Looking Closely at Things

One of the great joys that photography can bring you is the ability to notice things that other people can’t see. I mean this fairly literally – until you learn to draw your attention to a particular thing; until you’ve learned to recognise it, you really can’t see it at all. Seeing takes place in the mind at least as much as it does in the eye.

Consider this. If you’re a driver, then you’ve probably experienced the sensation of arriving at your destination and then ‘waking up’ with little memory of actually doing the driving. You were on autopilot, on a familiar route, probably thinking about something else.

This is actually a really clever thing that humans can do, and by pushing certain tasks and processes into our unconscious mind we can perform them more efficiently and effectively, without having to think about it.

Children are still in the process of learning how to do all the tasks that adults take for granted, like dressing yourself, walking, talking, etc. From my days in sports coaching we had a model for the different stages of progress that applies quite well:

1. Unconsciously unskilled

You lack the skill and you don’t even know what the skill is.

2. Consciously unskilled

You recognise that there is something that you can’t yet do, but you understand what that something is.

3. Consciously skilled

At this point you have learned the skill but you need to concentrate to do it right.

4. Unconsciously skilled

The final stage, where you can perform the task every time without even thinking about it.

Now, what on earth does this have to do with photography?

Well, not only does our unconscious brain operate on autopilot for tasks we need to perform, it also operates that way when we observe things around ourselves. Think about young kids once more – they are curious about everything. They haven’t learned what things are yet, so they are constantly assessing, checking and analysing with all of their senses. They look at objects closely, they touch them, they taste them and smell them. Even to this day I can remember being young and going around licking things to learn the difference in taste between wood and metal. Children are gross.

The payoff of all this learning is that as adults we don’t need to consciously be aware of our environment all of the time. We are so familiar with everything that we can go about our lives and concentrate on the most significant tasks and problems. It takes something quite significant to bring the background environment into the foreground of thought – either a threat or an opportunity. Most other things we categorise as benign. Or, we simply put them into our unconscious mind until we need them. How often do you thing about light switches and door handles?

That means that as an adult you’re not likely to recognise the presence of something – be it an object, an effect or other phenomena – unless you have trained yourself to see it. By ‘see it’ I mean to bring it our of your subconscious and take note. And that training requires focus and conscious effort. In the terms of the model above, you first have to recognise there is something you don’t know, or can’t see. Taking this step is probably the most difficult.

This all makes evolutionary sense. But, I can’t help but think that we also lose something special in the act of growing up, which is to say the act of becoming more familiar with things. It’s wonderful to look at things closely – to examine every part of them. It’s wonderful to notice things. There is a whole world of wonder that we stop seeing because our natural inclination is to focus on the practical. There is a whole world of beauty and tiny moments happening under our noses.

What have I learned to notice as a photographer? So many things, it’s hard to know where to start. Light, firstly; its luminosity, its quality, its power. Colours; the way they change, they blend, they intermingle. Trees, of course; of varying form, of species, of season. Water; the way it endlessly shifts and changes, and the fact that no two bodies of water are the same. And the sky, which is beyond any description. I feel I am in possession of an entirely different paradigm of perception to some people.

That is not meant as a boast. It’s actually really just meant to give example to the differences in how we see things, and the joy in learning to see differently, and to see more. I know that if I go to the woods I will see more than someone who has never been there before, because they have not learned to see the wood for the trees, so to speak. It takes time to draw a single thread out of the tapestry. ‘The thing to be known grows with the knowing’ in the words of Nan Shepherd. And I know, that friends of mine who know far more about ecology, though rather less about photography, will have an altogether different experience again. If I go with a particular friend to the woods, and we say nothing to each other until afterwards, then I will rave about the colour of the clouds and he about the variety of the beetles. And we will not have seen what the other speaks of.

So yes, of course we see the things that matter to us most. But maybe I’ll be forgiven for my naiveté and innocence if I say that things like the colour of a cloud, the variety of the beetles, the exact sound of the wind in the pine branches, and so much more, should matter to us all. I can’t help but believe we would be more considerate inhabitants of the land if this were so.

How do you learn to see? I’m not sure. For me the process just sort of happened, and is still happening. I would say you should begin with looking. For the more and longer you look, then the greater the chances that you will see something worth noticing.

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