Sunday, February 17, 2008

Looking and seeing

click photo to enlarge
"What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?"
from "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), U.S. author, poet and philosopher

When a driver pulls out from a side road onto a main road, and a car slams into the side of his vehicle, it's usually because he looked but didn't see. His eyes gazed in the direction of the oncoming car, but his brain didn't process the visual information in a way that caused him to pause, let it pass, then move out.

Seeing is important in the visual arts for similar reasons - it involves either comprehension or thought, about that which we look upon. I say either because it is often difficult to articulate why we see something as beautiful, interesting, provocative, banal, etc. And, whilst it is useful to make the attempt to express in words our response to a painting, photograph or sculpture, it isn't essential, or even completely possible: part of our appreciation of art will always be visceral. The critic, John Berger, talks of the "always-present gap between words and seeing." If we see the artwork, think about it and have feelings about it, then that can be enough, if we approach it with an open mind and make the effort to engage with it.

When I took the photograph above I did it intuitively, drawing on my education, experience and interest developed over many years. I could see the tree's blurred shadow laid across the boarded wall and louvres, and how it flicked upright after crossing the flat, paved ground. I could see that a composition of tones, textures and lines that pleased my eye and mind could be assembled by including these elements in differing proportions. So, knowing that I'd have to crop slightly to get what I wanted, I pressed the shutter. By briefly describing the process involved in taking this shot I don't mean to imply that it is a piece of art, or that it has any great merit: only that it satisfies me, and that (I think) I took a step beyond simply looking in securing it. An image like this belongs to a photographic genre that doesn't appeal to everyone. Such shots are sometimes rejected as being "about nothing". It's certainly possible to articulate why one doesn't like this sort of thing, but only if you go beyond looking and are sure you see it.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 22mm (44mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/800
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: Off