Beyond seeing – Photographing with your heart – Part 1
What happens to your photography when you begin to wonder how you actually see?
The great French writer Marcel Proust once commented that: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists of not seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.’
As photographers, we begin our photographic journey by attempting to get our process to see the world the way we do. And inevitably we fail miserably, because our camera is a simple machine, but infernally and obdurately so.
It is never going to see the world the way we do.
It does not know how to. It is a real shock when it dawns on us that the problem is not one which can be solved by throwing more money at it, doing another workshop, or watching yet another YouTube video.
The mountain (camera) is never coming to Mohammed (us); we have to go to it. We have to train ourselves to see like our camera. We have to look at our scene through its eyes. I suspect that many of us, having learnt to be obedient to the machine, stop there. We have not mastered the machine; it has mastered us. And so there we stay in a state of perpetual servitude to the whims of the engineers who built the machine, locked in a paradigm in which we have no say.
There is however, a way out.
Having learnt to see like our camera, we can come to believe that that is reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take depth-of-field, for example. The human eye has a natural aperture of f3.5, which is a pretty shallow depth-of-field. So why do we perpetuate the fiction that we see at f16 or f32 and render sharp-from-front-to-back landscapes which really only perpetuate an illusion? Surely we should be photographing and presenting everything at f3.5?
The answer is to look at how we see, the fact that we see not with our eyes (fiction, trap) but with our minds.
Our eyes gather data and feed it to our minds which interpret it and then reassemble it into a composite of meaning, represented as a picture, depending on the time of day, what we had for breakfast, the nature of our relationships, our state of health and a million other factors, of which we are probably not aware.
Perhaps a composite is a better representation of how our minds work and how we actually see rather than a single framing frozen in Time and Space. Seeing then is not an act of objectivity, it is a purely subjective and ‘willing suspension of disbelief ‘(Samuel Taylor Coleridge). What we see varies from person to person, and from moment to moment, for it is overlaid by the ever-changing veneer of memory, and dependent upon the needs of the viewer.
So, if our natural aperture is f3.5 and if we composite meaning into a coherent image in our minds, then why not work in that way? It is often from these apparently silly questions that a whole new approach to our work can come.
Some time ago, I was thinking about the tourist-as-consumer and the consumerist nature of urban living and fascinated by the often surreal graffiti I noticed on walls around the city where I was living. It seemed somehow portentous, as if a conversation was taking place just out of reach, and that I was only catching glimpses of it. The mannequins in the shop windows seemed to be silent observers, parties to an undercurrent I couldn’t quite reach. Perhaps the world was stranger than I had been led to believe, and there was something going on to which everyone was blind. I could detect fragments of it and, rather than try to define it in a single capture, I opted to combine it in a composite, much as my brain would have assembled it.
And, funnily enough, if I had been trying to make a single image, an aperture of f3.5 would have been perfect.
This article appeared in the November 2015 issue of f11 Magazine for Photographers and Afficionados.
A portfolio of my older work published in f11 as a part of the September 2012 issue (pp. 36-60) can be found here.