Monday, December 7, 2020

Seeing Photographically

I spent a couple days out in the rural area up the Nooksack river from Bellingham, getting away from the kids. This is the Pacific Northwest (PNW), a region of the USA which is technically a rain forest, I believe. It's certainly wet and fecund, although quite a bit colder than what we normally think of as a rain forest. It occurred to me while I was out there to attempt an experiment of sorts.

We all too frequently run across people subtly bragging that they "just see photos" when they're out and about, and it is this that I think is what people usually means by "seeing photographically." The notion is that, with enough experience, you just see potential pictures, and can frame them and and shoot easily. Why this does not produce substantially more actual worthwhile photos is a bit of a mystery, of course.

I'm pretty sure this isn't even slightly special. The number of people I've seen over the years make this boast, and the fact that I can do it too, suggests to me that it's not a difficult skill to develop.

My experiment was to go out into the forest, and along the river, and see what I saw, making a special note of my sensations and thoughts as I did so.

The PNW rain forest is visually dense. You can stand anywhere and see half a dozen kinds of trees, a dozen kinds of undergrowth, fallen trees, cut logs, dead branches, berries, birds, standing water, running water, mossy stones and on and on and on. If you're in an inhabited portion, there will also be tumbled structures, abandoned equipment, sawn branches, and myriad other signs of man's hand.

Walking through it with a camera, it is an endless barrage of the texture, the fall of light, the interesting detail, the sudden vista, the charming fern, the beautiful rapids, and on and on and on. You can see a potential picture at literally every step, by zooming in to the details, out to the middle range, further out to the vista, and so on.

I had two problems. The first was that I had nothing to say beyond another futile attempt to somehow photograph the experience of being the PNW forest. I have never succeeded, and I have never seen a photograph or group of photos that did. The experience is dense, rich, distinctive. I've been knocking around these woods off and on for 40 years, and I can't describe it, but I know the sensation instantly as its own, unique, thing.

I've even tried myself, pretty hard. Vancouver. Looking over it now (mentally removing the urban scenes) it's not an unmitigated failure, but it's not very good. The urban bits are much better, somehow.

And this leads neatly to the second problem, which is that photographing this environment is no more than an endless parsing of reality into meaningless fragments. This fern, that hill, the texture with the light on it, none of these mean much of anything. While I suppose one might assemble them into something, the task strikes me — here and now — as hopeless. I've seen plenty of projects and portfolios full of this stuff, and despite the best efforts of exotic processes and over-processing (or not) it never adds up to much of anything.

The ability to communicate ones umwelt is arguably the central problem of photography. Sure, I can show endless documents of the existence of this thing or that thing, and there are certainly days when I think that might be all there is to photography.

Still, we know that people can and sometimes do experience something more from a photograph. We can at least fantasize credibly about communicating at least some slight, local, umwelt. We can imagine communicating, a little, this idea that we have here, now, about or related to these things which we give you documents of.

I see this in two steps. The first is that the photo(s) should induce some sort of larger world, some notion of a world surrounding the photos. Barthes's "blind field" here or "trame"

If I show you a fern, of course you're going to see a fern, and maybe imagine that it's growing somewhere. With a little material around the edges you'd imagine some sort of forest scene or whatever, but without some larger stimulus your reaction is likely to peter out right around there. "Nice fern" if I can get a good dappling of light across it. But you're not going to find yourself in a forest, you're not going to hear the birds, or the drip of water, or the rustling of leaves. You're not going to imagine the massive boles just out of frame, unless I do something else.

But the massive boles are just out of frame, and so is everything else. The fern likely doesn't get you to imagine much of anything past the fern.

The second step is to make whatever big huge forest thing you do imagine, assuming we can work out how to get even that far, to be something like the one I was in, that I felt. That is, my umwelt not some other thing you've invented for yourself.

This is very very hard.

I think some subjects are easier. An empty desert scene might be recreated fairly well with a couple shots of sensual dunes, the fall of harsh light, a detail of struggling vegetation. People are easier, and anything involving them. We understand people, we know people. We're social machines and we can bring all that social equipment to bear to make, at any rate, something out of a picture that's mostly about people.

Whether it's the something I felt there and then, well, that's still hard. But step 1 might be tractable.

This is another aspect of how far out to lunch the "gaze" theory people are. Not only are they claiming a fixed meaning for something inherently fluid, but they are also claiming that a photographer by default succeeds in communicating, nay, enforcing, his own umwelt on viewers of photographs.

Anyone who's ever taken any pictures knows perfectly well that even your own mom doesn't reliably grasp your world-view in a photograph. They see the flower in the corner and think you just screwed up the framing.

This is the central problem of photography: not to merely make your mom, and everyone else, see the object that you saw, but to see the world that you saw.

It's not enough to just see an interesting and dynamic arrangement of forms inside an imaginary rectangle. That's just the very very beginning, which is why everyone can do that, but almost nobody can actually take really powerful photos.


  1. "Imagine a man sitting in a darkened room, imagining revenge upon me for some slight."

    I can think of several ... um, yeah.

  2. did you visit Darius and Tabitha Kinsey?
    [stone seal]

  3. You've summed up the conundrum of aspirational 'art' photography pretty well, which is of course of zero interest outside of that narrow slice.

    Many photographers including professionals rely more on learned compositional tropes, rather than exploring their own, tinkering a bit around the edges without ever really coming to grips with how they may consistently project inner life, personal attitudes and ideas through the medium.

    The nice thing about learned compositional tropes is that they are familiar and accessible -- they don't challenge the viewer to consider another perspective, are easier to 'like' and 'follow'; supreme considerations of the social media age.

    This isn't trivial, people's psychological well-being, even livelihoods depend on it.

  4. "Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it's just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers."
    Qingyuan Weixin, quoted in Alan Watts, The Way of Zen.

    Substitute "photography" for "Zen", and it still make sense.