Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Photographic Eye

 Walking on the beach yesterday, I photographed this attractive arrangement of shell, leaves, driftwood chips, and pebbles. My work? No, it’s completely the creation of wind, rain, trees, and tide. The main thing I did was to notice it and point my camera at it.

Frequently I think about the idea of "found art,” that is, odd things I just happen across that seem to express a message that I respond to aesthetically. It seems to me that much photographic subject matter could be characterized that way. I've experimented with consciously arranging things (or people) in front of the lens, but the most satisfying imagery, to me, is that which just fortuitously turns up. The art is in the noticing, which has involved cultivation, over time, of an alertness to the serendipitous appearance of photogenic subject matter before my eyes.

A possible downside to what I term “photographic alertness” is that to practice it successfully, you have to learn to see like a camera, which is really a specialized way of seeing. The photographic process compresses the 3D world into two dimensions and presents it as a bordered, flattened pattern on a page. What you see in the 3D world is not really what you get on paper, not unless you’re savvy to the tricks played by the camera eye.

After many years of practicing photography, seeing like a camera has become an internalized habit. This leads me to the question, were it not for this habit, what might I be seeing that I’m missing now?

Furthermore, now that half the population is carrying smart phones (capable of recording images and sometimes video), and is engaged in framing and flattening life for the display on computer screens, what effects might such training and habits be having on our psyches and our general response to what goes on around us?

I believe that learning to see the way a camera sees can be enriching, if accomplished consciously, but it can also be limiting in ways of which we may not be fully aware. For one thing, it focuses our attention on what can be seen, and takes our attention away from other senses. Our culture, in large part due to our focus (so to speak) on imagery, tends to cater to appearances, and to ignore substance. Also, as I’ve complained in other posts, we typically seem to be oblivious to the effect of sound on us, unless it happens to be music played very loudly. Similarly, we neglect our other senses, and do so increasingly, as we spend greater and greater amounts of time with our attention focused on electronic screens.

My last post, “Seeing outside the frame.”is a version of an essay I wrote some time ago. It seems to me that the best photography, though confined by its margins and two dimensionality, leads your attention to what's going on beyond the borders of the image, to the story it implies, or some metaphoric or even mystical meanings and associations. The objects pictured above, encountered at random on the beach, evoked feelings about the season, the end of life, that which it leaves behind. It inspired also to the speculations that I've indulged via this essay. . . and more thoughts yet about art, which I’m still exploring.

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