24 March 2010

Learning to SEE

I am teaching you how to see as opposed to merely looking.” – Carlos Castaneda

Whether one buys the premise that Carlos Castaneda was a powerful acolyte on the Yaqui Warrior’s Path of the Nagual or was instead a New Age hoax that bewitched a generation of dreamy-eyed, latter-day hippies, there are some interesting philosophical concepts bandied about in his ten books. One that has always stuck with me and seems apropos to the world of photography is the Art of Seeing.

In the Castaneda books seeing is the ability to look beyond our current, facile reality into the realm of magical entities and pure energy. This, as opposed to merely looking, as in “to look at something” which implies a superficial glance. Fine-art photographers don’t have to wax metaphysical to understand the requirement to see things differently than others. Bill Brandt – the preeminent British photographer of the 20th century – said it best when he wrote: “It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveler who enters a strange country.”  

As photographers, our visual antennae must be all-aquiver, attentive, and receptive to see the artistic possibilities that abound around us. Often that also means getting out of our comfort zone. Comfort zones are just that and we hang out in them quite a bit because they are, well, comfortable (read: non-challenging). But they are also constricting us to what we allow ourselves to know and see. That, I believe, is why photowalking outings can be so interesting. It forces you to deal with (see) subject matter you normally might merely glance at and saunter past with little thought or appreciation. I was at a recent club-organized photowalk in an old train station. It was fascinating to watch how the many photographers would approach differently the subject matter of four walls, tiled floor, and high windows and ceiling. It was also interesting to see how the passers-by would stop and look – perhaps even SEE – the station details because people with cameras were doing the same.

Go on your own photowalking jaunt, or pick themed projects to occasionally work on. Venture from your comfort zone on occasion and look for challenges that do just that. My personal goal is not to stop looking around, but to start seeing more.


08 March 2010

Burgers as a Metaphor

I admit it: I’m biased...but so are you. Don’t deny it, it’s just one of those human failings we must struggle against.

I see a photo of a subject I’m not in the remotest interested in — let’s say (in my case) rodeo or perhaps snowmobiles doing barrel rolls to the squeals of a thousand fist-pumping fans — and my GSU (Gut Sensory Unit) begins sending warning signals to my brain: “BORing, not for you, wander ye eyes somewhere else,” etc. But, if the photo is good, I mean really good, something different happens: the brain kicks in and the GSU is quieted by a simple: “huh!...interesting...that is well done!” Our (well, perhaps only MY, but I seriously doubt it) initial Gut reaction is often to the subject matter. Not always, mind you, but often enough the bias gets in the way and says “yuck...wha?...stoopid!” before we let the composition and intrinsic beauty settle in. Is it Gut versus Brain? Not really, I just think we are hard-wired to react before analyzing. That we can eventually analyze (I’m speaking again for myself here) is a VGT (Very Good Thing). We can — if we permit/push ourselves — move beyond first glance, our gut feel, to an analytical level that can be equally valid as the intuitive. Are those tensions in competition or collaboration? There is visceral and there is intellectual and then there is the vast greyness in betwixt. We choose where to hang out.

With that in mind, can a vegetarian appreciate a good burger? Can she or he look at a well-crafted photo of a hunk of cooked animal and say: “well done!” (No pun intended.) Can they go beyond the utterly visceral (and repugnant) impact of that image to applaud the skill and aplomb of the photographer? It may never be appealing on a gut-level but can the brain give it a passing score?

I’ll ask my wife...


03 March 2010

It's a god-forsaken desert!

“It's a god-forsaken desert!” … was one individual’s dismissive and all-encompassing comment about Utah’s West Desert. A rallying cry of sorts, in this particular case to dump nuclear waste, but really this is of the extractive/exploitive mindset that really can’t imagine a land that exists for its own sake. I won’t get into a deconstructivist mode that examines how he presumes to know what God (if he/she/it exists) does or does not forsake, nor will I explore the irony behind what  was once a horrid barrier to avoid or cross at one’s peril becomes a place of attraction and renewal (think Manly in 1849 struggling to lead a wagon train through a valley now known as Death). Instead, these images – all shot within ~50 miles of the “forsaken” location and hence presumably “forsaken” as well – speak for themselves. In the end, even though as a wise person once opined, “One man’s heavy metal is another woman’s opera,” it is also true that actions – and inactions – have consequences. Let decisions be guided by both maxims.