2.20.2011,4:40 PM
The Art of Seeing: The Mind's Eye

One of my passions is photography. Or perhaps I should clarify that: photographing. Rather than the former passive term, I use the active verb: the act of photographing. This may seem trivial, but it isn't really. The difference became apparent to me over the years of reading travel reports on the Internet, especially by motorcyclists. They all seem the same, to the point that I have stopped reading them. 

Most motorcycle travel reports (and I deliberately call them 'reports') provide textual accounts of riding a motorcycle from Point A to Point B, and without any intimate details, personal revelations, or thoughts other than "I rode xxx miles in xx hours on xxx roads." Most of the photographs that accompany these reports include the obligatory bike shot. In other words, the focal point in nearly all their photographs is their bike, or those of their travel companions. The landscapes, buildings, other non-bike items are the backdrops, incidentals. It reminds me of the tourists that pose for every photograph on their travels and vacations, as if the purpose of the photograph was them and them only. Maybe that's is the purpose. Perhaps they don't really see anything else around them other than themselves. They could have the same results at home by posing in a mirror and taking their portrait; cheaper, too!

Another observation is that they all seem to photograph the same points of interest at the most popular locations: the monument at Four Corners, the statue, the same lake from the same spot, etc.  Again, boring. Been there, seen the same photograph in too many reports.

Across many motorcycle forums, both the text and the photographs all became clones of each other. Boring. Dull. Impersonal. These are not travelogues; they are reports. They are travel guides on leaving Point A and arriving at Point B. They lack a personal narrative. And get rid of the bike in every photograph! We know what your bike looks like, already!

Over the years of browsing through photography magazines, I've approached the same conclusion. All those with an outdoor focus have many of the same photographs. I still flip through them for hope that a photographer with a fresh perspective might be featured, and occasionally they are there. Or, the articles and photographers that focus on technique and how they mind the 'rules'. Few photographers are featured that break the rules or offer new angles. After a while, they all meld into the same thing: same approach, same places, same photographs. Boring. 

Maybe it's just me. I want something that grabs me. Makes me think, causes me to scrutinize the various components of the photograph, evokes a profound feeling, or tells me a story. It doesn't have to be simple, taken from the correct angle, have the right foreground, and be two-thirds empty or full. All it has to do is mean something; ask a question, make a statement, elicit a inner response, even if I have to turn my head at an angle. Speak to me!

I've been around photography all my life; my father and ex-husband were free-lance photographers. They usually did their own developing and printing. I used a SLR back in middle school and before I knew what I was doing. I still don't know what I am doing most of the time. I just know that in the frame I am looking at through this hard metal contraption of mirror and glass, I can manipulate what I see; my way. I can choose to pinpoint or focus on one particular point in my view. Or I can try to capture a part of the very 360-degree expanse that I am experiencing around me. In this process, the view in that frame is a part of me. But more importantly, I am a part of it. It is what I see through my mind's eye. 

I know many photographers point and counter point about the techniques and equipment used. And still don't see what photographs are. To me, good photographs are like reading poetry, like savoring a sip of fine wine, experiencing the grip on your heart by a piece of music, inhaling the sweet and musky smell of a wild rose, or tighten your throat with the human condition. Not all photographs are pleasing; some show what we don't want to see.

I am not a good photographer. I am an amateur. I use a simple camera that I could afford, I don't have PhotoShop on my old laptop with it's insufficient hard drive. Nor do I pretend to follow all the 'rules'. I try to photograph how I see things. Sometimes it works, more often it doesn't. But that doesn't stop me. We all start somewhere, and we all do what we think is right. Or what we feel.

Late last year, I posted a comment on a very good blog by Anthony Kerr: Motojournalism (a very good informative and entertaining blog!). After a discussion yesterday with my good friend and fellow photographer, Bill, I decided to post my comment here as well. This will begin a additional topic on my blog: photographing.

I remember my Dad, a free-lance photographer, telling me so long ago not to worry about 'how': how to set up the frame, how to arrange the 'elements', how to master the Zone, or Thirds. He told me to shoot what I saw in my mind's eye. And the rest will come together. It seems that so many photographs are almost copy cats of each other because everyone aims to conform to the same 'rules', like photographing by numbers (rather than paint by numbers). But what photography really is, is an interpretation of the world, of reality. As we see it. And sometimes, that might be outside of the box.

You might enjoy this excerpt by Graham Clarke from "The Photograph." (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1997)

How Do We Read a Photograph?

Whenever we look at a photographic image we engage in a series of complex readings which relate as much to the expectations and assumptions that we bring to the image as to the photographic subject itself. Indeed, rather than the notion of looking, which suggests a passive act of recognition, we need to insist that we read a photograph, not as an image but as a text. That reading (any reading) involves a series of problematic, ambiguous, and often contradictory meanings and relationships between the reader and the image.

The photograph achieves meaning through what has been called a 'photographic discourse': a language of codes which involves its own grammar and syntax. It is, in its own way, as complex and as rich as any written language.

The photograph both mirrors and creates a discourse with the world, and is never, despite its often passive way with things, a neutral representation. Indeed, we might argue that at every level the photograph involves a saturated ideological context. Full of meanings, it is a dense text in which is written the terms of reference by which an ideology both constructs meaning and reflects that meaning as a stamp of power and authority. Far from being a 'mirror', the photograph is one of the most complex and most problematic forms of representation. Its ordinariness belies its ambivalence and implicit difficulty as a means of representation.

To read a photograph, then, is to enter into a series of relationships which are 'hidden', so to speak, by the illusory power of the image before our eyes. We need not only to see the image, but also to read it as the active play of a visual language. In this respect two aspects are basic. First, we must always remember that the photograph is itself the product of a photographer. It is always the reflection of a specific point of view, be it aesthetic, polemical, political, or ideological. One never 'takes' a photograph in any passive sense. To 'take' is active. The photographer imposes, steals, re-creates the scene/seen according to a cultural discourse. Secondly, however, the photograph encodes the terms of reference by which we shape and understand a three-dimensional world. It thus exists within a wider body of reference and relates to a series of wider histories, at once aesthetic, cultural, and social.

Every photograph is not only surrounded by a historical, aesthetic, and cultural frame of reference but also by an entire invisible set of relationships and meanings relating to the photographer and the point at which the image was made. The image is as much a reflection of the 'I' of the photographer as it is of the 'eye' of the camera.

Thus we can read a photograph within its own terms of reference, seeing it not so much as the reflection of a 'real' world as an interpretation of that world.


posted by Macrobe
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