“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:


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


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.

Quotes to Ponder: #0008

“There is a vitality, a life-force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivates you.”


~ Martha Graham

I thought this quote by Martha Graham would be an excellent follow on post to the last ” “What If” photography ” and hope it will stimulate further thoughts on TRUSTING yourself to explore those urges to do something new or different.  Enjoy!

(“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!)

I Could Do That!

Recently, I came across a link to the YouTube video below and thought that it might be a good one to share here.  I know that we often wonder about “ART” and comments like “I could have done that” are pretty common.  I even remember taking my dad to a museum and while we were standing in a room full of Jasper Johns’ Numbers work and him questioning why it was art–essentially, as an engineer, anyone he knew could do that!

The thing is that I not only thought that this video was one of the best on the subject I had seen, I think their entire YouTube Channel is pretty wonderful.  They have found a way to make learning about the artistic process a bit more fun and less intimidating.  Maybe, as a bonus, along with more specifically educational videos, they also offer a series of assignments that are thought up by various artists and allow you to explore some ideas in a fun way (with lots of great references to current art–more educational stuff done in a fun, relevant way!)–and every assignment requires that you document what you did photographically–a real bonus!

Hope you will enjoy this video and the rest of their efforts as much as I have.


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.

Quotes to Ponder: #0007

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”


~ Marcel Proust


I hadn’t actually planned to make a post today but I saw this quote posted by my nephew on Facebook.  It seemed perfect now that we have ended the “Looking at Photographs” series.  Perfect because like so many things in life, we often pursue “new” things when there are, in fact, so many things to be discovered right in front of us if we only take time to look.

The series was about how we can gain new insights when looking at a photograph or other artwork by trying to understand things outside of our awareness or just that quick glance.  Learning about the Context of an image, why it was made and what is important to the artist; Describing what is actually within the image, recognizing the little things that can be pointers to further understanding; and then the Analysis of the structure of an image, what visual clues do we have in the way an image has been constructed.  These things can all bring a new awareness to something we thought we understood.

As photographers we have an opportunity to show the others new or alternative ways of looking at the world.  To present our unique way of seeing and to let others see what is important to us.  We don’t have to constantly be chasing after new places or where we think we can find our next great photograph.  We can simply start looking at things in new ways, ways that are meaningful to us.  Doing so can only end in the creation of meaningful photographs.

(“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!)

Part 3: Looking at Photographs-Structural Analysis

In the last installment of this series, I mentioned that there were two functions that involve Visual Perception that we can use in deciphering a photograph—or any piece of art. The first was just simple observation and description—noticing what is really in the visual, the objects. This is where we start to look for symbols and metaphor, things that enrich what the image actually depicts and means.

The second function is just a slight twist on the first and although maybe just as straightforward, takes a bit of study. It also takes a bit more work to break a visual down in this way. But it can be incredibly effective in our understanding of what we are looking at.

Sometimes, I think that when we read posts such as this series, we view them as more theoretical, unlike a tutorial on lighting or how to create this or that type of photograph. What I would like to suggest is that the information learned here, when practiced, will be more valuable to one’s photography than a simple instruction on how to do this or that. We build our abilities to respond to a scene and make the most of it, regardless of what we shoot or what type of image we like or dislike. When we are shooting, we don’t think about these things but draw upon them. These things are foundational and, as such, can be drawn upon over and over in any situation.

Studying and applying these while looking at great photography/art, we build up a “visual” vocabulary that we can draw upon in the same way we draw upon our verbal vocabulary to express ourselves in all situations—and without having to think about it, we just naturally use the tools we have that work best in any situation. It is when we are looking at work that’s already done that we analyze and think and gain/expand our basic self-knowledge, the only thing available to us when we create.

In fact, the particular skill that I am going to discuss here is fundamental to creating compositions that effectively communicate our ideas as well. Although I will be discussing this with regards to looking at photographs, it is also foundational to making them—in a very direct way.

On the most basic level, our visual perception is not really about things at all. As I said in Part 2, we translate what we see into things we can define and often make assumptions based on our first glance. But what we actually perceive is essentially what is often defined as the Elements of Art. We see line, shape, color, texture, value and form, then, based on our experiences, we identify what they mean or seem to represent. We see a rectangular shape with a pattern/texture and we know it is a plank of wood or a piece of sheet metal or whatever we decipher. Based on the elements we see, we might even be able to identify the particular type of wood or metal.

As well as being the building blocks of the objects we recognize, they also have visual properties that can affect the nature of a photograph and what it means.  They can be active or passive within a scene.

When we look at an image, if we take the time to start to really analyze these Elements and how they relate and interact, as well as how they are organized with the Principles of Design, we can gain even more awareness of what the image might be about—or at least an objective insight into how these things interact within an image and give it meaning.

I am not going to get deeply into describing and analyzing each of these things at this time but here is a list of each (lists will vary slightly if you research this on your own):

Elements of Art: Line, Shape, Color, Texture/Pattern, Value and Form

Principles of Design: Balance, Proportion, Rhythm, Motion, Emphasis and Unity

Of course, what I am referring to here are the same things we covered in the post, A Tale of Two Worlds and there I referred to this particular link where these things are discussed:


As time goes on here, I will be covering these Elements and Principles in more depth and hope to complete a book on this topic in the near future. There are lots of resources on these things but very few that are photography specific. That is what I hope to present here later as well as in book form.

One thing that you will notice from these lists is that there are no rules or shortcuts. It is line that we need to understand, in all of its forms, not just leading lines or S curves alone. If we learn the properties of line, we can understand how they actually function within an image and add to its meaning. We learn how Balance affects the way we view an image, how it was achieved or maybe even how the work has employed a sense of imbalance to affect how we respond. Balance doesn’t rely on a specific formula but is rather something we feel within the frame of our given photograph.

I mentioned on Part 2’s introduction that in an art class I took, we were assigned to write critiques and the first criteria was to physically describe what we saw. The second part was to break down how the elements of art were used and how the principles of design were employed. We did this for both two and three-dimensional artworks.  It was uncanny how doing this purposefully gave so much more insight into the works than just my natural first, gut reaction.  Admittedly, it was very difficult to actually do this type of analysis but it got easier as I applied it to more and more works.

A significant point of all of this for photographers is that, especially when looking at great works and employing the tools of analysis presented here, is that we start to get a better understanding of composition and how what we do influences the meaning of our images. We begin to see how these things play within an image, what has been used, what has been subordinated to effect the artist’s vision. As we become more facile doing this, it further adds to our visual vocabulary and we find that we more easily solve our own visual problems.

Even if we don’t “like” a work, we can begin to understand how it works and how these things were employed. We get insights into what the work might be about and gain an understanding of just what was done.

The purpose of doing the type of analysis described in the three parts of this series is about personal growth and increasing our ability to understand and create visual art. It is important to realize that we still may not relate to certain types of photographs or other artworks. That isn’t the point but, with practice, we can develop the tools to start to make some sense of things we may have passed over before. Having this ability will facilitate the learning of new things and a recognition of ways of seeing that are different from what we already know-even if only incrementally. It can look impossible to get from where we are to some distant point—and that is often the case when learning these types of things rather than those “clear” shortcuts—but it is surprising how far we can get, and how fast, if we just start and push forward one step at a time.

My own experience with this is that for the past 30+ years, I constantly return to study these things and I always gain new insights. Sometimes I still look at a photograph or other piece of art and I think I don’t know where to begin to analyze it.  Then, I just start to describe it and things become more clear.  But I do think it has been constantly looking at great work and continually developing the tools to actually see what was done and how it all came together within the image that has helped me progress the most in my own work. When I am in the field or studio, I rarely think about any of this but instinctively respond to the image I am creating and the intent/idea behind its creation.  There is a trust that I will naturally draw upon what I know at the time and what will work best.

There are certainly those times when I get stumped and can’t figure out how to solve the image at hand. Most of the time just taking a moment to focus on something else allows the answer to emerge.  Just shifting my attention to getting lunch or a snack, the answer almost always comes right to me.  But, at times when I am shooting for myself, I might decide to walk away knowing that I learned something in the process. Often, I come back to that same place a day or even months later and the “solved” image is there waiting for me.

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, http://www.kunsthaus.ch/struth/en/exhibition/families/ 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 http://carol.acurso.com/.

_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.