I’ve been a photographer for so long now that it informs how I see the world. I look around me and see my world in frames of images, colours, nuances of light, shapes, textures… this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it can be. Let me explain.
As I’ve mentioned before, I started photography seriously when I was a teenager. At the time there were (often) occasions when I couldn’t afford film so I’d just take my camera out with me and ‘imagine’ photographs. I’d calculate the exposure, the depth of field, create the composition, etc, even click the shutter even though the only images I made were in my mind. I learned a lot from books, from the work of other photographers and from my own (frequent) mistakes, but slowly I began to see as a photographer. One of my favourite photography books to this day is ‘Photography and the Art of Seeing‘ by Freeman Patterson because it’s not a book of techniques as much as it’s a book about learning different ways to perceive the world around us. In 1983 Tom Brown Jr. (founder of Tom Brown’s Tracking, Nature Awareness and Wilderness Survival School) invited me to his farm, and one of the first things he told us was that most people don’t notice 99% of what goes on around them. Over the next week, among other things, he demonstrated over and over that he was right. It was another beginning in learning to see. Thirty years later I figure I only miss 90%… Once you start to look, there is a lot to see.
As photographers we stand behind a box of some size and shape, and as such we separate ourselves from our subject, from the people or the scene we’re attempting to render – on film or more likely on a piece of silicon. We peer through viewfinders, at ground glass or at LCD screens, and there is a tangible if assumed ‘barrier’ between the space behind the camera and the space in front of it. This objectivity is necessary in order to capture the image(s) we seek, but it also keeps us apart from the world in which we are enmeshed. We stand apart from everything to one degree or another.
This was brought home to me several weeks back. Marcia and I are lucky enough to live only a couple of hundred yards from the ocean, and on this day I walked down to the shore and out onto the rocks. I purposely did not bring my camera with me, and although I was aware of the people and dogs, etc. behind me, from my field of view there was only the rock, the water, the sky and me. I stood there motionless for a very long time, drinking it in. I stood there for so long in fact that I was joined by three Black Oystercatchers, fishing at the edge of the incoming tide. As a wildlife photographer this was a moment of excitement, having these three birds within feet of me. Alas, I had no camera. A torrent of thoughts blazed through my head in quick succession: I did have my cell phone camera, but no, with the wide angle lens the birds would be too small a subject. Digital zoom is equivalent for ‘do not use’. Besides, I had no wish to disturb the birds by moving. I was running through a list of challenges and possible solutions when the little voice that lives inside my head gave me a proverbial whack and I realized that I was so intent on ‘capturing’ the experience that I was missing the experience I was so intent on rendering – collapsing three dimensions into two and locking them away in history while the event was ongoing.
Duly chastised I put down my invisible camera and returned back to the scene, back to the experience, back to the now of it. I stood there, as still as the rock on which I was perched, while these three wound their way around me. I watched how they danced with the incoming waves, not afraid to get their feet wet but conscious of being swamped and sucked away by the ebb. I stood in awe as they wrestled bits of food from crevices; it didn’t seem to me to be enough to sustain them, but obviously I would be wrong in that. The tide came in, the wind shifted, the light changed around us, and although we all registered these changes we were also immersed in them, not apart. Eventually the birds moved on, farther down the beach, and after giving a silent word of thanks for sharing their home with me, I turned and returned to mine.
I normally end my photography posts with ‘Now go out and make some pictures!’, but this time I’ll offer a suggestion that you consider leaving the camera behind on occasion and simply Be. Here. Now.
P.S. Update, September 2, 2013 The video below is well worth watching, although there is a certain irony in that.