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.

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On Being Greedy

Eroded-Rocks

Image created at Pt Lobos State Reserve

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looking For” vs “Finding”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03-Somans-Garden

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

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

Quotes to Ponder: #0006

“One should not only photograph things
for what they are
but for what else they are.”

 

~ Minor White

11-4583014-(Stream,-Pfeiffer-Creek)

With our exploration of the Idea complete, I thought I would start a series about how Idea plays a role in my photography, both personally and commercially–a series of case studies, if you will.

This quote from Minor White expresses a good deal about my own objectives with photography and how I look to find something beyond just subject or documentation.  In fact, I am often less interested in what something is than what it becomes when photographed–and then how it digs down inside of the psyche.  We will look at how this can translate into various work, even when there is a primary focus that might seem at odds with such a personal interpretation of what one’s photography is all about.

Tomorrow I will post the first case study.

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(“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!)

Quotes to Ponder: #0005

“I begin by not photographing”

~Jeff Wall

In our discussions about The Idea: Part 1 and Part 2 we have focused on how idea plays into our immediate response to things we see.  Here, Jeff Wall presents a different way of approaching the creation of a photograph, one that is not too different from how a commercial photograph is made.

In Part 3 of The Idea, which will be posted later this week, we will be exploring various ways idea plays within the photographic process and reconciling the “more animalistic” approach Henry Wessel described to this seemingly contradictory style that Jeff Wall employs.

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(“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!)

The Idea: Part 2

In Part 1, we explored the rationale behind the suggestion that every photograph starts with an idea. That even if we just make a quick snap of something, there was a reason for our taking the time and effort to do that and that we are, in fact, communicating something—an idea.

Once we understand that our images are about ideas, it makes it clear that our decisions, as to both technical and aesthetic considerations, should be made to maximize the clarity of our idea. If we don’t coordinate these things then we can end up with what Ansel Adams was referring to when he suggested a “sharp image of a fuzzy concept”!

Of course when we are beginning or even later on, we might just be trying out some technique and the idea contained within the photograph might be less important than our need to see how a technique works or doesn’t—or just how we get that technique to work. Trying out how things like shallow or deep depth of field are attained or allowing blur or stopping motion are important exercises. In these cases it is important to differentiate between the “idea” of testing something versus the creation of a meaningful photograph. Certainly, we can create a more meaningful photograph doing this, however, often the success is just in what we learned through the process.

In the quote I posted by Thoreau, he suggests that we don’t necessarily see what it is that we look at but maybe something else. Although he is most likely being a bit more philosophical, referring to how we interpret meaning (which should not be dismissed as unimportant in this discussion), there is a direct correlation to what we recognize visually as well. As I mentioned in that post, this can be the reason why we might not even notice something that the person right next to us gets excited about.  Even if we see the same thing, it may have a different meaning or significance to each of us.

I am sure that if you have gone out photographing with others you’ve noticed that although there might be some overlap in what each shoots, others will have seen and photographed things you didn’t. I know that when my wife and I are out shooting together we rarely come back having shot the same things—or even similar things for that matter.

Of course, we might also notice how when we do photograph the same things as others we might have interpreted the scene differently–although we might also note how often some of the most popular, well known places are photographed exactly the same way by, it seems, everybody!

A few years after I started photographing, I belonged to an informal group of photographers who all had met at various workshops with Ansel Adams and were all, primarily, landscape photographers.   We had regular meetings to critique each others prints and went on occasional field trips together.  At a print critique session following one such trip, five of us ended up presenting prints of the same part of a creek we had found at that site.  All of the images were different but by that time, I had started to move away from a more traditional interpretation of landscape and was more interested in metaphor and abstraction.  My image was quite a bit different than the others and reflected what was important to me.Stream, Devil's Punchbowl

Anais Nin put this idea a bit more directly when she suggests that “we don’t see things as they are, but as we are”. This is probably the most critical thing for us to recognize when it comes to our photographs or how we view the photographs of others or other forms of art.

What we photograph and how we interpret things tells us, and others, something about who we are. We reveal ourselves in what we create as well as how we interpret things.

For instance, that snapshot of me as a child in Part 1 suggests what was important to my mother.  While some of you might respond, with various amounts of enthusiasm, “what a cute little boy” –which I certainly was–others might suggest what a crappy, old, irrelevant snapshot, which is probably how I would react if it didn’t have all the emotional and contextual references that I connect with it. We’re just not all going to respond in the same way to everything, which is a good thing!

How we respond to things is directly drawn from what I will refer to as our Core and something that Stephen Shore refers to as our Mental Model in his book “The Nature of Photographs”*.  This Core is the sum of all of our life experiences including our upbringing, education and conditioning and how we responded and interpreted all of those things we were exposed to. This Core can be very different even between siblings who shared a great number of the same experiences. It defines who we are as people and how we think about the world.

CoreAs a visual person, I like to picture things in my mind and this “fuzzy ball” posted above is my, albeit imperfect, interpretation of how our Core might look.

At the center are those things that are most solid and stable and those that are the most difficult to change or dislodge. These might be our core values and ethics as well as other things we KNOW are absolutely true and which are most important to us. But even here, these things can change over time as we gain new insights and information. I think most of us can probably identify things that we were absolutely “sure” of when we were younger that we now think about, or look at, in a completely different way. The size of this solid area will vary with each person and personality.  Often, what resides in this area can make us reject or accept something without further question or analysis–for better or worse.

The more diffuse areas are those areas where things we have been exposed to or learned about are processed and stored. The more strongly we feel about these, the more solid or dense they become while the more diffuse areas might be things we are figuring out or which we have less conviction about.

This area might be where we hold observed current trends and might be the reason we would think it cool to photograph our food and post it to social media, if for no other reason.

What could be cooler than a pile of Texas BBQ and a table set for 4?

What could be cooler than a pile of Texas BBQ and a table set for 4?

As we learn something new or are exposed to alternative ways of thinking, they enter this area. At times, they might just float around without seeming to have any relevance to us or how we think. But then one day, some of these might become more relevant either because of new information we obtain or something we confront brings them into focus and they begin to make more sense to us. This can be a long process or a revelation.

This Core is not only the basis for how we respond and interpret things but it is also what we draw on as the source of our creativity. Creativity isn’t the application of a rote technique or rule but rather our ability to connect things—often disparate things—we have learned into a new form or way of responding. We will discuss creativity in depth later.

In Shore’s book, he suggests how as photographers we are exposed to a visual stimulus as we search out our photographs and that those visual stimuli interact with, and adjust, our Mental Model and that in turn modifies our perception which then interacts again with our Mental Model and further modifies our perception of things and so on—in essence, we learn and grow through the act of photographing.

My own experience is that everything we expose ourselves to will affect our Mental Model/Core and that our growth as photographers is not just through learning technical or aesthetic concerns in connection with our interests in photography but through exposing ourselves to other art, literature, music, movies etc. as well as just allowing for new experiences and exploring other ways of thinking about things—including photography. I know that for me, these were the activities–including much time investigating art/photography I didn’t understand–that affected my photography more than just learning how to make a photograph. This is my reason for this blog and the types of entries I make here.

In The Idea: Part 3, we will explore how Idea can work in various ways and on different levels in our photography. Later entries will also explore some of these concepts further, in different contexts and from different angles.

My next post here, on Thursday, will explore something more practical, the characteristics of light, the one we generally love to hate!

In the meantime, please feel free to leave and comments or questions.

You can find “The Idea: Part 3” here

or “The Idea: Part 1” here.

*This book by Stephen Shore is deceptively simple and can be read in a half hour or so. I have read it several times and it is one of those books that can reveal new things each time we read it and digest more of the concepts he presents.

Quotes to Ponder: #0003

“We don’t see things as they are;

we see things as we are.”

~Anais Nin

This quote takes our previous one from Henry David Thoreau, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see”, a step further.  Not only do we not necessarily see or recognize the same things as one another, but our interpretation of what we do see–even similar information–can be unique to us.  It is the reason we might like to photograph one thing, say landscape, while our friend might prefer something else that we avoid, possibly something with more personal contact, like portraiture.  In the same vein, it is why we like some art and don’t necessarily respond to others.  This is all part of what we will be exploring in our next post here: “The Idea: Part 2”.

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(“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. However, 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!)