Thursday, December 8, 2011

Learning to See Part 7

My great-grand-daughter, Nevayah, (it's one of those New Age made up names designed for rock stars and super models) is one year old; just. What a delight it is to watch a child grow. They learn so fast. Movement, sounds, tastes, reaching out, finding things; ‘milestones’ her mother calls them. I wonder if there is a metric equivalent. The modern mother knows all this. Nothing is left to chance. Each advance is mapped and coordinated like a Photoshop workflow.
‘She’ll start rolling over at 10 weeks and 3 days. Exactly 8 days later she will discover her toes,’ her mother reports. Any delay in progress is a disaster. A step ahead is celebrated as if the child has been selected for Eton or the next Moon landing. A genius is in the making I hear them say: mothers competing for ownership of the brightest and most advanced child.
‘My child is smiling.’
‘Well, mine can hold a spoon.’
‘Can yours say “abomination”? Mine can.’
‘Yeah, well my boy translated the Koran into Japanese yesterday’.
‘But can he pilot a Lear jet?’
And the creche skirmishes continue.

What I have noticed among all this scurrying for child supremacy is that there is a distinct lack of interest in the child’s development in ‘seeing’ past the initial concern that the eyes are functional, they are the colour of at least one of the parents and there is no more than two. Learning to see appears to be taken for granted. Yet outside the speech centre of the brain, the visual cortex is the largest single area of the brain dealing with function other than movement and sight is responsible for 80% of sensory input and learning for a sighted person. For some strange reason we expect it all to be working perfectly from the moment the child sees the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.
 I’m a curious person, so I watch and learn from my great-grand-daughter. Maybe she can teach me a thing or two about learning to see.

She stares; intently, wide-eyed, glaringly, as if everything is new: as it is. As each object, place and face comes into view she takes in what she sees and places it carefully into her memory. Objects become familiar, recognizable, and repeatable. She begins to search, looking for things she knows exist in her memory. She connects those visions with places and experiences. Relationships are formed. She learns to see in conjunction with her other senses. She learns to know where objects will be and what they mean. She learns to associate the real with the symbol. A photo on the wall, a representation of an animal in a story book, a reflection in the mirror, another human, someone she knows: herself.

The process is slow at first, blurred slightly by the physical restraints and then by the experiential limitations of a child. Her eyes dart back and forth across the vista in a never-ending search for meaning. When a connection is made she reacts. A smile, a puzzled expression, a sign of fear, a moment of hesitation, joy, anticipation, excitement. She learns that seeing is a way of finding out. She learns to enjoy the experience. Eye contact between other humans is rewarding to her. Seeing becomes rewarding.

You and I know where this is going, of course. I have grand children and children of my own who have all been along this path. They learn to see and recognize shapes and colours. They establish preferences and partialities for certain objects and people. They learn to associate words with objects and they learn to speak those words. They learn to read. They learn their language; to put ideas into words and describe what they see. At the root of all of this learning is the sense of sight. A child without sight learns all of this by an entirely different process and the other senses must fill in the gaps where lack of vision leaves the learning spaces void of stimulus.

As this learning process continues the child learns to focus. In a somewhat confusing and over-stimulating visual world, the child must learn to isolate those things which are important and ignore those things which are unimportant. We teach a child to concentrate their attention.
‘Watch to the front’, the teacher says.
‘Keep your eyes on the traffic’, warns the parent.
‘Look at me’, the sibling demands.
‘Stop looking at that’, you will hear the crier call.
We learn to be selective in our vision. That’s a very important skill for us all. Its necessary for our survival.

As we grow and develop we begin a new process of selection based not on visual isolation but one of cognitive isolation where our already existing learning begins to select only those things which we find relevant at the time. This selection process is influenced by our memory, understanding, beliefs, customs and knowledge. In a sense, our vision seems to narrow. We no longer see with the eyes of a child but of an adult. Our visual input is the same but our 'vision' narrows.

This new vision can blind us. We drive without noticing where we are. We don’t recognise people we know. We ‘don’t see the nose on [our] face’ as my mother used to say. We read and re-read the same lines in a book. Something seems to appear out of nowhere. ‘It’s been there all the time’ I hear Christine say. How did I not see it? It’s a peculiar phenomenon that is characteristic of us all.

And what of the photograph?

We give the image a passing glance. It doesn't 'interest' us so we move on. We may ponder long enough to notice something.
'Nice flower'.
'I've been there'.
'Don't go much on the dress she's wearing'

We might consider the image in our own light.

'$4m for that! My kid could do better'

We may have some knowledge which we can apply.
'Interesting PoV' the budding photographer observes.
'That horizon could be a little higher.'
'Nice and sharp!'
Were not these people’s vision blurred by their own experiences, knowledge, biases and expectations? Did they take the opportunity, as a child might, to seek new experiences, to expand on what they already knew, to 'see' as other might, to search the frame for detail, clues, connections.
The photographer presents us with a view of the world, neatly packaged withing a frame. That particular view is is unique. It has never been seen in quite that way and from that point in time before. The photographer sees something worth recording, worth sharing, worth expressing in his/her own particular way. This is the visual fingerprint of that particular place at that particular time by just one person. And how do we respond? 'Nice colour (it'll match my curtains)'.

The adult often sees and endeavours to eliminate what they don’t understand, comprehend or believe. We resist the relationships for fear of misunderstanding them. We ignore the symbolism for fear of stimulating our own feelings. A dead flower is a dead flower and not a symbol of loss or mourning. A fallen petal cannot be a moment of sadness. A white vase doesn’t show us purity of form: its just a vase. Something seemingly out of place is a mistake and needs to be corrected.

If we learn to see as the child does, we open a new world to our vision and add to our own experiences. We learn about people and places. We see the connections and relationships. We share in a world as no other generation has ever done before. Don't let the world pass you by. Stop for a while and ponder. Learn to see as others do.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Learning to See (space) - Part 6

We are truly never alone. Nor are we truly ever without.
Wherever we are there is always a sense of presence, a proximity to something else, another human, the company of another animal, the structures that make us human and those that do not. We feel  a part of and never apart from the natural world and its diversity and the unnatural world and its complexity. We breathe its air, walk its terrain, swim its oceans, climb its trees, occupy its food chain and contribute to its existence. We also add to it with structures and destruction. There is no escape. Gravity takes care of that.

When we photograph we search for that connectedness. We look into the landscape to find its beauty. We want it to be part of us as if the feelings it imposes will transform us. We hunt the flora and fauna and see ourselves in their behaviour. Their beauty is ours to capture. Our camera scans the seas and sky for signs of life and to verify our existence. I am here. This is what I see.

But what of the space in between, the emptiness, the void that fills the gaps in this connectedness we all seek. Lord Rutherford pronounced: 'There is only two truths: atoms and space; the rest is mere conjecture.' According to modern cosmological theory, Rutherford might have been unaware of a few things but at least he was heading in the right direction.

What we photograph, in Rutherford's terms, is the atoms. They make up the 'things' we seek, the objects of our attention, the focal point and something for our auto-focus to align to. We fill our frame with atoms and molecules. We compose based on Form, the form of solids, liquids and gaseous vapours. Edward Weston suggested Form was everything in a photograph. He, like all of us, have a great attachment to the 'solidarity' of the Universe. Even in the vastness of Space we seek the stars and planets and use them to define its existence.

As I learnt to see as a photographer I became more and more aware of the stuff between the Form, the emptiness that edged to the surfaces and textures of my subjects. This nothingness began to grow in importance as a child becomes aware of the bareness of a crib or a surfer grasps the vastness of the ocean as he stares at the horizon. I wanted to photograph this abyss, this gaping hole that pushed against the frame and squeezed the 'things' from my view.

How do I photograph nothing? Other photographers described this void as 'negative space' as if it took away from the content, as though it meant 'less than' or a subtraction, almost an annoyance that persisted, like a whining child who just won't go away. In an effort to deal with this aggravation they began to use it as a means of visually describing content. It was used to 'divert the eyes' or outline the form or fill the frame as if it was a half empty bowl and you didn't want the contents to be discarded so it was easier to fill the container with whatever was available.

Now, most of the time it worked. We never notice. We are told it was OK the do this. After all, who in their right mind would want to make 'emptiness' a subject for portrayal. Stare at nothing? Who does that? Do we look at a blank wall and wonder at its beauty? Do we stare blankly into the distance and picture its content as interesting and exciting? Would we read a blank page or drink from an empty vessel or breath the contents of a vacuum?

Then I saw it! Brice Marden's 'The Dylan Painting'. You would need to be there. It was what I would image it is like standing on the top of Mt Everest and realising you were on the edge of it all and the rest was space; empty, hollow, endless space. And you could do what you like with it.

So begun my plight. Finding the space and photographing it. It easy enough to find, or so you'd think. Its everywhere. It fills the sky, it holds the ceiling of a cathedral, it keeps me at distance from my foes and it brings me close to my loved ones. How wonderful this space is. It occupies office blocks, streets, rooms, my backyard, the glass I hold and the place behind my mirror. It creeps into every crevasse and fills it with visual splendor. It has no colour, no texture, no form, no properties of its own but it gives life to all it encompasses. We can look into it, or out of it, be in it, on it, under it, surrounded by it or surround it. And like Gravity, it spreads all the way to the edge of the Universe and then it starts all over again, only to return and fill our lives with magic once more.

Still Life - Space and Roses

Walking Space

Breathing Space

Finding Space

Office Space

Floor Space

 Photographing this 'stuff' isn't easy. Its elusive as quicksilver. Just when you think you have it and you pick up your camera, its gone, only to be replaced with a dog or a rock or a family member or a Sun setting on the horizon. If you wait for it, it will never come, if you search for it, it will evade you like the meaning of Life itself. Its the place that needs filling, like a pause in a conversation. There's an awkwardness with a necessity to be 'taken care of'.
'There's a space there. Can you put something in it?'
'It really annoys me when people leave spaces!'
'How much space have I got here. I want to fill it.'
'Oh, look. A space. I'm going to put my big fat arse there. Who needs space?'

The next time you see some space, call me. I might just be able to capture it before it disappears.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Learning to See (Part 5)

In the process of learning to see, ordinary days and ordinary events can often take on a significance that is, to say the least, surprising, if not profound, but certainly extraordinary in their connection. Today is such an ordinary day.
The first event was a simple question posted on a blog.
" Where is your next big travel trip?"

Simple enough inquiry, but the implications in the particular context was that one needs to travel to photograph; to find new destinations, grandeous scenery, interesting people, places of beauty, the obligatory sunset or sunrise on a new and more exciting horizon, captivating architecture or the progression of interesting and dramatic lives and events other than those that fill our own seemingly mundane existence. We need the imagery of the imaginary, the visual spectacle of the spectacular; we need to see and record what we don't have or pay homage to the representation of what we do have: the landscape.

The travelling photographer is armed with a vision we envy. He brings us a world out of reach to many. Like The Grand Tour we plan our lives, in part, to fulfil the dream and return with the booty of other places, neatly parcelled in a digital slide show which will be presented to friends and family on our return.
"See where I have been," and we will sit in amazement at the splendor and beauty of it all.

The second event was as ordinary as the first.
Over the past few weeks I have been teaching my grand-daughter to drive. On the morning of her driving test I accompanied her to the testing station. We had a calming coffee in the local shopping centre beforehand, then she left me in the car park while she went for the test.

As always I had a camera with me. My thoughts went back to the question: "Where is your next big trip?" For me, this was it! Standing alone in a strange carpark in a 'foreign' land. My thoughts begun to shift from the ordinariness of the surrounding (after all, there is nothing unusual about a car park surrounded by offices and shop fronts) to the extra-ordinariness of the place in which I have found myself.

People going about their business, cars coming and going, conversations barely audible over the traffic, trade noises eminating from a shop front, machinery humming away in the background, distant sounds blending into city's white noise. I began to notice the shapes and forms occupying the space: colours blending, shadow and light interacting, textures and tones giving visual life to this inner space buried deep inside the city in which I had spent a good part of my adult life. And somehow I'd missed it.

I raised the camera to my eye and started framing and shooting. Each click of the shutter was, at that time, recording the truth, a beauty that can only be seen from where I stood, not only in locality but in time; my time.

My time to this point was filled with assumptions and stories, memories and recall, words, poetry, events, imagery of my past. I could here my father describing a Rembrant, my mother reading from a Bronte novel, my physics teacher describing the magnetic field of a dipole (whatever that is), my sister reciting a rhyme, Christine re-affirming her love for me. All this guided me to frame within the lanscape.

The present was where I found myself, standing in a carpark, waiting for my grand-dauhter, and the taking of photographs became a verification of who I am and what I can see. "I am here. See this picture. That's what I saw. I exist and the landscape exists at the same time" It seemed a strange place to be, as if I was a time traveller and I was recording this simple landscape to take into the future where I could once more travel back and revisit.

But unlike the painter who composes the lanscape from bits and pieces, my landscape was there in all its 'glory'. My task was to select those bits that play some significance in my view of life. Not what is beautiful but what is true - for me. Beauty would follow.

While standing in the middle of the road framing one of many shots I took that morning, drifting blissfully through my own world, a gentleman approached from the curb.
"What are you photographing?' he asked sincerely.
" The truth" I responded, only after the shutter hand been pressed and I was happy I had captured it as I saw it.
"I used to photograph rock art" he added, with some trepidation, moving back to the curb and seeking safety from the traffic and me.

Everyone has a vision of the truth. We can all find it and photograph it as we see it. When that is done, the beauty will be revealed. Finding your truth may be closer than you think.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Learning to See (Part 4)

In the seemingly never ending and ridiculously brisk pace of life it's often difficult to take the advise of others, especially when banal comments like 'Take time to smell the roses' or 'Take some time out for yourself' seem the only offer as the solution to what you might see as a train wreck about to happen or a nuclear holocaust already in progress. In a world where a strong work ethic is God and financial security is the panacea for all ills, time to watch the lawn grow or the paint dry on the walls of your newly renovated suburban castle has been replaced by more mundane pass times such as watching the mortgage grow and the competition's name dry on the office door next to yours. After all, photographers have to eat. Some days it seems as though your very own heart rate can't keep pace with the blood that flows through your clogged arteries.

Yet, for some inane reason that is completely beyond me, I have chosen a profession that requires just that: a pause, momentary as it is, to reflect on the present and the past, to spend some time pondering the life of another human being, to give life to their Truth, their Beauty, to render their purpose purposeful. My life is filled with imagery, photographs taken by myself and others that require a presence, an understanding, a vision to produce and an insight to read. Each one of these images requires of me to 'smell the roses', to give the value they deserve.

But why?
I don't have time for this! I'm a busy man. I have 'things' to do, 'places' to go, 'people' to meet, 'business' to deal with. When do I have time to look at my own images, let alone the myriad of visual stimulation thrown at me on a daily basis, all geared to influence my thinking. Buy this, sell that, the shock of the old and new, now for the news, a touch of beauty mingled with the torment of a nation, sickness and well-being all neatly parcelled in a box and plastered onto the screen or tabloid before me. Stop! Look at me! I'm the best. My photograph is the Truth. It holds the answers to all things. Emulate me and your dreams will come true. Envy me because what you see is unattainable. Dare to like what you see and I will stay with you forever. Hate me and I will have won.

This is a terrible dilemma for us all. We swim through the sea of sensory stimulation willingly, constantly tortured by the savagery of other people's skills. We are the baited fish dragged behind the boat, desperately dodging the snapping jaws of the frenzied school of sharks. Everyone wants their bit of flesh and all we want is to be dragged from the water screaming so we can drown in our own misgivings. Our dream changes from 'I can do that' to 'I wish I could do that'. We wait desperately for our Flickr graph to rise or the blog counter to tick over. When it doesn't we have failed, when it does, other's have failed. 'Nice colour' the comment reads. Is that it? Is that all they can see? 'What lens did you use?' Do they also chase the bait? Is it me they emulate, or it it my photograph they want to copy? I really do need to smell the roses. But where do I find them?

Each day I spend a few moments with the photographers and their work; just staring. I dream of places I have never been. I meet people I do not know, I look at cherished objects and battles fought and lost, a shed in a field, a car crash, a well worn path, a new born baby and a grieving wife at a funeral. I also look at my own images and remind myself of why I do this thing called photography. Above my favourite chair is a framed photograph of some flowers. It holds no special place except to exist for its own sake. It is the answer to all things, the god I seek, the tranquility I need, the space in the chaos, the dream, the 'rose' in my garden. As I look down at the book I am reading I am reminded of what its all about. Its not about the photograph or the winning or the ego that sometimes replaces my common sense, or lack of it. Its about the struggle, the lack of understanding, the inadequacy, the guilt, the search. That's what we do from the moment we eagerly take the first breathe to that fateful and inevitable time we gasp the last; photographers no less than others.

As T.S. Eliot pointed out to us all:

"... Each venture
Is the new beginning...
...what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate - but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again ......
For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business"

I still keep trying to see; for myself and for others.