Seeing: A Few Thoughts

In this post I want to highlight and discuss in a supportive manner an idea with which I do not agree. No, it’s not that I don’t agree with it; it’s more that it’s a little incomplete for a street photographer like me. But more on that later. I am going to recommend that all photographers take note of the ideas presented here and try to take them on board.

Recently I came across a great new (for me) word: conventionalization. I first saw this word in Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, an extraordinary and highly recommended biography of this great artist. Anyway, the word was used in a section discussing ‘seeing’, and how Dorothea saw (excuse the pun) this ever so important aspect of photography.

First up, conventionalization is defined as:

the ‘art or act of making something conventional’. I guess we all know what conventional means, and there are a number of applications for the word, but here are a couple that apply most aptly to this discussion:

Conventional is defined as:

pertaining to convention or general agreement; established by general consent or accepted usage; arbitrarily determined; ordinary rather than different or original

Lange believed, as I do, that seeing is more than a physical process involving your eyes. She always said we use our brains to see with. Apparently Dorothea liked collecting quotes about seeing:

Seeing is more than a physiological phenomenon. We see not only with our eyes, but with all that we are and all that our culture is. The artist is a professional see-er

(I love that word see-er. Reminds me of the word seer. Maybe that’s a subject for some research eh?

And here is where our newly discovered word comes into the picture. I quote directly from the book here:

The worst enemy of seeing is conventionalization, Lange knew, and overcoming it requires vigilance. The more we see the ordinary, the less we notice because our expectations of what we will see overpowers actual observation, and because we hurry. Skilled seeing requires emptying the mind of false and clichéd responses.

So, what see think we see is not always what is really there; it’s what our brain infers is there from all our previous experience and any other preconceptions we have in our minds. Apparently the percentage of seeing that is actual and not inferred is quite small; some say as little as 10%.

The book makes a great statement that I think we all would agree with: ‘… a great photographer wants observers not to infer but to see anew.’ This is something we can all aspire too, even if we aren’t ‘great’.

Now, for Dorothea noticing detail was important, particularly in her Depression era work: her photos were used to illustrate reports to government, to publicize poverty and other social ills. (She is a wonderful example of how photography can make a difference, how it can bring about change and help people in practical as well as other ways.) According to the bio she once criticized one of her own photos by commenting:

‘That’s a passing glance. I know I didn’t
’t see it.’ She was rejecting a photo that held details she hadn’t conscioulsly noticed at the time she made the photo. Of course detail was important for the work she was doing, but it has to be said her eye for detail was extraordinary.

And this is where, on this issue at least, Dorothea and I part ways. Well, you know, it’s not really a parting of ways: her work and the kind of work I do are on the whole quite different. I value the details I see on a conscious level, of course. But equal, and sometimes more significant, to those details seen on that conscious level, are the things that are, if you like ‘unseen’. In other words, those details noticed only at some deeper level and only seen with the eyes later when the photos are reviewed on the computer screen or in the print form. (Here I should add that Dorothea’s work at this level shines bright too!)

Does this mean athat anything goes? That I don’t care if there are things in the photo that shouldn’t be there or that get in the way? Of course not. But, rather than trying to register every little detail with my rational and ‘thinking’ mind before I press the shutter, I try to allow my intuition, my unconscious mind, to see what is meant to be photographed and to ignore what is not meant to be.

I should point out here that so much of what Dorothea Lange did and said makes so much sense. And she is for me truly a role model, an inspiration and guide. She achieved so much with the rigorous discipline she imposed on herself. She could see on so many levels as I’ve said, that most of us can only dream of reaching anywhere near her level.

What fascinates me after reading so much about her and her work is this: I believe her street photography, where she did make photos in a more spontaneous and intuitive manner, was what really helped her hone her observational skills that really made masterpieces of so many of her images, including those more set up, ‘posed’ and carefully scrutinized. The Migrant Mother is a perfect example.

So, here’s my suggestion. Practice seeing. With a camera or without (both methods have their place), in whatever environment you find yourself in. Look closely at objects and people with your physical eye. Try to see beyond your own preconceptions and experiences. Try to see with what Zen Buddhism calls Shoshin, the Beginner’s Mind: it’s all new!

But, don’t let this seeing with the eyes and conscious mind take you too far away from that unconscious mind seeing that informs the more spontaneous style of street photography. Each can inform the other and seeing well on either of these levels will improve your seeing on the other.

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