Quotes to Ponder: #0009

‘Photography is not a sport. It has no rules. Everything must be dared and tried.’

~ Bill Brandt

Brandt wrote this in response to his feelings about the limitations and conventions that so many photographers adopt within their own work, even those adopted by other important photographers of his own time.

Having just finished the series of entries here on “What If”, one might consider that this quote is one that I consider a truth with regards to photography—or any creative effort, for that matter.  And I do, to a point.

As I have noted here before, quoting others isn’t, and shouldn’t be, presented to prove a point but rather as a catalyst for deeper thought and questioning.

So while this quote certainly resonated within me, it immediately made me think about the limitations that I place on my working methods.  Early on, I adopted a lot of conventions and limitations and those were also how I viewed the work of others.  As my confidence and abilities with the medium improved, which included increasing my awareness of what was possible and thinking about those other possibilities, I found many of those limitations melted away.  A part of that “widening” was delving deeper into what others were doing and being blown away by the work that didn’t fit within those limitations.  At times, it wasn’t even connecting with what another was doing but a willingness to consider that other way of approaching one’s work.

Today, I still put limitations on what I do but I generally consider these important parts of the process and specific to the project at hand.  When they get in the way or prevent me from going where I want to go, then I reevaluate whether they are truly relevant to the work or arbitrary.  In such cases, I am most likely going to break through the limitation, create the work and worry about how it fits, or doesn’t, later—it might spawn a new “What If” if done or be lost if abandoned.

The point, really, is that we should always be questioning why we do things the way we do.  Our standards and practices have a bearing on who we are as photographers but they also can hold us back from reaching our potential especially when they are arbitrary or applied arbitrarily.

In an upcoming entry, I will be exploring Bill Brandt’s work as  “A Photographer to Know”.Dr15_0054_66v3

(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)

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“What If ” Photography: some examples #3 of 3

In the last entries, I have shown examples of some of the different “What If” ideas that I have followed that had some level of success and which had more distinctive “visual” outcomes.  But for each of those, there were probably a 100 or more other “what if’s” that I tried.  Often, these were just small things like trying some darkroom or Photoshop technique with something other than what it was designed to work with or maybe it was trying to figure out how someone created a type of lighting or other visual effect. Sometimes these attempts were “failures” (didn’t work as I thought or hoped they might) or led me down some other path.  Many times these were just paths that led to a greater knowledge about the processes of photography and not any new visual results.  In every case they were about learning something I hadn’t known before I tried them, even if it was that something didn’t work, essentially they were my own efforts to “put more parts on the (my) table”.

As I mentioned in my last post, sometimes we can have one of those “What If” moments but we don’t have the tools to do them yet or to do them successfully.  In the book I mentioned in my last entry, YouTube was cited as an example of this.  YouTube completely changed the way the web could be used but had it been introduced in the early 90’s, when we were all still using those slow dial-up modems, it would have been a complete failure.  For photographers, we might view this with reference to digital vs analog.  Many of the tools we had 30 years ago, as a film/analog photographer, are gone while digital has opened up a whole new set of possibilities.  One of the processes I presented in part #1 of these examples is now impossible as the film doesn’t exist–yet, we can approximate the “look” digitally but not some of the “organic” idiosyncrasies.  But there are still some processes that have disappeared altogether.  I don’t know that any of the examples I presented in part 2, facilitated by digital, couldn’t be done, in some form, with film but the amount of work involved would be prohibitive to most (still involve lots of work) and the results would not be the same.  I could see the results, knowing what I do know about analog processes, being completely unusable in some cases but what might have been discovered along the way, we don’t know.

In the case of the work presented in this post, it was a tool–a piece of equipment–that became the catalyst to trying a new “What If” and then to expanding its application.

For some time now I have had the desire to get a higher vantage point for some ideas/projects I wanted to explore–unrelated to those presented in the last entry.  I have used ladders with my 9 foot tripod and have put platforms on my trucks from time to time.  Of course, I have done a fair amount of aerial photography as well.  None of these really solved the problem and my wife hasn’t been too keen on my getting one of those “bucket” trucks!  So, I thought I would get a drone–and have a new toy if nothing else!

I got a pretty advanced one but it wasn’t perfect and while it could work, it wasn’t ideal for creating the types of photos I had contemplated.  But I was really having fun with it anyway!  So, while learning to fly it and trying some different things with the camera, both still and video, a light went off–a “What If” moment–that was related to the visual ideas that I presented at the end of my last entry.  I tried it and luckily, my first attempt was extremely successful both aesthetically as well as in how the result transformed the subject.

Since I was flying every day to improve my control and understanding of the characteristics of drone flight, I kept trying different subjects and then it hit me, why not try it from the ground as well.  It worked but there were issues–I couldn’t use a tripod and it was very cumbersome, awkward and limited without one. Then I remember an older piece of equipment that I had for one of my medium format cameras.  With some modification having been made to that,with a hammer, my current dslr and lenses fit and I had a tool that facilitated making the images.  The video above is a sampling of various images I have made over the last several months, including some of those first “tests” as well as several created on my recent travels around the country.

The process was right there before me but it took that new piece of equipment and finding a “proper” use for it to “discover” it.  I put several “parts” together and created something new and maybe unique as well.  But whether it is actually unique or not, I have several ideas for its application that I am excited about pursuing and I recognize it is the result of decades asking and exploring those “What If’s” and having access to all of those “parts” I discovered along the way.  While it is my current focus, I know that it will probably lead to something else over time.  It has allowed me to see things in a different way.

As I said in the first “What If” post, before the examples, while we might not feel we have the time to pursue our own “What If” thoughts, especially if we are unsure of their outcome, we really don’t have the time to not pursue them.  We learn more from going to new places and even failures than we ever learn from doing what we already know.  It is in those unknown places where we find the opportunities for creative growth.

“What If ” Photography: some examples #2 of 3

This weekend I started reading a new book about Ideas and where they come from.  Now, I haven’t gotten very far into the book so I don’t feel I can yet give it a strong recommendation, however, I am finding it interesting.  The book is Steve Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From—The Natural History of Innovation”.  (I got it from the library, so there wasn’t any risk associated with it not being interesting!)

It was in the introduction and first chapter that he covers some points that are very relevant to the pursuit of “What If’s” that I have been discussing here.  Following or trying these ideas, by definition of the statement “What If”, takes us places that are not familiar or known to us.  Pursuing these introduces new things into our awareness, things that we can draw upon later in our work—often in unrelated ways to how we discovered them.  The point is that the more we know, the more we have to draw upon either to create something or to solve problems.  One of the points in the book is that most of the major innovations we are aware of aren’t quantum leaps beyond what is already known but rather new ways of relating different known things to create something new—what he calls “The Adjacent Possible”.  The more we know, the more robust our solutions and innovations will be.

I often hear the statement with regards to photography that everything has been done and so everything is just a rehash of what is known.  The reality is then one day we see something new that someone comes up with, a new way of seeing or photographing or presenting something—of course, with that “everything has now been done”, but then this phenomenon repeats itself.  The fact is that these “new” things are generally just new applications of that which already existed, things we may or may not have, personally, been aware of.

So, the author of the book made a statement there that I thought was extremely important and that is: “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts.  The trick is to get more parts on the table.”  Of course, the “table” is our knowledge base and getting those parts isn’t sitting around thinking but being out doing.

Sometimes we will have a lot of parts and have an idea but we don’t yet have the “tools” to make them a reality and maybe the discovery of some new tool can stimulate other new ideas.  In the last entry, I presented several “what if” ideas that were related to pre-digital photography.  The pursuit of those ideas helped me more deeply understand the processes of photography that I still use today whether I am working digitally or with analog processes.  In the following examples, it was digital processes, both with scanned film and digital capture, that facilitated my discoveries.  The discoveries were not just visual but deepened my understanding and proficiency with digital processes.  These “What If’s” that I will focus on here, and the thoughts around why I pursued them, all led me to a current process that I am exploring and which will be revealed in the next installment of this “What If” series.

In that regard, I started pursing a line of questioning with regards to space, time and perspective and how to express that photographically about 17 years ago although I had done some cursory investigations 30 years ago when I created some grid imagery as well as multiple exposures along these lines.  I should mention that these explorations were also related to my long time interest in the transformation of subject to “what else” it becomes other than representational concerns.

So, let me give some examples of this particular aspect of following those “What If’s” I explored with regards to time, space and perspective:

Explored how adding a "drop-shadow" to a subject could affect space in a photograph

Explored how adding a “drop-shadow” to a subject could affect space in a photograph

 

In 1998, I began to play with extending the idea of how the drop shadow, used extensively by designers with product shots, could separate an object from the background (space), as well as the concept of aura, through multi-layering. (I was also exploring the use of the Holga and another aspect of cross-processed film at that time) After about 30 hours using a much more primitive version of Photoshop to create the image above, I had learned a ton more than I already knew about the program although I had been working with it since 1993.  I used this technique both personally and commercially for several years after that.

A variation on using multiple images to alter space, time and perspective

A variation on using multiple images to alter space, time and perspective

A few years after creating the Electric Tower image, I started working with multiple images to see how space, time and perspective could be presented by photographing pieces of a scene with 100’s of different images and then reconstructing the image with these slightly different perspectives.  The image above was created in 2008 or 2009 when I resurrected the idea after getting a “serious” digital camera.  Of course, this idea had been explored by many others, including David Hockney, but I wanted to see how it might be applied within my own work.  Again, I learned quite a bit from the process of shooting several different types of images over the next couple of years.

Playing with an idea while bored!

Playing with an idea while bored!

The image above was a short-lived experiment where I combined the separate RGB channels of the first three images (The Red from one, the Green from the next and the Blue from the last.)  Unfortunately, this is a pretty monochromatic color image but you might recognize that the stationary parts of the final image are rendered in “true” color while the moving parts take on the more colorful variations.  This was actually a process that had been experimented with by several fine art photographers in the 70’s and 80’s using film and RGB sharp cut filters for each exposure—either printing as dye transfers from three separate pieces of film or on a single piece of film through a multiple exposure using a different filter for each exposure. One day I was just bored and decided to see how it worked with digital exposures—and whether it had some relevant application for me.  I did discover what I believe was a new permutation of the process, that using the same color channel from each of the exposures pasted into the RGB channels of the final  (eg only the red channel, one from each exposure into the r, g, b channels of the final) converts the stationary objects to black and white while the moving objects take on the multi-colored effect.  (I would be glad to demonstrate this in another entry here if there is interest by anyone, just make a request in the comments here).

Some recent experiments with those “What If” ideas have been a bit more interesting for me and have presented a direction that I have been pursuing a bit more seriously over the last couple of years.

Stacking Multiple Exposures

Stacking Multiple Exposures

The image above represents the first test I conducted on stacking various exposures digitally–which might also be done in-camera although some digital post processing might be needed to finish the image.  This idea came from seeing others working in similar ways.  One of the first discoveries of “visual” similarity I have come across was done by Idris Khan with appropriated imagery.  Of course, his idea was a bit different and it should be understood that it is how we use various techniques, our ideas, that can make them our own even if we create more traditional imagery.

When I had done several of these, another “What If” came to me to take the idea in a slightly different direction, I created the image below:

Bridge

Which led to another “What If” with regards to the processes of how one combines those same images and how a totally different visual, something more solid, can emerge:

exploring other alternative processes for combining images

exploring other alternative processes for combining images

 

Although I have been pursuing these various ideas over the last few years, the acquisition of a new piece of equipment was the catalyst to asking another “What If” and discovering a different approach to this sort of imagery.  This process was right before me without the new equipment but hidden.  I will present this work in the next entry here.

The important thing, again, is to just get as many “parts on the table” as possible by trying different things.  We do this by continually exploring into those unknown areas stimulated by our “What If’s”.  Even if those don’t end up being something we want to pursue, the knowledge we gain, those parts discovered, can be what invaluable to our growth and development and a discovery that’s in our future.

“What If ” Photography: some examples #1 of 3

Foot-neg

Positive Transparency Film Cross-Processed used as Final Artwork for Ad

A few weeks ago I returned from almost 2 months on the road photographing and although I wanted to get to this post, I ended up needing some time to decompress—I haven’t even fully unpacked yet!  At some point I may share some of my experiences from those travels—across most of the southern US between Utah and the east coast—but, for now, I want to offer some tangible examples of the “”What If”’s” I spoke of in the last couple of posts here.

Before that, I think there are some important things to consider with regards to those “What If” moments.

First, there is no specific nature of these “What If” moments or ideas.  They don’t just occur when we are doing something creative or related to our photography.  It can just be an urge to read some book or see some movie or even something related to our day job that triggers a seemingly random thought.  And THEY DON’T HAVE TO BE ORIGINAL IDEAS either.  If we see something someone else has done we might have the urge to try it.

Second, the value of pursuing these “What If” ideas is not necessarily accomplishing the original goal but what we learn or discover along the way.  Exploring into the “unknown” is where we gain knowledge and wisdom.

Third, “What If” ideas are not always disposable once we pursue them.  We only know what we know at the current moment.  We might get an idea we don’t yet have the skills—or other tools— to fully realize when we think of it.  Two things are important here.  First, what we learn pursuing the idea will help us in all of our work and second, years later we can come across something we did that “failed” and see the solution due to the skills/knowledge we have gained pursuing various other “What If’s” into new areas.  Or maybe some new “What If” combines with or allows the realization of an old one.  Keep a list of those What If’s, even one’s never pursued, and review it often.

Some Personal Examples:

The whole point behind these “What If” discussions is that when we have one of those moments/ideas, we choose to follow it and see where it leads.

One of the most important things for me as one who photographs largely outside the studio is that I have learned to follow those feelings I get to walk or drive down unplanned paths or roads that I come across. (see post: Looking for vs Finding)  I pass a lot of “side” roads and hike a lot of miles, but I don’t always get the feeling to move in unplanned directions, it is just that when I do and I try to respond, I am almost always rewarded on some level—not always photographic, but always valuable.

Almost missed ever finding this location

Almost missed ever finding this location

One such discovery by doing this was the place pictured above, back in 1984.  It’s now one of my favorite places to visit when I am in the area, an alien landscape that was nearly missed.  It is not visible from the road nor is it on the way to anything in particular, just a “What If” that was followed.  I discuss my discovery here.  https://acurso.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/the-wash/

Cross-Processed Neg Film for Microsoft and Novartis

Although there had been various “What If” moments/ideas before then, it was in 1990 when I entered the commercial photography field that things really ramped up in this regard.  One of the things I confronted was that I was now going to have to shoot color and I didn’t really like “normal” color.  I had already been shooting for 12 years and only black and white for most of that.  At that time, photographers did not have access to digital solutions and the most common deliverable for a photographer was a transparency (essentially what most might know as a “slide”).  So there wasn’t much one could do except choose a film that “fit” your style and the client’s needs.  But it was also the beginning of experiments to cross-process negative films, creating positives instead of color negatives.  I experimented with, probably, 12 different films but wasn’t crazy about the very soft, cyan results they all seemed to generate.  I picked a couple that seemed to hold some promise but I wanted something different and varied the processing and other factors I could control at the camera.  I was learning a great deal about color theory that I hadn’t ever considered before as well as insight into various processing variables that I still draw upon, even with digital.  Over 6 months or so of various “What If” moments and not getting where I wanted to go, I was just about ready to give up.  I had just picked up a batch of test film from my lab that still hadn’t gotten me any nearer my goal and was driving back to my studio when I got one of those most improbable “What If” flashes.  Trying it, I had discovered what I believe was, and remained until the film was discontinued, a unique color process that gave a hyper-real feel to the photograph while maintaining a somewhat conventional look.  Along with other stylistic factors, the process helped attract clients from across the country to not only shoot “branding” type images but what might otherwise be mundane product shots as well.  I even had an art director fly half-way across the country just to shoot four slices of bread!

During the time I was experimenting with this type of cross-processing, I was also exploring the use of cross-processing positive film and using the resultant “negative” as the final image (many were having these “negatives” printed for the high contrast and color shifts–later, I also scanned these “negatives” to create positive images).  One such case is the image at the top of the page here, which was not what the art director asked for but when I presented this version, it was used as the final artwork in the ad for a snowboard company.

It’s important to understand that while most of the examples here are related to my commercial work, that isn’t the point.  Rather, although I did explore ideas before I turned Pro, it was  during this time that these “What If” explorations intensified and, in looking back, that I realize how important constantly looking into unknown areas is to our creative development.  The things we learn build on themselves and build up our capacity to move further than we ever imagined.

Below are a couple more examples related to the above explorations.  In my next entry, I will explore some more personal explorations of those “What If” ideas and close with a final entry introducing some new work that grew from continuing to follow a line of  “What If’s” that date back to the mid-80’s.

Cross-Processed Neg Film For Series of Technical Brochures

Cross-Processed Neg Film For Series of Technical Brochures

Exploring the cross-processed negative film (turning it positive), some of my early failed experiments came to life once I figured out those “missing” elements.  The color in the two images above was created in the camera not with lighting.  Yes, the camera lens was filtered, but it was not how one might think (using normal film or digital capture) but rather a more complex application of color theory due to the abnormal characteristics of this process.  This variation of the process was used on several projects including the packaging for an entire line of teas.

Positive Film Transparency and Cross Processed Positive Film Transparency (negative)

Positive Film Transparency and Cross Processed Positive Film Transparency (negative)

The image on the top, above, was created to be used on an album cover with the color palette and subject specified by the Design Firm.  Once I completed this image, I decided to have some fun with color theory and replace the filters on the lights to create the same palette in a negative image.  The result, the image on the bottom, was the one used for the album cover.

Please feel free to comment or ask questions.  My next post should appear early next week.

“What If” photography

This entry is going to be about exploring creativity but it occurred to me just how we often use the statement “what if” to look back at our lives.  We often hear of folks asking themselves: “What if I had done this…or that…or that other thing instead”.  While we certainly want to learn from our past, I doubt that it serves any useful purpose to take part in such pondering as it is actually irrelevant. What has been done is done!  What is important is what we are going to do now.

Personally, I adopted a philosophy a long time ago to never ask that sort of question of myself. The fact is, if I had done anything different in my life I may not be where I am right now and I’m probably as happy, if not happier, with where I am now than at any other time in my life.

So what I want to talk about is how the “what if” question can be used as a way to stimulate our creative thinking.  You see, when this question comes to mind in this context it means we are contemplating some action that has an outcome that is not KNOWN to us.  That can certainly make it a bit more scary and we may shy away from that uncertainty.  But it can also be very exciting if we push through that initial hesitation.  The most exciting part of it is that because we don’t know what is going to happen we have no idea what else we might discover if we just allow ourselves to explore that “What If”.  In fact, I often find myself discovering a new, even more interesting “what if” as I start to pursue that first idea.  Although we can certainly end up at a dead-end, we will rarely not have learned something of value.  Something that will come forward at some later time as the experience percolates through our subconscious or conscious thoughts.  At times, it is just some new application of the process we explored that didn’t work but when applied in a slightly different way or to a different subject it becomes magic!

One of the most common reasons we don’t follow these impulses or “Wild Hairs” is that we don’t feel we have time to go somewhere that might not “work”.  We have jobs and family demands and carving out photography time is too valuable to do something we don’t know will be successful.  My own thought on that is that we need to realize that we don’t have the time to not pursue these things.  If we only stay with what we know will work, we will never move forward in our work or will do so only very slowly and 10 years from now we might look at what we are doing and wonder why we haven’t grown or only done so in limited ways.  For some, that is acceptable but for many that leads to long-term frustration, especially for those who want to create more personal and innovative work.

I have been on the road for the last couple of months and will be returning home next month and will present some of my own experiences and results of this process then.  In the meantime, consider what I have said here and see how it might fit into your own creative processes.  Remember that our best work often comes when we just respond to our curiosity and while we are doing things we aren’t even sure work all that well.  It takes time for us to understand new things and that image that doesn’t seem to work today may be one of our best if we allow ourselves to the time to finally understand it.

Pursue those “What If’s” so you aren’t asking yourself years down the road “what if I had done that back then”!

My Photograph Sucks!

I started this post almost 3 months ago and just wasn’t finding a clarity in the issue that I wanted to express here. While related to the former “Success Rate: an Irrelevant Measurement” , I think there is a different, but important principle here than the main focus in that post. A few recent experiences/exposures to similar views as my intent here helped me to clear my block in presenting this topic.

You see, I get bored easily, especially when I feel that there isn’t much more to learn. In fact, I don’t know why I have even stuck with photography for almost 40 years now except that I have the wonderful habit of always finding a way to make a bad photograph. I don’t purposely do this; it just seems to happen—and not all that infrequently really. The thing is that I love it and I really do think it’s what has kept me interested in photography.

When we first get going with photography, we just want to make something approaching a “good” photograph. This is generally defined as something others (most others) will look at and appreciate—our families often appreciate anything we do–bless them!

As we move forward, most of us will get to the point where we can make “good” photographs pretty regularly—whatever “good” means to us. This is the point where we can actually go back and refer to some of the points in that former post on “Success Rate”. If we only create images we know others will like and/or we know will be successful, we’ll probably create bushels of such images, although there will always be that occasional stinker along the way. We can end up printing and/or posting hundreds—maybe thousands—of images as everything we do is, in fact, “good”.

For many, this is exactly what their photographic endeavor is all about, making good photographs of their various experiences and to share with others. But, and this is the larger point of this post, there are many who get to the point where “good” no longer is all that important. What is most important are those images that move beyond good and which express our ideas or intent most succinctly. Even Ansel Adams, who was a full time photographer for most of his life, suggested that “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”

I recently came across a short video on YouTube which used the words of Ira Glass excerpted from another 4-part YouTube video he did on Storytelling, which is what he does so well. I recommend looking up the entire series but in this excerpt, he talks about the process we go through as we develop in our creative endeavors:

As he suggests, how the work we create as we begin our journey will often fall short of what we “know” we are capable of creating. We know we have good taste and yet we just haven’t yet learned how to capture, or express, that within our chosen creative endeavor. Later on in the full series, he also relates how even working with a team of creatives, after ferreting out the best ideas, that when they go to put those ideas into a tangible product, things often just fall short even with those best ideas. On the other hand, maybe magic happens when working on something that seems lesser or less likely to succeed. If we are working for others or under a deadline, we might have to pick and choose what might be the most likely to succeed. But when it comes to personal work, we can choose any idea and pursue it. We often learn much more from our failures than we do from our successes—in a larger context, we often learn more from just the journey than from achieving the goal.

And hidden in this is the reason I don’t mind that “my photograph sucks!” You see, I don’t go out trying to make a bad photograph—and I do know that I am fully capable of making a “good” photograph—but what I do is to photograph what interests me and/or seems significant in some way. Often, this means trying to solve visual problems and express ideas that I have not confronted before. Sometimes, it might be something I have attempted many times before and still haven’t created one that works. Even when I do solve a problem effectively, I might not still think it worthy of showing anyone, there are still things to figure out or maybe it is just alright. In fact, even when I create an image I love, it really is still just a stepping-stone to some photograph I will create in the future—a sketch if you will.

In fact, maybe the most important point here is that we should be looking at our work, even our best, as sketches for future work and solutions. This hit home for me recently about how our photographs, every one of them, can seem so “final” as we view them on the large screen of our computers and yet aren’t they really just the precursor of our next photograph—a sketch in that sense?

I had recently watched a movie about a sculptor and it all seemed so pointless as he spent years seemingly creating the same/similar sketch and maquette over and over. At the end of the movie, he finally creates his “seminal” piece based on those years of sketching. But it was a video on Gustav Klimt that finally put the pieces in place. The excerpt below (it’s worth watching the entire thing IMO) talks about how he would “sketch” various positions/expressions/gestures of his models until he found the one that would finally express the emotion/idea he envisioned for his painting or one of the characters in it . The pertinent part in this clip is about 35 seconds long—there is nudity, drawing and painting, in this clip if that is an issue:

This past weekend I was in Houston and viewed several wonderful exhibits at the local art museums. As a result of one of the shows, I looked up the artist and found a lecture on YouTube that she gave to a group of graduate students. In this video, which is wonderful overall (Not safe for work, by the way), there is a part linked here where she reminds the students that for every wonderful work that an artist presents there are at least 200 that didn’t work—You are only seeing their BEST.  Again, this is worth watching in its entirety–which I will address in a later post–but the pertinent part of this clip starts below and goes for about 50 seconds.

It is important to understand that great work doesn’t come out of anyone with every click of the shutter or swipe of the brush. It is a process of trying, experimenting, searching and discovering—not a goal but a journey or maybe even more like an adventure.

So, I embrace my failures and suggest you do the same. Try things when you don’t know whether they will work but you were attracted to or wonder about or try to express something you might not even yet understand yourself. I don’t throw even my “failures” away as it isn’t uncommon for me to go back and find better solutions to visual problems in that overlooked work than I did in those that caught my attention at the time—sometimes many years later. We often work ahead of our ability to currently see, our subconscious is often way ahead of us.

What do we really see?

Identical images--click on image to see larger

Identical images–click on image to see larger

This may be one of the oddest post I will ever make here and one of the hardest to present in a clear way.

Ever since I was very young, I have always wondered about our vision and how our brain translates the things we see. I can remember sitting in grade school and wondering if my classmates really see the same thing—if I could see through their eyes and translate that with my brain—as I do when I see RED, for instance. It wasn’t that I thought they didn’t see “RED” or relate “RED” to other colors as I did, but whether maybe their “Red” might be green or purple or something else if I saw what they saw but interpreted it with my brain. We know cultural norms can affect how beauty, for instance, is perceived but what about actual visual perception?  Do we really “see” the same things or just interpret them the same?

I suppose that I saw this in one form, at least, when I was teaching at PNCA back in the 90’s. One of the students in my photo class would routinely bring in these photographs with the most incredible rendering of light within them. This “light” was incredible in the sense that I have probably only seen it a handful of times in my life—once that I can remember in one of my own photographs—other than in this person’s photographs. Everyone was pretty impressed (the photos themselves were alright, but that light!) A student who had been photographing for quite a while asked him “how” he got that light. Pondering that question, a more or less blank look came over the students face. I said “you have no idea, do you?” and he looked at me and said “no, I don’t”. For whatever reason he interpreted light in such a way that he “saw” things that most of us don’t. The question, really, might be whether he saw what he was seeing as exceptional in the way the rest of us did, or just as normal—and how did he see our rendering of light?

It might be a surprise to you that the two photos above are actually identical! Well, at least in the sense that they completely match when I isolate them and look at the one on the left with my left eye and the one on the right with my right eye (actually, they did until last Tuesday!). And it might be surprising that, in this case, they both look more like the one on the right than the one on the left. Let me explain the best I can, which is not going to be easy.

Like most of us will at some point, I have developed cataracts over the past decade or two or three… They’re the result, in my case, of spending so much of my life outdoors with much of that in the desert or on the water with no sunglasses or UV protection for my eyes. And, I suppose, age might also be a factor. Over the years, I have had friends who had developed them in their 30’s, so I guess I have been lucky that it has taken a bit longer. Apparently, certain types of eye injuries can help speed them along as well.

But it was about three years ago that they could no longer correct my eyes back to 20-20 with glasses. At the time, the Optometrist suggested that I was seeing things pretty yellow, given how the cataracts had progressed, and I said that I didn’t see things yellow at all, things seemed very clear to me and as “normal” as they ever did. He suggested that I just wasn’t recognizing it, as they were definitely pretty yellow and getting worse. It was also about that time that I had taken a Color Acuity Test and scored very high—a “6”, although not perfect (“0”) but with 99 being poor, I’d say my score was pretty good. (The test can be taken here: http://www.xrite.com/online-color-test-challenge.)

But things progressed over these last 3 years and although I knew there were some changes, I didn’t recognize them all. For instance, when I bought my Truck a year and a half ago, I couldn’t see the speedometer unless I turned on the dash lights. Not having that problem in my other truck or my wife’s car, I complained about it being a design flaw (it wasn’t!). I started to get rainbow halo’s around bright lights at night and driving at night became much less “fun”. I love to drive from predawn to after sunset! During the day, I needed to keep my sun visor down while driving to cut the “haze” caused by the bright sky. One of the worst side effects was that I could no longer read a book (a paper one) comfortably, as I couldn’t get the contrast to see clearly on a white page and it was worse with those fancy art books that don’t use pure black type!  But color, that seemed totally normal to me.

Well, the fact is that I was halfway through cataract surgery when I created the side by side images above, last Monday. My left eye had been corrected the previous Thursday and on Tuesday, I was having the other eye done.

The first thing I noticed after that first eye was operated on was just how clear and BLUE everything was with the “fixed” eye—absolutely blue, not just in reference to the one not fixed yet. I wondered if the nodes in my eye were just so used to fighting the yellow that they needed to settle down. It wasn’t like seeing through a blue filter, just that neutral grays and whites just had a blue cast instead of being neutral.  Actually, each day I have noticed that the extra “blue” had diminished a bit. But I was driving my wife nuts asking her to describe what she saw color-wise to gauge how my “new” eye was seeing—by last Monday it seemed to have all but lost the bluish bias but still a bit more so than what she described (she doesn’t have cataracts).

The image above, on the right, is one that I processed about a year ago through my cataracts. Looking at it with my now fixed eyes, it still looks pretty much as I felt I processed it, if not maybe just a tad “cooler”, but certainly acceptable as it is.

To create the one on the left, I blocked my left eye, the fixed one, so it could only see the left image and the right eye, which still had its cataract, so that it could only see the right image. Both images started out the same as the one on the right. The eyes certainly were seeing different renditions of the image.  To equalize how I saw them with each eye, I made several Photoshop adjustment layers with masks to the left image to try to get the color, contrast and other visual effects to make what I saw with the left eye match what I saw with the right, unfixed, eye. Under this segregated procedure, these are extremely close except for a very small amount more clarity and contrast in the left image than what I was seeing with the right.

The odd thing was that as I was “creating” the one on the left, it didn’t look yellow at all, nor did the one on the right to my right eye. It wasn’t until I pulled away, allowing both eyes to see both images that I noticed the strong yellow in the one on the left. My brain seemed to still be “normalizing” what I was seeing color-wise, as I matched the two images as described above.

(I should note here that the same day that I created these images, I retook that color acuity test mentioned above. The “fixed” eye, which is my weaker one, scored a “9” while the uncorrected eye scored a “60”, which is a far cry from the “6” of just a few years ago!)*

But, when I wasn’t blocking either eye from seeing the image on the opposite side, I couldn’t get the right image to match the one on the left even by closing one eye and trying to look only at the image on its own side. The one on the right just looked “right” with the right eye and the one on the left yellow, with the left eye. The fixed eye did see the image on the right a bit cooler, and certainly sharper, but the right eye saw the right image pretty much as it appears except for those differences (there was a very slight yellow cast to the warmer nature of the image). The biggest color difference that I could notice was just that I could not see any of that rich yellow-green in the foliage in the center of the image on the far bank or in the reflections of the tree in the water.

When I again isolated the eyes to seeing only the image on the same side as the eye looking at that image, the yellow again disappears and the images normalize to each other—looking pretty much as the one on the right with those contrast and slightly warmer differences the “fixed” eye sees when looking at the right image.

I think what fascinates me most is just how the brain could find a way to interpret and normalize the color out of either eye, let alone the uncorrected color vision I have seen for the last couple of years. Certainly it wasn’t perfect, as I could see when comparing the fixed and non-fixed eyes, but in a reasonable range. I have gone back now and looked at the color images I have created over just this last year and although I might make some changes (warming some images up a bit), they are not garish, over saturated or too contrasty as I might have expected given the results indicated by the images above.

Anyway, I thought I might share this as I felt it really dovetailed well into some of the other posts here that have dealt with perception and reality and how the brain resolves all sorts of visual information.  In this case, overcoming substantial color variance to give a “normal” view.

Please feel free to ask questions.  I spent about an hour on the phone with a friend who saw these and heard the explanation and still was trying to get a grasp on what was going on.  In fact, this was going to be posted last Tuesday but after the conversation, I wanted to see if I couldn’t make things more clear here.  So, please ask questions if something isn’t clear and I will try to further clarify things.  Thanks.

 

*4 weeks after my cataract surgery was completed for both eyes, I retook the color test and had a perfect score.