An amazing artist, Karen Hutton, said “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” This is very wise. We cannot always control our environment. We cannot always surround ourselves with astounding subjects and grand scenes. Our environment should not control our art. Even when we are looking at a grand scene we should see it differently than others.
We can’t always control what is around us
It is easy to say to ourselves “poor me, I’m stuck in [fill in the blank]; I can’t take time off to go to the Grand Tetons to shoot amazing landscapes, so I guess I can’t do anything.” Get over it. An artist explores the subjects he can find around him.
Adapt. Reframe the possibilities. What you see should be a trigger. Your surroundings are a canvas you can create on.
Get excited about the environment around you rather than disappointed about where you are not. It is hard to put me someplace where I can’t find great images. That is not bragging. I’m curious about everything I see. That leads me to explore with a good attitude. My curiosity helps me seek out visually interesting things.
That is not to say we should be equally excited about everything. Each of us is called to by different types of subjects and situations. Flowers, for instance, do not excite me to do much. I know they are a great subject for many people, but you will very seldom see me present a flower image.. Unless I figure out something to do with it that I consider “interesting”.
You don’t require an amazing subject to make art
I am the artist. I can’t not look for image possibilities wherever I am. It is not my subject’s job to be so dramatic and interesting that I can just lazily point my camera in its direction and make a great image. I might even say that the more difficult a subject is to “capture” the more it excites me. I have to work at it.
The image is created in my mind. It is my reaction to the subject that forms the picture. Artists over the centuries have made wonderful pictures of bowls of fruit or fields of wheat or city streets.
Monet is a good example. Except for some time in the Netherlands and England, he found most of his scenes in a small area of northern France. He could take something I would walk by without noticing and make a great picture of it. That is making art, not just finding it.
And isn’t that what we should be doing? Shouldn’t an artist make art out of what is around?
What can you do with what you see?
Using Monet as an example again, he narrowed and narrowed his focus down to the point where he spent the later part of his career almost exclusively painting scenes of the lily pond in his garden. But he perceived art and drama in the intricacies of the color shifts and light at different times and different seasons. His images of this are amazing.
That subject doesn’t really excite me. I would love to see his gardens, but if I went there I would shoot some images to record his famous garden, maybe try to do a study of the shapes and colors, but it is unlikely I would create any real art there. He has already done it and that is not where I should spend my time.
But some things jump out to me that escape most other people. And they do not have to be grand scenes.
Nearly every day I wander around my little town. Of necessity, this is where I spend most of my time. I try to keep my eyes open and attentive for things that interest me. I’m not always successful, but a day seldom goes by without taking some pictures.
When you are “stuck” in one fairly boring location, you learn to scale your perception accordingly. I learn to be aware of smaller, more subtle things. After seeing the same scene a hundred times I sometimes suddenly perceive it differently. Maybe this is kind of what Monet did.
Everyone sees different
As Karen Hutton said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” We all see differently, or at least we should. If we train ourselves to understand and express our vision and feelings for the subject then our artistic interpretation will be unique.
Do we want to make images that are simply a record of a location or would we prefer to show the way we perceive it? One of the problems that de-values photography for many people is that much photography is it is just a camera pointed at a scene. If we cannot reveal our emotions or our beliefs or our point of view then there is seldom anything special about it.
Do you want to be one of the photographers fighting for tripod space to record a famous scene at the perfect time of day with the perfect lighting? Or would you rather turn around and find something interesting the other direction? Something they would not see because they were fixated on the iconic scene?
Maybe that is a foolish question, since so many people are intent on shooting the same image over and over. But for me, I would rather be the one seeing something different. As Apple said in their famous ad campaign, Think Different.
What do you see?