Seeing Better

Impression of ship passing in the night

Beginning a new year might be a good time to think about seeing better. Many of us have been mostly looking at the interior walls of our homes for a long time. If anything, this leads us to see worse. Seeing better is not just our visual acuity, I refer to our ability to perceive, to notice, to be aware of what is around us.

Acuity

When we think of seeing better we naturally think about the sharpness of our vision. Technically, this is called acuity. When we go to the optometrist and read the letters on the wall we will hear some number pair, like, say 20/30. This means we can see at 20 feet what most people can see at 30 feet. We would like, of course, to hear that we have 20/20 (normal) or even 20/10 (extra sharp) vision.

The doctor will be glad to prescribe corrective lenses or contacts to bring our acuity up to par. There are also other visual conditions like glaucoma or astigmatism that need attention. It is good to visit a vision specialist regularly.

The ability to see well is very important, as an artist and a viewer and to lead a rewarding life. My art is a visual medium. If I cannot see to make it or appreciate it I am greatly handicapped.

Perception

But it is not simply a matter of getting good glasses. Most people see, but don’t see. That is, they are able to image the world around them very well, but they do not think about or perceive what they see. This is head skill, not a visual ability.

I hope I am being too critical. I hope you do not have this problem and you really pay attention to the world around you. If you are a regular reader of this blog perhaps this is so. What I observe of the people around me tells me I am not wrong, though.

Put away your phone for a few minutes – I’ve tried it; a few minutes without it is not fatal – observe people around you. Are they glued to their mobile device? Are they in a daze, oblivious to what is around them? How many people do you see with their heads swiveling, really observing the people and sights around them? What about you?

Before you can perceive, you have to see. Seeing is not perceiving, but it is a necessary step. To actually see you have to detach from the attention grabbing time wasters that have mastery of us. When we get to the point of taking the time to intentionally see, we can start to learn to perceive.

Perceiving is an attitude. It is a skill we develop with time and discipline.

Observation skills

Have you watched a good Sherlock Holmes? I recommend the most recent series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. IMHO it is the best version ever done.

Anyway, what sets Holmes apart from other people, other than being a self-described “high functioning sociopath”? It is his observation skill. He can take a quick glance at someone and describe their story in detail. He picks up on the clues and tiny details that everyone else overlooks.

Sherlock Holmes is, of course, a fictional character. But he serves to show a contrast to the way most of us go through the world. Most of us do not take the time and effort to look closely and really see things. To pick up on the details, the story.

A large part of perception is attitude and training. It is a mental skill. I believe any of us can learn to perceive more of the world around us if we work at it. It takes conscious effort and awareness. Some people are more naturally attuned to it than others, but it is not impossible for anyone.

See from inside

Unless you just want to take “pretty pictures”, you cannot make a very interesting image unless you have something to say. I’m not dismissing beauty, I’m just saying even a beautiful scene doesn’t have much staying power unless we can see through the artist’s eyes. Unless he can make us see what he felt about it.

We have to find something inside of us to connect to so we can interpret it and express our feelings to the viewer. To connect to something, we have to truly see the subject. Not just forming the image on our retina but really taking it in and letting it affect us. This is perception. Jonathan Swift said “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others”. It may be lonely and nobody else may “get it”, but an artist is compelled to share his vision.

Good or bad, beautiful or ugly, grand or tiny, we have to be able to have an emotional reaction to the subject to give our reaction to the viewer. Any worthwhile image is not just a record of what was there. It is our interpretation of it. You can’t really interpret unless you have taken it in, processed it, examined it, contemplated it, thought about it. All enough to be able to give it meaning.

I’m not saying you have to develop a deep relationship with the subject, or write an essay about your feelings, or spend weeks visiting it. Any of these things might help, but none are necessary. An artist should build a broad base of experience and interests. That allows a quicker perception and reaction to encountered subjects.

I find some excellent images driving down the road. It is probably something I can react to quickly because I have thought about the type of subject a lot. Also, I give myself permission to stop and get out and examine it. To set up and frame it give my best interpretation of it. Do you ever stop when you are driving and just look at things?

Beethoven

Beethoven? I mention him because he is an inspiration and example to me. Toward the end of his life he became deaf, yet he created what some consider his greatest masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony. He never heard a note of it, except in his mind. What he was able to perceive in the silence of his mind was greater than what anyone else could hear.

That, to me, is true perception. He could hear without hearing. We should learn to see without seeing. It is in our minds, our experiences, our feelings. We can create experience at a deeper level than just pixels. But first, we have to be able to operate on that deeper level. That takes time and self-discipline. We have to train ourselves to perceive.

Seeing better is a responsibility of the artist. If we do not perceive and feel, how can we bring something meaningful to our viewers? They want more than just a record of something. We have to see better so we can bring more to them.

Gestalt

Gestalt figure

No, not Gesundheit. Gestalt psychology is a a system that looks at things as a whole rather than just parts. It goes for the “big picture”.

What does a relatively obscure European psychology theory from the early 20th century have to do with anything I have been discussing here? Quite a lot, actually. One of the famous summaries of Gestalt principles is “The whole is different than the sum of its parts.” I believe this is profoundly true for many things, especially photography.

Proponents of Gestalt included notables such as Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Actually knowing who they were is not important, just that you have probably heard the names. It is interesting to me that the theory developed as a reaction to the prevailing trend of the day to break things down to the smallest possible parts. Something that still happens with some people to this day.

A brief explanation of Gestalt

A simple explanation of Gestalt is that the human mind makes patterns, it completes fragmented shapes to make wholes, it extends dots to see lines, etc. We are designed to complete pictures. The following figure shows an example of this. It is called the Kanizsa triangle. The Gestalt principle of closure is illustrated.

Kanizsa Triangle

Almost everyone sees 2 equilateral triangles in it. There are actually no triangles. Our brain “closes” the straight line segments to see one triangle and we “close” the shapes of the cutout circle segments (Pac Man?) to see the other one.

Other Gestalt principles include similarity, proximity, continuity, and common regions. I’m not going to go into them here. I have no illusion of this being a course on psychology.

Examples

My point is that that these principles are real and common to most people. They are used by designers and artists all the time to guide our perception of images. Here are some examples from my library. They were not shot consciously thinking about Gestalt psychology, but they show some things that trigger my mental library because I have learned over time that they work.

Implied lines

Here you see the shadows forming dark lines going from upper left to lower right. They are formed by our mental connection; they do not really exist. The three sets of shadows do not even touch each other.

Implied arc

In the lower part of this image you see an arc of yellow lights. They are really just discrete points. Since they are closely spaced and in a regular pattern, we see a complete arc. And it continues despite the dropout on the far side.

Implied region

The area inside the magenta line is seen as a distinct region of the image. Inside the line is one area, outside is another separate one. It’s not really true, but that is the way we see it.

Application

The marvelous human brain is unsatisfied with incomplete forms. We “fill in the blanks” unconsciously. And it is even rewarding. You feel more satisfied by solving a puzzle, by completing an image from clues. A few points is seen as a line, some repeated shapes is a region, things in proximity seem to go together. It is amazing. When an artist works with his viewer to make a game it can be fun for both.

So how about the image at the top of this topic? A few arcs? A couple of rectangular blobs? Or is it a spotlighted figure? Or a spider?

I Don’t See Anything Interesting Here

Is it interesting?

I had just parked at a trail by a river near my house. It was a crisp late fall day. As I was getting my equipment out of the car a woman passed me coming back from the trail. She asked if I was going to take pictures. (Seemed obvious to me, but people are funny) She then gave the pronouncement “I don’t see anything interesting here.” I was stunned and probably said something non-committal like “I’ll take a look anyway”.

That has stuck with me. I’m still trying to figure it out. Sometimes it seems deep; sometimes it seems just silly. But it intrigues me.

I must confess that I have the same problem at times. Sometimes I set out with the idea that I am looking for a certain “thing”. I don’t advocate that and I have written against it, but I fall into the trap sometimes. Our marvelous, adaptive brains do amazing things to “help” us achieve our goals.

A funny thing happens when you go looking for something. It seems that that’s all you find. It is just human nature and it can hardly be avoided. If you go out looking to take a picture of a monkey then all you will see are monkeys or non-monkeys. Your focus and perception are tuned to reject anything that is not a monkey. You are often throwing away wonderful scenes because of your mental blinders.

But to take it a step deeper, it raises some interesting questions that I have to ask myself. Things like, is everything interesting? What does it take to be worthwhile to take a picture? How much of a picture’s interest is based on our perception at the instant? Is it a failed outing if I don’t get a good picture? Who says if an image is interesting?

It is my position that many things are interesting in the right conditions. I believe this to be generally true. I don’t agree with some post-modernists who seek out intentionally bland and uninteresting subjects, but I believe many things can be interesting. But on this day, in this light, in this weather it may not be interesting. So don’t force it.

What makes it worthwhile to press the shutter? When I’m in doubt I usually ask myself “is this actually an interesting picture? Will I actually use this?”. If I can answer that it is or might be, I press the shutter. I also need to follow up and ask if this is the best time, location, atmosphere, lighting, etc.

Ah, but how much of the interest is based on our perception at the time? A lot of it, I think. I trust my perception, my instinct, when it is calling to me. But I tend to err on the side of taking too many images. Sometimes when I’m editing later I ask myself “what I was thinking?” as I delete blocks of images. But sometimes there is a rewarding payoff. Those happy times when I discover my intuition was really on to something and I have a gem there. Of course, since I only had a vague idea of the worth at the time I might only have a sketch that I need to go back and work in more detail. But still, my subconscious is sometimes more perceptive than my conscious mind. Some say perception is reality. I don’t know, but perception certainly guides our view of reality.

And one of the painful questions, is it a failed outing if I don’t come back with a good picture? I have come to the conclusion that there are seldom failed shooting outings. They are all useful, if only for practice. Being out, with your senses sharp and searching, getting to take pictures – how can this be bad? You don’t hit a home run every time at bat.

Then there is the existential question of who gets to say if it is interesting? My answer is, the audience I am trying to please. In my case, that is me. Of course, I hope some other people will like it, even occasionally buy it. I will be the judge, though, of worth or success of an image. I may be wrong and I may change my mind over time, but it’s my call.

So how about that day. After she “challenged” me about no interesting pictures I was determined to prove her wrong. That is the wrong attitude. I regret it. Following my normal process would have helped. I allowed her to throw me off. So I don’t like much of what I got that day. But it wasn’t a total waste. I hope you like the image at the top of this article.

The Raw Edges

Art is created by people on the raw edges of human experience. But that does not mean suffering. A heightened state of awareness can just as easily be a state of joy.

I was intrigued by this quote from Ryan Frawley (I couldn’t find the reference):

Art is born at the raw edges of human experience, and joy or love or awe will get you to those edges as surely as unhappiness will. An artist is one who responds to the unknowable mystery of existence with fascination, not despair. 

We all know the stereotype that the miserable, doubt plagued, suffering artists are the truly creative ones. That is not my experience so far in my journey as an artist. I certainly hope it is not correct. That’s not the kind of life I want to live. Who would?

The really good artists I have met are passionate and joyful. There are a lot of passionate people in the world and some joyful ones. Most of them are not artists. So passion by itself is not the key.

I believe one of the key differences is self awareness. It seems to me that most people drift through their lives in a fog of busyness and activity, trying to anesthetize themselves with entertainment, which our world uses as a proxy for happiness. This puts our focus inside our head. Entertainment may lead to brief happiness, but it is not joy. Real joy is an internal decision. It may be closer to contentment, where you are at peace with yourself regardless of your current state of happiness.

As Ryan said in the quote above, this joy or love or awe leads to a response in the artist. One of the aspects of this is a heightened awareness of the wonders and possibilities all around. To opening yourself to more of the experience. To seeing with fresh eyes or a new viewpoint. This makes an artist an explorer. Each stimulus can reveal a new path or lead to a new insight. Looking.

Where we look and what we see can make all the difference. If we choose to look mostly inside ourselves we tend to be isolated, cut off from what is happening around us, unaware. If we maintain a state of joy and awe we can see a bigger and more wonderful world. The heightened awareness makes us see more, feel more, perceive more. That is where a lot of art comes from. Everybody has a chance to see roughly the same things, but what do we each perceive? Fascination is a wonderful guide to lead us to perception.

Try it! Try to feel joy and awe. It is not an easy transition. It’s unfair of me to say to “just start feeling awe”. But you can start with small steps. Practice it. One of the keys to these attitudes is that they are internal values and perceptions. They are not dependent on what is happening to you. They are a choice. Look around with more open eyes figuratively. Look outward. Be more aware of your surroundings. That boring scene you go by every day may look fascinating one day, maybe when the light is just right. You might come to a whole new appreciation of it. Then tomorrow notice something else.

You do not have to wait for the world around you to “get right”. You just change your own attitudes, your perception, and that changes everything. The artists I know seem to have the talent for engaging this heightened self awareness. Maybe that is more important than talent.