we often don’t really use all of the knowledge that we have within us. We have built up mechanisms over time that short-circuit our digging deeper because these short hand mechanisms serve us extremely well in our daily lives. We often have to make quick, intuitive responses as we navigate our world. Most situations don’t require long or deep thought or understanding and many could end up fatal if we didn’t react instinctively.

What I am referring to here is just how the mechanism of human visual perception works. There are two techniques within this process that I want to talk about, one is totally within our control now while the other will take a bit of study to use more effectively. The first is a ridiculously simple concept—almost banal itself and can be easily disregarded for its simplicity—but both are not as easy to always apply as they may seem to be. They take practice.

Due to the differences between them, I will cover the “simple” one first and the other in another installment (to keep this shorter and the techniques segregated). Also, this first one might be more applicable to looking at visual things while it may be counter productive when creating a visual, if we undertake it consciously.

The process of visual perception is pretty much, at its base level, a survival skill. We take in information and through the processes of memory and association; we identify objects and situations that we encounter. We pay attention to the things that are relevant and often dismiss or ignore those things that don’t seem to be relevant at the time—the relevance of something can change based on the situation and is not fixed in most cases. It is also a pretty well documented fact that even when we do find something relevant, we aren’t always really recognizing what it, in fact, is. We make certain assumptions that fit our needs and in most cases, that serves us well in those situations.

We interpret based on context and sometimes things become ambiguous

We interpret based on context and sometimes things can become ambiguous.

I think I can say that we all have encountered the situation where someone will say, “hey, did you see this or that, wasn’t it cool” and we have no recollection of what they are talking about even though we were in the same place at the same time. I know that my wife and I have these sorts of exchanges all the time. I “didn’t” see that and then I go back and yes I did see it, but it didn’t register because it wasn’t relevant to what I was doing at the time. With new information as to what that thing was, or just a new perspective, it gains meaning to me.

The point is that we often jump to certain conclusions about things because of associations we are used to making between things we see and what we know—and those may not always be true. When we look at an image of any sort, those mechanisms don’t just disappear. For instance, I remember walking into the St Louis Art Museum and seeing a painting by one of my favorite painters, Thomas Hart Benton. Benton is a very lyrical painter (also was Jackson Pollack’s early mentor—although I doubt many would surmise that without seeing Pollack’s very early work) and everything in his images seems to exude a sense of being alive. In this particular painting, there were some men cradling wheat and several women bending over stacking it—well, that is what I saw anyway. After a minute of admiration, I walked up to it and really looked, there were no women at all, just the men and stacks of wheat. The style of painting and my own filters had made me see something very different in the form of those stacks of wheat than what was really before me. Looking at it now, it is hard for me to understand why I saw women, but I did. Link to the Painting.

Sometimes we will infer the existence of things that don't, in fact, exist.

Sometimes we will infer the existence of things that don’t, in fact, exist.

So what is the point here? Essentially that one of the foremost tools at our disposal when we look at a piece of art doesn’t take any training at all—but some attention and practice. We just have to simply, objectively pay attention to and physically describe what we are looking at. This sounds incredibly easy and most think that they already do this, but my experience is that we often don’t see what is actually there but rather translate, through our individual filters, what is there. To be effective at doing this takes a lot of effort and discipline as it isn’t how we do things normally. But doing it can actually increase our awareness of what a piece of artwork may actually be about and define context that may otherwise be out of our awareness. In fact, we should do this with our own work as well.

A good friend who is a designer is always looking at my photographs and coming up with interesting things he sees that I didn’t. Often they add to the richness of the image but were outside of my awareness—they worked and so I didn’t give them much attention as I might something that wasn’t cohesive within the work and also not the main subject or interest point. With years of his doing this with my work, I have gotten a bit more aware of these things myself when I actually look at the work I decide to present.

When I read some of the more advanced writers/critics of our time, on art and photography, they more often than not do just what I suggest here before they launch into any other sort of analysis of an image. They just start calling out objects that they see in an image, relationships between objects, what the relationships, objects etc might represent etc.

For instance, take a look at this image, before you read on any further to get your own take on the image and notice your interpretation of what you see there.

Below is Michael Fried’s description of it at the opening of the chapter on Thomas Struth’s Portraits (in his book “Why Photography matters as Art as Never Before”) before he even gets too much else.

“The Hirose family sits jammed together on a sofa; a tabletop piled with books and pieces of paper fills the right foreground of the image (slightly out of focus because near the picture plane); to the left one sees part of a desk, also piled with books and papers, and some glass-fronted bookcases; to the rear a lamp and telephone rest on on a table but attention is captured by several African sculptures, one a mask hanging on the wall, and to the left of the mask a framed painting of a mask like head in a somewhat cubist style. To the right rear one looks past an open door into another room.”

He then goes on to describe a few more images, all before getting into any of the analysis about the work. What he is doing is actually insuring that the image is being seen and not just interpreting, through his own filters, what is actually in the image. (He does then use these objective observations of the various family portraits to discern clues as to level of sophistication, relationships and other potentially relevant conditions portrayed.)

The importance of doing this objective description is that it makes us stop and consider things as they really are rather than missing or misinterpreting pertinent information by just seeing a family portrait and really not seeing all of those other things that can inform the image.

Methodically describe the elements in this image.

Methodically describe the elements in this image.

(Click here for Larger image.)

So, here is a little case study. I have selected this work because I am familiar with it and I also think it is a relatively easy one to decipher by employing this simple technique. Again, before reading further or looking at the link to the series below, describe what you see in the image above and see if you can draw some conclusions about what the work might be about. This piece is from a series of work that was created and exhibited by my wife.

Without any other reference, I think many of us—myself included—might just see some pictures of rocks on first blush. But by describing what is actually in the image, we might begin to see some things that will give us a clue on the intent of the work. Looking at several images, or just the one additional one below, and going through this same process of describing what is actually depicted will quickly reveal that these images have some rather specific and commonly shared traits and are not just random rocks—all exhibit some form of fracturing. The physical inventory we developed by describing what we actually see will reveal that most exhibit some evidence of recent fire—the charred ground/objects and smoke damage. We might also note the bare ground and the Pine needles. By just taking the time to see what is “actually” depicted, one could easily end up with an understanding that they are most likely looking at a phenomenon that was created by fire, which it was. This phenomenon of these rocks fracturing, or exploding, takes place during high temperature fire and can be found only after a recent fire—before they are hidden by new plant growth and/or scattered or buried by other natural events. There may still be some questions but viewing the images is now at a different level than what the cursory look could yield. The process can often lead to a contextual awareness that a casual look and innate response may not have been able to reveal. The link to the series is

_MG_2700new11x14-printEven looking at a single image, this process of describing what is actually there will often suggest that there is something more than what we might first assume.

Again, paying attention to what is really there, and describing, requires a lot of discipline—it isn’t how we go about most of our routine tasks and looking at images can become a very routine activity—especially when we aren’t used to seeing more serious or thoughtful work.

By looking at work in this more precise way–dissecting the physical elements within an image–we can often increase our awareness of the context of an image. It is just one step in the process leading to a more complete understanding of what we are looking at. It also allows us to gain some more objective evidence regarding what we are looking at, something maybe different than that first take gave us.

I admit that I don’t always take this kind of time myself. We will choose when and when not to do this type of activity. But if we are going to really comment on an image, then it should be the first thing we do. I know that in my own art classes, we were assigned to review art work—alone or on field trips—and the first thing we had to do in our written critiques was to fully describe, in detail, what it was that was before us before we started the further process of analyzing the image. The process can make a huge difference between our first gut reaction to something and the intelligent analysis of a work.

A Tale of Two Worlds—Learning to Effectively Compose Your Photograph

We learn by listening

We learn by listening

What I am going to be presenting here might come across to many of you as the title suggests, A Tale of Two Worlds —and it actually is just that. My guess is that some of this might be hard to believe or understand, especially if you came to photography as many of us do, without formal education, and have learned through the amateur literature, organizations and photo sharing sites—and maybe even more so if you started within the last 10 years.

Within the last few years, I had the occasion to do research into this topic and ended up surveying literature on art, design and photography back into the 1700’s. What I found was that there were two different types of information out there on this topic and they didn’t cross paths too often. For amateurs, the common path is full of guidelines and rules. One book, from the early 1800’s and the earliest I could find specifically about such guidelines, had a simple title but this subtitle:

“…or The Whole Art of Picture Making reduced to the Simplest Principles
by which Amateurs May Instruct Themselves without the Aid of a Master”

and had the following passage in the first part of the book:

“IN GIVING the following rules for producing Pictorial Effect, it is not intended
in the slightest degree to imply that pictures cannot be produced without,
or even in direct contradiction to any one or all of ‘them; but the object
of the present work is to show how pictures may be produced without
requiring so much skill, or taking so much trouble

(my underlines for emphasis)

It is the sections here, that I underlined, that are really the most important considerations with regards to rules and guidelines—that they are designed to help the novice create successful images quickly, before they have had time to become more knowledgeable and skilled.  And that they are the most simple, actionable things one can derive from a larger body of knowledge. (That book is actually the genesis of the infamous Rule of Thirds—although the version known today is even more simplistic and, actually, incomplete.)

The fact is that in any new undertaking, we want—and need—some early successes or we will often end up losing interest. I saw a very good example of this when my son was in the 7th grade and he and a couple of his friends decided to learn to play the guitar. My son’s teacher was a music major and was teaching him foundational principles that would have served him well in the long run—but those can be a bit boring and, while important later, are difficult to know how to effectively use early on. What he learned was not, shall we say, actionable nor did it produce “amazing” things right away.

His friends went to an instructor who taught them to play the popular songs that they all liked. They could “jam” together while my son was left out and could only practice his major and minor scales off in the corner. At that age that doesn’t work well and I am sure he was teased about “not knowing anything” and he quit—as did his friends eventually.

The reality of such situations, if one can stick with it, is that when his friends had lost interest in those songs they learned, my son would have developed the ability to just listen to any new song and be able to play along with it—and have the basis for developing those wonderful, creative lead riffs we all love. It is certainly possible that at least one of his friends may have progressed there as well due to raw aptitude and the ability to translate what he learned into a broader set of knowledge. In most cases though, having had the exposure to more foundational principles helps most of us get there more quickly than otherwise and delivers a body of knowledge from which we can grow over our lifetime.

The unfortunate thing in amateur photography is that there really doesn’t seem to be much good information out there to really help one move beyond the level of understanding promoted in those more simplistic guidelines and rules.

But there is that other world I mentioned. In 2005, I visited a photo-sharing site for the first time. By then, I had been photographing for 27 years, most of it doing personal, fine art work while the latter 15 of those were also as a commercial photographer serving national and international clients and working with this countries top art directors and designers. Educationally, although I did spend some time with amateur literature, I had been encouraged, early on, to take art classes at the local college—I took 3 of them. I also had had the opportunity to study with several master photographers and photographic educators, including Ansel Adams, at various workshops. As I said, I had attended but also later taught classes in an art college and had been involved with many different fine arts organizations, including ones that focused on photography. (more specific details can be found in the “about” section here)

What I found—even with that broad exposure to photography—when I visited that photo-sharing site in 2005 were all these rules and guidelines and I had never heard of any of them before—including the infamous Rule of Thirds!

What I had learned with regards to composition and tools for analyzing/critiquing images were what I am going to suggest are the foundational principles, the Elements of Art (the things we can see: Point, Line, Shape, Mass, Space, Tone and Value, Color, Texture, Pattern and Movement) and the Principles of Design (how we arrange those things: Balance, Proportion, Scale, Rhythm, Emphasis and Subordination, Unity and Variety). In fact, these are the things that are taught in Colleges and Universities when one studies art or design, including photography. You will not find even one of the popular Rules or Guidelines promoted in amateur circles in the textbooks used there. None of what is presented is about what you should do or not do but rather more about cause and effect, how things work visually and psychologically. The goal there is not to teach the student how to immediately create successful images, of a certain kind (eg a dynamic one) or with standard characteristics (eg space divided into thirds),  but rather to teach a body of knowledge that can be drawn upon in any situation to create a successful image that serves their idea most effectively.

So, although I didn’t know any of those Rules and Guidelines I saw in 2005, I could certainly see where most of them came from. For instance, I had studied Line, all types of line and how they affected the reading of an image. The rule “Leading Lines” was just one aspect of the uses of line but didn’t explain the many other uses that might be important to understand when we are composing an image. Images where we want to suggest power or quiet or stability or instability etc. “Leading Lines” is a limited view of what line is about, but it is directly ACTIONABLE (tells you what to do) and easy to understand. What I learned leaves the action to be taken up to me based on what type of image I want to create and the idea I want it to convey. In fact, there are cases where only a few of these principles even need to be considered or thought about while in other situations, more or different ones become more relevant. (note: the goal is actually to be able to compose without having to think about these things at all, to respond intuitively drawing on what has been learned. We will think about these things and describe them when we analyze images, our own or others. That is how we create that same kind of response that is akin to the muscle memory an athlete or musician etc develops through practice and drills to be able to react intuitively and expressively to whatever comes up.)

Now, the better photo books or on-line resources on photography will often include things like Balance, or even a discussion of Line, among the other guidelines, however, they are most often presented as having the same importance as the “rules” rather than demonstrating how those rules and guidelines are subsets of that wider principle. Doing so might give more insight into the role of guidelines and where one can go to grow beyond them. (This is something I am working on creating)

The problem here is further complicated by the fact that I don’t know if there is a photographic textbook that even covers those foundational principles. The ones I have seen all cover more fundamental issues with regards to the nature and use of the camera and the optical properties of lenses– or they delve into more philosophical issues. The reason is that if you do study photography in an art college or University, you take one or two years of “foundation” classes. Those classes are taught to all art majors and include those Elements of Art and Principles of Design. These are then drawn upon and reinforced in the remaining classes over the 4 years of study when critiquing or analyzing any piece of art—photographic, painting, sculpture etc.. There isn’t a direct reason to cover these things again in a textbook on photography. If you want to learn more about these, right now you need to review them in art books or books on design. There is a wonderful link below to a presentation on these by a Cornell professor (Note that she calls the “Elements of Art” the “Elements of Design”. You will find variations with these depending on the resource you visit):

My hope here is that this information will open up a new, more robust way of looking at how to compose your photographs and how to analyze those of others—as well as your own. And that you will see that if you deviate from those “rules and guidelines” you learned that you are not, in fact, “BREAKING THE RULES” but rather that you have learned a broader, foundational set of principles to help you more effectively communicate your intent. And as such, there is no such thing as “don’t do this” or “you must/should do that”—there are just things that either work or don’t with your specific image and intent.

Now I realize that it is often hard to allow that what you learned as the “facts” about something—those rules and guidelines—are not complete or foundational. That there is another body of knowledge out there that someone suggests as more important and more complete.   On the other hand, it certainly might explain why there wasn’t any way to describe why images were successful that didn’t follow any of those rules. Or even why ones that did weren’t really always that good.

A few years ago I shared this basic information in another forum and one of the photographers there has suggested to me several times how much this has helped him grow. I shared most of what I wrote above elsewhere just this week. I thought his comment there, having married these two worlds together over time, was wonderful and I wanted to share it with you. (he knows I always flinch when someone suggests there are rules, but it’s still wonderful!)

“Through my interpretation, the point is not “whether or not we should follow rules” (although it’s a side point, and the short answer is ‘sometimes’), but rather understand the difference between those common rules and the underlying principles of art from which those rules have been derived….this way we can work towards truly being in control of conveying exactly what it is we want to convey, without doing so through a filter of a simplified interpretive summary.”

Never say Never


(a gratuitous image to decorate, not illustrate, this entry)

I am going to digress from the “Looking at Photographs” series and enter into an area that I feel is important and related to Part 3 of that series. Part 2 of Looking at Photographs will be posted early next week.

A very long time ago, I adopted that phrase “Never say Never” as a personal philosophy. It wasn’t that there weren’t things that I wanted to avoid but what I felt was that if we take the never posture, we, maybe, drop our guard. I had actually experienced this myself and had certainly seen it in the wider world, where powerful people preached one set of values and then were arrested or ruined by doing the things they preached against! But, on a less serious level, it also just puts us in a box if we later changed our mind—it can cut off possibilities.

Even after I adopted this, I caught myself suggesting one “Never” and then doing it! Well, it wasn’t really a never, just an excluding sentiment. When I lived in southern California, before I moved to Portland, I had been traveling around the country quite a bit for work. I love discovering new places—and always took my camera even though in those days I still had a day job. But after repeated trips to a couple of states, I made the statement to many that they were “the last places on earth that I would ever live”. One of those was Texas—whoops! What we find is that our “world view” can change when circumstances change. I found a compelling reason to move there and actually am enjoying it (at least it is Sunny all year!).

On the other hand, I guess we could consider that as prophetic, as with time and circumstance, who knows, Texas might be “the last place I will ever live”!

But, back to photography and creative considerations.

I think one of the most damaging statements one can make in a creative environment is that one should “never” do something. I also think generalized “should do’s” can be problematic, but we will get to that tomorrow in another post.

For other reasons, I actually researched photographic and art instructive literature back into the 1700’s (photography not quite so far back!) and while I found suggestions on things to do in some types of literature, I certainly don’t remember any “Never” statements.

My post tomorrow will get into what I am calling “a tale of two worlds” with regards to photographic education, where I will suggest that guidelines have been around for a long time. What I have discovered, though, is that with the growth of the interest in photography–especially in the last 10 years, that these guidelines have become much more restrictive and codified and migrated from suggestions to consider to RULES.

And to the point, there are starting to be more and more Never statements coming into the vernacular. Listening to a video tutorial recently, presented by a major equipment supplier, the presenter came right out and said “Never put your horizon in the center” and gave no quarter. And while centering your horizon might not work at times, it certainly can “when it does”. In my last entry here I, in fact, posted an image where the horizon was in the middle of the image (link to a larger version here ) and I think you will agree that it is a pretty successful image. Hiroshi Sugimoto did an entire series of seascapes where he did this—He even marked the ground glass to be sure they were perfectly centered. I saw the work at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington DC and it knock my socks off! (not so much my wife but not because the horizon was centered, tastes vary!)

In another such video, a well credentialed photographer presented a lot of things he “never” did—in the context of instructing others—however he had a sense of humor about it, posting images where he had actually done those things and tagging his “never” statement with “unless I decide to do it”. I wasn’t crazy about the Never statements but at least he acknowledged how they were also a bit preposterous.

The strangest one I read was in a book on photography composition, “Never compose an image that reads from right to left”. I don’t know, but I think people are visually ambidextrous or should I say “ambivisual”. And I dare say, that there are countries that don’t read from left to right or front to back for that matter. Let’s get a grip!  Successful images don’t come in one size or direction.

The point is that “Never” is a bit ludicrous when it comes to creative endeavors. We should always be looking to solve our visual problems to effectively communicate our vision without concern for do’s or don’ts—what works, works. There is certainly no room for “Never” in creative endeavors.


Note: The closest thing to a “never” in photography might be don’t drink the darkroom chemicals unless you don’t value your health. But then, there is one that is healthy in one version and actually done by a lot of people, including my wife. The black and white “stop bath” is acetic acid and water. Vinegar is essentially acetic acid and, as such, white vinegar is often substituted for commercially available solutions made for photography. But I certainly would not recommend drinking it after a darkroom session! Vinegar and water does have some health benefits while maybe white vinegar wouldn’t be the best choice–my wife uses Apple Cider Vinegar.

Part 1: Looking at Photographs—Context

What I want to start with here is the idea about how “context” is so important to our understanding of any photograph, or piece of visual art. Being aware of the circumstances surrounding the creation of the work and the concerns and ideas the creator of the work is dealing with can help us a great deal in our understanding of the work as well as in our ability to fully appreciate what has been presented.

The reality is that in every case, when we look at any image—well, everything in our life really—we do so, or at least start, from our own very specific contextual reference, or worldview, which we have developed throughout our lives. This worldview is the result of how we process our experiences and the knowledge we have gained and those things that are important to us.

But let’s back up a bit and consider a point that I made in the series of blog posts on how an “idea” is the genesis of every photograph we make.  We might also refer to this as the intent of an image but the point here is that when we make our images, we are drawing on our “worldview”. We choose subjects and situations to photograph that are interesting to us and we interpret what we photograph based on our current knowledge and understanding of our world and how we feel about things—our biases. Of course, we also incorporate what we know about creating a successful photograph as well. What we are doing when we create that image is giving it a CONTEXT, which then imparts a certain meaning to the image. The fact is that while each of us will have a unique worldview, we will often find that we share much of that with others with whom we normally associate and interact. In most cases, the meaning/intent of our image will be easily recognized, but not always. There may be some fact about what you have photographed that is not easily discerned or understood just by viewing it but which can easily affect how others might view it.

Let’s take the image here: AMTRAK 45032Location: about 1.5 miles west of Tioga, North Dakota on 6/19/05


If you have never seen this before and don’t know the context in which it was made, I think most would at least consider this a nicely done landscape image. On the other hand, if you saw this in the context of the series it belongs to, while you may or may not have noticed the train tracks in the background, you would then be sure that this image had to do with the railroad and if you then read the artist statement, that it is relevant to one of the historic routes between Chicago and the west coast of the US. How the knowledge of these things affect your reading of the image will vary depending on how you feel about such things, but it certainly will add to the meaning of the image on some level. These give the image context which may not have been easily known from just looking. The link to the series, and image, Click here or on the image.

On the other hand, and these ARE NOT the case, how would your opinion change if you found out that instead this was a photograph of a site where some gruesome mass murder of school children took place or maybe, less sensational, that the sky had been changed to create a more dramatic image?   My guess is that such things would change how you regarded or think about the image. Again, neither is the case! But knowing additional context will certainly change how we view an image and its meaning.

In a similar way, I recently was viewing a painting by William Turner. It was a very attractive work, however, as I read about the concerns Turner was dealing with, the events of the time and the specific scene and why he presented it as he did, my appreciation of the work became so much more rich. I was okay with just enjoying it visually but I would have missed so much not knowing the context of its making.

When we are on photo sharing sites, join a camera club or associate with other photographers in person, we will again generally find that, on the whole, we share a lot of common values and views. Our worldviews will be somewhat aligned, at least in the area that has brought us together. While we might not always agree on a photograph presented and what works or doesn’t, we will generally find that we all have a similar understanding of what a photograph is about.

Because we generally operate within such “familiar” circles— we get a confidence that we understand what we are seeing and if we like it or we don’t, we are pretty much correct in our assessment as “the photograph must stand on its own and it either works or it doesn’t”.

But to get some perspective on our confidence in these matters, maybe consider how we viewed such things before we learned about making photographs and acquired the skills we have developed to date in looking at photographs. I know that not only do I look at some of my early photographs and wonder: “what was I thinking” but that many of those “artworks” I bought to “decorate” my house early on have found their way into the trash bin. My surety as to a quality visual in the past is not the same as it is today!

Like most things in life—music, food, politics or whatever–the more we learn and discover about a subject the more sophisticated our understanding and more discerning we become with regards to it. While we may still enjoy some of those same things from earlier times, many are left behind and many new things we may have been uninterested in before are now among our favorite things. And, generally, there is always more to learn, experience and absorb!

In fact, I think it is just harder for us when it comes to visual art because we have been seeing and making “valid” judgments all our life–or we wouldn’t have survived–to realize that there may be limitations to that process. That things can, in fact, exist outside of our awareness when we confront something visual—it just often doesn’t make sense with the experiences we have had over our lives.

So once we get out of our more familiar circles, we can end up with some conflict regarding this process. We go to a museum or gallery and see work that might seem ridiculous to us. Because visual understanding seems so innate to us, we can easily move to a position that there must be something wrong with those who see value in those things we can’t. We often see this expressed that it is a case of the Emperor’s clothes. We just aren’t used to being wrong or unable to draw on our own visual references and “worldview” to make sense of things in a way that those others seem to be able to do. We don’t even have a reference point to admit that maybe we just don’t get it because it isn’t something we have experience with. That artworks can be created by someone with a worldview that is so different than our own.

I might suggest this would be like, for me, to find myself in a Chinese restaurant where no one spoke English and all the writing was in Chinese Characters. I would not have any idea what I was eating or ordering nor would I be able to easily find the restrooms. I would be in a “different world” or, as I prefer to call it, “not on the same playing field”. In fact, this actually happened to me in Hong Kong and I never did get the water I so desperately needed due to the heat and humidity. And I have no idea what I actually ate!

Whether we choose to spend the time and effort to gain the information we need to help us get a better sense of the context in which any work was created is certainly a decision we can make on a case-by-case basis. But when it comes to something we don’t understand or relate to, I know I generally consider that I just don’t have the contextual references to understand it right now.

In fact, although I have an extensive library on artists/photographers I do like and understand, I have spent most of the last 20 years acquiring books (as cheaply as possible!) about those I haven’t been able to understand or relate to. That doesn’t mean I will ever end up being able to completely relate to the work—let alone “like it”, which isn’t my goal—but I know that I will learn a great deal in my quest to do so. Those things learned have certainly influenced me in a variety of ways and have helped me solve visual problems in ways I may have never understood without having taken the time to learn. My own philosophy about this, and I think one shared by many, is that I can learn more by researching things I don’t understand than I can if I only pay attention to those things I like and understand. There is just so much to learn outside of our awareness.

In the next 2 parts I will explore some techniques that can help us expand our abilities when looking at art/photography. These techniques, when practiced while looking, will also allow us to grow in the ability to create our own images as well.

On Being Greedy


Image created at Pt Lobos State Reserve


While I was writing my last entry here I remembered a story, related by Minor White, that I had read a long time ago that seemed to be related to our learning to slow down and respond to what we see instead of chasing our expectations. In this case, it really has to do with the phenomenon that occurs when we get overwhelmed by the newness and wonder or exotic nature of a new place. I will relate the rest of the story later, however it was this particular sentence that I thought was the most profound:

“He made us leave our cameras in the car so we could see and feel instead of getting lost in greediness.”

As I remembered this story, I also remembered my first trip to the desert southwest back in 1980, about a year and a half after I started photographing. Although I had spent a lot of time in the California desert over the years, nothing had prepared me for what I saw when, while still on the freeway, I saw my first red rock cliffs.

Back in those days, there was no internet to explore for information on your destinations and while I really hadn’t done much research, I certainly had seen many photos from the National Parks in that area.

But, as I said, nothing prepared me for what I saw when I saw those cliffs, I wanted to slam on the brakes right there on the highway’s shoulder and take pictures of it all. My body felt electrified and stayed that way for several days as we visited the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon. I had the feeling I wanted to photograph everything and yet it was hard to photograph anything because as soon as I framed one, I saw another better one even before I clicked the shutter. I ended up shooting almost every nook and cranny—and I was paying for film and processing in those days! I don’t think I made one decent image on that trip nor do I remember much of it or anything I did photograph for that matter. I had gotten lost in that greediness Minor White suggested.

But it is really more than just greediness, it is really just that our senses are so stimulated by whatever has presented itself to us, that we get sensory overload. When I spend a day in a great museum, I can actually feel that same electrifying sensation growing within me as I ponder those wonderful works of art. I have even heard of people passing out after visiting some of the great museums and cultural sites in Europe. In such cases, I have to retreat and allow things to calm down inside, which generally means getting someplace quiet where I can let the inspirations of the day percolate.

When we are photographing and start to feel this way, we need to find ways to allow ourselves to slow down and get past the “exoticism” of that new place. Being so enamored can overwhelm and blind us to the substance before us, as did those red rock canyons for me. We need to find a way to ground ourselves and allow ourselves to really see what is there before we start to photograph.

Minor White’s story took place at Point Lobos, an incredibly beautiful and wondrous place on the California Coast. Although I haven’t heard it mention much these days, Point Lobos is one of the most iconic locations for those West Coast Landscape photographers we all admire–Ansel Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, Minor White, Wynn Bullock etc.  On this occasion, Edward Weston had taken White and several others there on a workshop and he knew the power of the place and how it could overwhelm. The full story related by White follows:

“Weston toured us around Lobos after the rain cleared. He made us leave our cameras in the car so we could see and feel instead of getting lost in greediness. On one of the fingers of landholding the heaving fingers of the sea the sun broke golden through a cloud! “I have made hundreds of photographs here at Lobos. It’s like a big lumber pile or lumberyard. I have barely touched the surface.” Then after a long, long silence came the gift, “Go make your own scratch.”

So, consider allowing yourself to settle down and see and feel your surroundings before you pick up that camera—then, you will be more grounded and can go make your own scratch.

“Looking For” vs “Finding”

"Found" this hidden canyon in unlikely place whiile following the tracks

“Found” this hidden canyon in unlikely place while following the tracks

It’s that time of year! The weather is starting to get warmer and we start to think about our vacations/ photo trips for the year. Part of the fun of all of this is the planning and research and the resultant anticipation and excitement—and maybe less fun: the development of expectations. What I want to do here is to present something I found to be a very productive mental framework for getting the most from one’s outings.

In my own experience one of the most counter productive elements in photography is the presence of expectations. This could manifest itself in the simple, straight forward feeling that you need to make good photographs and/or, especially early on, the need to make specific photographs. Examples of this latter concept might be the need to get that shot of Half Dome when you visit Yosemite or the Eiffel Tower when you visit Paris—and at that Right Time with that Right Light!  And, I would expect that the list of must shoots will be longer than just that one!

The problem with expectations is that they can create a great deal of anxiety within us and if we are traveling with others, frustration for all. We will tend to only think of running here or there to fill our shot list. Or if we haven’t “seen” those good shots yet, we start to feel we should be looking for them at all times as time’s ticking away—tensions just build up inside of us and our seeing actually starts to become more muddled.

I don’t know that we ever totally get rid of expectation, however, it can certainly be subdued if we move away from the sense of “Looking For” photographs to one of just “Finding” them.

Now, we could certainly debate the nuance of those two terms but I’d like to suggest a specific difference between these two that I found to be very productive. That is that the act of “Looking For” something is generally tied to a sense of knowing. We tend to set out to look for things we know and want to find. There is a specificity to the act and that specificity acts as a filter that, to some degree, eliminates the things from our awareness that don’t fit into that specific knowledge or goal.

For example, if I have lost a gold ring and set off to look for it I am not paying too much attention large objects, soft objects or small objects that don’t have the color or shape of the lost ring. Essentially, I pretty much ignore those objects that don’t fit into my sense of “gold ring” and very specifically “that gold ring”.

I would suggest that when we go out to photograph a similar phenomenon will often take place, but maybe in a more subconscious or covert way. If we decide to go shoot on the street or in the landscape or studio or Yosemite or the US Southwest, we may already have a rather specific idea of what that means for us photographically, maybe even those specific shots we are looking for. The mental filters that materialize can often be consuming in that we end up not seeing what presents itself to us and which may actually transcend our “goal”.

What often happens is that those “filters” or expectations cause us to become frustrated. We rush to a vantage point at that “right time” to get that shot we covet only to somehow arrive late or the weather/light we visualized for the shot doesn’t materialize—maybe even worse, we sit and wait for hours and nothing happens as we expected! I experienced this quite a bit when I was just starting out and then remembered that on my way to that destination, I passed something that I even noticed might have made a good photograph in my effort to get THAT good photograph I had started out to get. Who knows how many I may not have noticed because they didn’t fall within my expectations for what an image I was interested in looked like.

Accidentally found when I stopped along a dirt road and walked down what appeared to be a normal wash.

Accidentally found when I stopped along a dirt road and walked down what appeared to be a normal wash.

On the other hand, if we can release these tendencies then maybe we might allow ourselves the opportunity to see and “find” those things that present themselves to us. Things we had no awareness of or which might even be “out-of-place” but which intersect with our path. We might turn away from looking for our intended subject and see what is right there before us.

Now, I don’t have any notion that writing this is going instantly solve anyone’s problem with expectation or change the way they do things. Some of this is just part of the “rights of passage” a photographer will go through. On the other hand, after 37 years, I still deal with certain types of expectation but my awareness of their existence helps me move past it. Just being aware of it is how we can start to learn how to move past it.

When he was little, I would take my son on Saturday photo trips to give my wife a break and have some alone time with him as well. I’ll never forget a comment he made when he was about 4 (now 31), we were driving through the mountains to the central desert of Oregon. He asked me where we were going, I said to find some photographs, he said “how can you find photographs if you don’t stop the car?”.

Overall, what I continue to find is that if I just stop I will find things I didn’t know existed and wasn’t looking–often these will also create the best images.

I don’t suggest that there aren’t times we need or want to look for things only that we should be aware of the difference and mechanisms that might be at work when we go “Looking For” instead of allowing ourselves to relax and “find”.


One of my “finds” in Yosemite walking through where there were no paths

Please feel free to add your experience or thoughts on this subject in the comments.  I love hearing about others experiences.

I’m Back!

BigBend_06-2 001My apologies for abandoning things here for the last month and a half.  Unfortunately, I came down with some sort of “crud” (a technical term) that wiped me out for two weeks which was followed by two weeks of general malaise and inertia!  Then, I took a trip–hopefully, I will be able to get this thing back on track.  I appreciate your patience.