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Friday, April 17, 2020


I have spent a lot of time over the years grumbling about how carefully photographers teach one another not to see. They learn to distract themselves with trivia like leading lines and rules of thirds. They examine sharpness and white balance, lighting, poses, and so on. This, I have argued and continue to believe, often prevents would-be photographers from actually seeing much of the photo.

Rudolf Arnheim talks about a lot of experiments (and there are a lot of them) in which people are repeatedly shows very simple scenes in many variations, with their impressions being recorded and charted and studied.

The point is that we all bring a lot of baggage with us when we're looking at pictures. The experiments Arnheim surveys are largely concerned with how we see when the baggage is set aside — they use a lot of abstract shapes, lines, and so on. The scenes are simplified to the point of absurdity, arguably for no reason except to clear away the clutter.

Amateur photographers of the particularly earnest technical stripe on the other hand bring a lot of very specialized baggage with them.

The average mook looking at a pictures brings their own baggage. While they may not bring a bunch of "rules of composition" nonsense with them, they might well bring some pretty personal stuff with them. They will also bring a sort of standard kit of baggage, that everyone in their cultural milieu carries around.

A picture of Kim Kardashian is likely to have some pretty dynamic curves in it, and if it's well done there will be some things about the fall of light on rounded objects and whatnot. Stuff Arnheim could tell you about.

It will also be a picture of a voluptuous woman, likely one who is holding herself in a way to emphasize that voluptuousness because, Kim. There's a whole slew of material the average, say, westerner is going to bring to a picture of a voluptuous woman.

Finally, it's a picture of Kim, who is locked eternally in a social media battle with Taylor Swift, and getting her ass handed to her. Many westerners (and not a few non-westerners) will have some sort of like/dislike reaction to Kim, she's a polarizing cultural figure.

I have, of late, been interested in what we might as well call pure seeing, that kind of stuff Arnheim talks about. That baggage-free seeing. I think I have some little facility with it, and I certainly try to do it when I look at pictures as well as, sometimes, the world. It seems to me that, surely, it is the basis of it all. These are the human universals, right? These are the things we can rely on, regardless of which set of baggage a viewer is dragging with them.

At the same time, I wonder if it matters.

Does pure seeing inform the way we take in the voluptuous woman's form, and does that in turn inform the way we take in the photograph of Ms. Kardashian? Or, alternatively, does our affection for the subject simply obliterate all the other stuff, and we see only Kim-the-celebrity?

I don't have an answer here beyond maybe? maybe both-and? It certainly encourages me in the direction of subjects to which less baggage adheres. Maybe I can make something out of flowers after all.


  1. Maybe you would be interested in something called "Miksang", which I first read about in a book called "The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes", by Andy Karr.

    1. I spent some time with Miksang a few years ago, in fact! I found it interesting as a process, but also that it tended to produce kind of lightweight pictures I didn't care much about.

      But it was definitely eye-opening as an approach to seeing and photographing.

      Thank you!