Friday, January 09, 2009

Seeing Past The Label

When we look at a chair, we see a chair - we do so because we have been doing it all our lives and it didn't take us long to learn the various shapes which immediately identified an object as being a chair. The only problem with this efficiency is that we don't see the object itself, don't appreciate it's shape, texture, shadows, the spaces between the parts and how it relates to what is around it.
If you doubt that you do this, close your eyes and try and give an accurate description of someone you know really well. Unless you have consciously made the effort to look at that person in terms of shapes and planes and features and light and shadow - it's darn hard. No wonder when we lose a loved one we rapidly lose memory of what they looked like and can't recall details about them. Of course we are reminded if we have pictures.

It makes sense in every day life to use the fastest way possible to identify a person or object - but it makes for poor seeing because we jump right from the minimum information to identify the object to the label and don't look at it again. Now, if your spouse suggests you buy a new chair - this chair - for $600, all of a sudden you start paying attention but even then, you are more concerned with overall appearance, how it "sits" and is it a good rocker.

To photograph a chair, it is necessary to notice where the shadow of the spokes of the chair back fall, how the light reflects off the polished seat and what interesting shapes are made as you tour around the chair looking at it from a variety of angles. What's behind the chair is every bit as important to an image as the chair itself (in the sense that it can make or ruin the image).

Try the following exercise. Spend 20 minutes looking at things. This could be done on a walk or simply sitting in a room. Pick an object and see how many things you can see about that object - shapes shadows, light, surface, tone, colour, texture, and so on - anything that could show up in a print. Having done so move onto the next object.

Try and find some "objects" to notice that actually don't exist by themselves - two lines crossing - one made by a wall corner, the other by something completely different, but in your view, they interact because of your position - a shadow - a spot of light on the floor from the window - a reflection as an object, and so on. Each will take a minute or so so in 20 minutes you will have studied around 20 real and imaginary objects.

Now, do the same every day for a month. You could perform the exercise in your car at a red light. Instead of seeing a building - look at the triangle made by the shadow of one roof against another and such like.

At the end of a month, you will have regained some of your childhood recognition of things as they are instead of what they represent, you will be relying less on labels and more on what you see. Odds are if you try this with faces that you will be much more aware of how things look instead of what they are.


Juha Haataja said...

Thanks for this. The examples and exercises you gave were great examples of bypassing the labels.

For me there seems to be a problem in escaping the "quick look" mode, however.

Only when I have the camera with me (and prefereably in hand or at least pocket), I can look beyond the surface - otherwise I'm just a busy person doing stuff, not looking at things in terms of photography. Too deeply ingrained habits?

Stacey Huston said...

I have always said that is my favorite part of parenthood, looking at life through my childrens eyes..I remember seeing my son at about 2 sitting in the corner studying something.. when I got down to his level and looked without interupting I noticed that he was watching a spider.. I lay down on the floor next to him and we both watched that little, hairy 8 legged wonder for about a half hour..I still try to take the time to do this with all things in life when I can remember to.. Keeps the soul young.. thanks for sharing and reminding...