Perception: Key or Potato
Every link in
the photographic chain, from the photographer first coming onto a
scene to the viewer of a completed image, is influenced by
subjective observation. In Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland a
book with no pictures sends a dreaming Alice into a room filled with
locked doors. A gold key located on a solid glass table fits the
smallest of the doors hidden behind a curtain. While still large,
Alice opens the door and peers through what is essentially a camera
at a lovely garden that she can see but otherwise cannot enter.
"...and even if my head would go through," thought poor Alice, "it
would be very little use without my shoulders." With that
declarative Alice is anything but poor as she has intuited the
richness of the photographic experience.
We have come
to understand that a photographic image is not the same as direct
perception thanks to the complications that arise from a whole
spectrum of factors ranging from our culture, education, and
personal experiences. Mental imaging, whether by the photographer or
viewer, is subject to this phenomenon. Ebenezer Scrooge perceived
the ghost of his partner Jacob Marley not as a disembodied spirit
that was very much present standing in front of him but rather as
"an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a
fragment of underdone potato. There's more gravy than grave about
you, whatever you are!"
are creating or viewing images you must understand how they appeal
imaginatively to you. Are they golden keys or undone potatoes? Only
you can say but the answer says much about how you will perceive
that which you visualize during image creation or view in finished form.
A budding photographer asked me the other day why I put so much
emphasis on the role imagination takes in photography. He
indicated that, as he liked to shoot nature, all he had to do
was walk outside and Nature provided him all the material he
needed to start taking pictures. He did not need to imagine
anything as it was all right there for the taking.
“Airplanes” I simply answered. Taking a cue from his puzzled
expression I explained further by paraphrasing Mr. Spock. “For
everything there is a beginning.” As children we often imagined
what it would be like if we could fly like birds. Our ancestors
did the same and many seized their imaginations and strove to
turn them into reality - making something from nothing - which
ultimately led to the invention of the airplane.
Everything around us, from shoelaces to computers got its start
as something imagined. Whether we are aware of it or not we do
the same thing in photography. It is just another outcome of our
desire to create which had its start with imagination.
Imagination is something totally different from reality (or at
least how we are used to perceiving it) and generally this is
not a bad thing. This is because our imaginations allow us to
give birth to a new reality – something we create (be it
airplanes or images). Before something comes into existence in
the physical world, it is already there in our inner world, in
the form of imagination. If we are in tune with our imagination,
we see the dawn of inspiration and within inspiration lays the
desire to create.
of photography is the act of creating a new reality based upon
our own interpretations. Whether we are consciously aware of it
or not our creative efforts all have their beginnings with
imagination. This is why it is so important to stay in touch
with our ever-working imaginations. The more we are in tune with
it the more it inspires us, fuels our passion, and drives our
creativity – a true wealth without measure.
speaking of airplanes, what if…?
To say that we get excited and emotionally charged when we come
upon a scene that almost demands that we start working the
camera is probably a gross understatement. When confronted with
such situations we inevitably want to dive right in and start
composing, metering, and focusing. It is almost like we quit
thinking about what we are doing and simply react to the
situation letting our instincts lead us through the production
of an image. On many levels this is really not such a bad thing.
There are many situations that call for this sort of image
making because if we stop and really think about what we want to
do the moment is gone forever.
other end of that creative spectrum is what I have come to be
considered contemplative photography. We now more readily accept
the premise that photography is as much, if not more, an
interpretive rather than a documentarian art. Our perception of
reality is changing as well. Our creative efforts are founded in
the way we react to outside stimulus and contemplative
photography is a method that allows the opportunity to
reinterpret reality. After all what is reality? To paraphrase a
passage from Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”:
reality would seem to be something very erratic and undependable
– now to be bound in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper,
now in a daffodil in the sun. It overwhelms one walking home
beneath the starts and makes the silent world more real than the
world of speech. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too
far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever
reality touches, it fixes and makes permanent.”
the time at the beginning of the creative process to reflect on
your responses and emotions provides the opportunity to see and
photograph the world in new and fresh ways. Contemplation is a
method that will allow you to reveal richness and beauty that is
normally hidden from view. It brings you closer with the visual
world allowing you to capture the beauty of shadows, the
elegance of lines, the clash of colors, or the soft blending of
tones that would be missed by the average passer-by.
Fooling Your Subconscious
no doubt about it, when it comes to making decisions, the human
brain can be quite irrational. We can thank our subconscious for
some of this as it is highly influenced by past memories,
assumptions, and just down right wrong thinking. It is our
subconscious that strongly influences our awareness and, in
turn, our creativity.
comes to photography we all make mistakes. Some we are aware of
and can use them to help us learn and improve. Others occur on a
subconscious level so that we are not even aware that we made
them or that our thinking was influenced because of it.
Understanding some of the forces that can influence our thinking
process is the first step in learning to avoid them. It is not
easy but if you can you will find you’re your creativity and
imagination will blossom into new areas you never thought
possible. Here is one of those forces.
photographers we tend to gravitate to subjects and locations we
like. It is an act so natural to us that the action is
self-propagating to the point where we can begin to limit our
photographic energies to pursue the same subjects, scenes, and
locations to the exclusion of other photographic opportunities.
The result is a narrowing of our ability to visualize on a
broader arena and we end up with creative tunnel vision. We tend
to further reinforce this predilection by surrounding ourselves
with others who share the same passions and beliefs.
rapid growth in what is now called iphoneography is a classic
example of this phenomenon. Blogging sites, websites, camera
groups, and workshops have sprouted like mushrooms after a rain
storm and are comprised of diehard followers who have ended up
excluding other types of photography in favor of this new form.
While there is nothing wrong with embracing new art forms the
danger is in the exclusion it can create.
phenomenon is called confirmation bias and is a form of
frequency illusion. This is an example of frequency illusion.
While working in the woods you come across a spot lit chipmunk
sitting on a stump. It is such a strong scene that your memory
forms an impression of it. Now as you travel around the woods
you are suddenly aware there are chipmunks all over the place.
It is a passive experience where our brains seek out information
that is familiar to us but we believe there’s been an actual
increase in the number of chipmunks in the area. Frequency
illusion influences the way we see as well as influencing what
we see. A friend of mind here in Lake Tahoe has become so
fixated with rock formations along the shoreline that they do
not even see the field of wildflowers growing around them.
Confirmation bias is a more active form of the same experience.
It happens when we proactively seek out information that
confirms our existing likes, preferences, and beliefs. The
danger happens when they become so intertwined with how we
approach our world and our photography that we tend to avoid
trying new things, going to new locations, or photographing
other subject types because they can cause harm to what is
established and familiar.
short, don’t become too attached to your assumptions as they can
trick your subconscious which effects the way you view your
world. After all it was only some 400 years ago we still thought
the earth was the center of the universe.