Monday, August 27, 2018

Arresting The Eye, Arresting The Mind

Years ago I recall Ctein going on, on ToP, about how when he was carrying a camera with a certain aspect ratio (square, 4:3, whatever) the world resolved itself constantly into compositions of precisely the right aspect ratio. He simply "saw" in the appropriate aspect ratio. I thought then, and still think, that he was exhibiting his blow-hard egomaniac side, and that this was in part utter bullshit.

That said, having spent some time reading up on miksang, and more time reading Thich Nhat Hanh, I am increasingly finding myself "seeing" more precisely, in an interesting way. In a way that is loosely related to the kinds of things Ctein was going on about, albeit without the aspect ratio thing. So maybe he wasn't making shit up, just exaggerating a bit, and expressing himself in his usual grating way. There is an interesting side note that makes this more reasonable about which more anon.

Anyways. The methods of miksang (for photography) and Thich Nhat Hanh (for living) are roughly similar, and involve a lot of personal awareness. One gently sets aside thoughts of the past, the future, of possibility, of wrongs suffered, and so on. One focuses on now, on here, on ones own sensations, ones own internal state. One breathes quietly. Awareness of oneself and of the immediate surround is the point.

In this state one can, as it were, "reach out with ones feelings" after the fashion of the Jedi Knight, and begin to see things in a particular way. A certain sort of thing begins to more or less pop out of the woodwork, and if one is attentive, one sees a certain sort of thing more or less all over the place. Usually simple compositions, with some visual interest, and a certain kind of balance.

In this state one can more or less grind this stuff out all day long. Since this is pretty much what all of Ctein's pictures look like, I am pretty sure that he's doing something like this. Whether he's using Buddhist methods or something else, I do not know. It's almost certainly some sort of meditative condition which "tunes him in" to this sort of visually interesting thing.

This is all very well and good. These are pleasing pictures, and if I were a popular (never gonna happen, fuck that) member of any photography forum or club I would no doubt get some "great capture" and "good eye" remarks, at least from the more voluble members. It will come as no surprise to long time readers that I thoroughly disdain this sort of thing.

These are pictures that arrest the eye in some sense. They are visually interesting, amiable, pictures. They are pleasant to look at, they require no thinking, they ask nothing of the viewer. People love this stuff and millions of people have learned to grind it out all day long, using one method or another. The Buddhist ideas merely allow you to get your keeper rate up to pretty close to 100% within a certain limited idiom.

I am, naturally, interested in pictures which arrest the mind. My apologies, again I have only one of these things, so it will perforce appear now and then:

This is my fake Winogrand, and it's all about the sightlines. It is hardly visually arresting at all. If you don't specifically notice the man in the picture and inspect his face (and there is little enough reason to do so), the picture is a big fat nothing. It is mentally arresting, however. There is a little human drama in here, a human story, questions are raised, and so on.

Here's another thing.

To you it's an overly warm snapshot of some people you don't know, it's essentially nothing. To me, of course, it is mentally arresting, being a picture of my children's grandmothers with a grandchilchild in the foreground.

The property of being mentally arresting, the property of engaging the viewer mentally need not be universal. I think that in some cases it is, or nearly so. Photographs of people, generally: an enigmatic portrait, a picture of profound suffering, grief, or other emotion. These things tend to reach most people. Amiable snaps of family reach not much further than the family, but they do reach that little distance.

Returning to the "merely" visually arresting photograph. One need not take the Buddhist path at all. You can manufacture these things as well. Sufficient post processing of practically any sort, applied to a minimally appealing photograph, will generally produce something that people's eyes enjoying falling on. Starting with flowers or nudes is a good idea here.

Serious Photographers (the ones who will explain that Professionals Need Two Card Slots) will disdain the fake risograph, but laypeople love it. The second one has proven quite pleasing even to photographic enthusiasts, I dare say on the grounds that it exhibits a great deal of Work. Both strike me as visually pleasing and intellectually void.

I think it is obvious that what I aspire to, and what I suspect a lot of photographers secretly aspire to, is that corner of the spectrum in which the picture is mentally arresting, is intellectually rich, manages to be more or less universally so, and if it was visually arresting that would be great.

A point upon which I am pondering perhaps to excess is this: The sort of "standard path" to photography starts out with a desire to make things that are at least a little bit mentally arresting. People talk about "capturing moments" and so on, taking pictures of their kids, their dogs, whatever, pictures which are fraught with meaning at least to the photographer. Striving to improve their pictures, there is all too often a side-trip into the visually arresting with dolts explaining rules of composition, and how to smooth skin into a sort of disgusting plastic, how to make eyes appear pasted on, where to stick lights for greatest appeal, and so forth. At this point there's almost no consideration of those "moments" fraught with meaning that started the whole thing.

Altogether too often, people never return from this side trip, and find themselves laboring to create visually arresting intellectual voids, which garner the approval of their newly discovered peers.

I'm going to suggest that if you do indeed aspire to make pictures which are both visually and mentally arresting, go forth and start making dramatically lit portraits, and take your time at it. Any idiot can make a portrait of someone standing there like a cow, it takes time and emotional commitment to draw out a good portrait, something that will genuinely engage the viewer over time. I would show you one of those, except I don't think I've ever taken one.

If you don't want to do portraits, I think you've pretty much got to start working in sequences. I can think of a small handful of single pictures which are both visually and intellectually captivating, which are not portraits. They exist, but are surprisingly rare.

Without the hook of the person in the frame, the enigma of the face stilled eternally by the camera, I know of no particular way to raise a question, to suggest an idea, reliably, without placing the picture in some context, some body of work, some set of repeated, remixed, ideas and themes.

With the sequence you can draw the viewer in with a basically empty but visually arresting photograph. Ideally, that photograph does embody some part of what you're going for, but perhaps does not fully reveal it. It might echo a theme, but not in a way one sees right off, not until one sees a few more of them. But it's visually arresting, to the viewer is pleased, or interested, and moves onwards until the meat of the thing, until the ideas begin to be revealed.

I have in mind a little thing I pulled together on a recent trip which I hope illustrates the idea, but we shall have to wait a bit to see.


  1. Several years ago I explored the concept of miksang, not in an academic way, just perusing the photo form. And I practiced what I saw, and I have a Lightroom Catalog full of stuff that might be miksang or maybe minimalism or just close-ups or macros of isolated subjects. So now I am wondering what differentiates one from another? If I'm out with my macro lens should I keyword some of the pics as minimal or miksang? The key here is differentiation, is there any? A student of Buddhism may surely photograph miksang, while a student at our local art school may photograph minimalist subjects, (very similar,) but I think really the same.

    So perhaps the only criteria for any good photograph are those you suggest: visually and or mentally interesting, hopefully both.

    Just a thought. I'm going now to get my car out of the shop; I'll bring my camera, the walk may be interesting.

  2. Miksang / minimal or what have you is like abstract painting. It’s easy to “do”, but really really hard to do well. You know, the ones that can actually make you think.

    1. It is worth noting that miksang in particular is built on methods that explicitly avoid making mental connections to things apart from the picture in the moment. In that sort of zen walking meditation state you are explicitly not thinking in terms of context.

      This may not completely rule out "mentally arresting" pictures, pictures that make you think, but it certainly cuts off many avenues to them.