The Importance of Seeing
As visual artists, photographers depend on their ability to see. Yet the act of seeing is generally accepted as a given, rarely worthy of attention in its own right. If you will permit me, it's time we took a stab at changing that.
Let's start by acknowledging the importance of seeing. Whether you tried to photograph the recent solar eclipse or not, you were no doubt aware of the warnings about protecting your eyesight. Watching an eclipse inevitably turns into staring at the sun, even if you try to avoid doing so. Without proper eye protection, serious damage could result. Since the eclipse, news reports have related the spike in Google searches for information about eye damage as well as stories about those who reportedly suffered from it as a result. Hopefully all of you are OK, but if there was any doubt before the eclipse, it should be clear in hindsight that your eyes are rather important.
Our eyes are often portrayed as windows through which we view the world around us. To a large degree, this is true. Close your eyes, and the world around you seems to disappear or at least disappear from view temporarily. Open them again, and everything is back in its proper place. But this description leaves out the act of seeing itself. It presumes that what's important is out there, that we look through our eyes as neutral arbiters that connect us to what we see.
When we look at something, we tend to think that what we see is that something. As if the act of seeing is itself transparent, as would be a window fitted with transparent glass. But if you've ever used a colored filter on your camera lens, you know that not all glass is transparent. The effect of such a filter is obvious when compared against viewing the same scene without the filter. It looks different with and without the filter. But what if you couldn't take that filter off? If you never saw that scene without that filer, how would you know where the scene stops and the effects of the filter began? If you wear glasses or contact lenses, think back to the how you felt when you first got them. Suddenly, you could see details you previously couldn't.
Without glasses, it eventually dawns on you that you need to visit the eye doctor, but the problem is subtle and can go unnoticed for quite a while. Lacking anything to compare against, it's easy to just accept that things are as you see them. They must be using smaller fonts on product packaging than they used to. Restaurant lights are dimmer these days, making it hard to read the credit card slip. Anything other than that your eyesight has diminished as you've gotten older. That is, until you see things again clearly, corrected by your new glasses. Or at least this is how it was for me when I first got glasses some years back now. And I've heard from enough friends with similar stories to know that I'm not alone.
Seeing isn't a simple process. It's more than just a way for signals from the outside world to enter your consciousness. Along the way, those signals are filtered, modified, augmented, categorized and assessed. Go outside at night and look up at the stars. There's the Big Dipper, and over there is Orion. The stars that create these formations are out there in space, but where do the constellations come from? We add them, because we've been taught to see them that way. The constellations don't really exist. For reasons of navigation or of mythology or whatever, it became convenient to see such shapes and guideposts in the twinkling lights of the night sky. We learned them, and we used them.
We do this all the time with what we see. Rather seeing what we are looking at, we see it through the layers of cultural adaptation we were born into and learned along the way. How we see isn't just affected by the physical changes in our eyesight causing us to need glasses, it's affected by the concepts and frameworks we bring to bear on the task caused by our upbringing. As soon as you see something, you automatically take a stab at identifying it and categorizing it. And in so doing, we limit ourselves to that way of seeing it.
This is why techniques such as seeing things solely as shapes, lines and colors can be such powerful aids to photographic composition. To the extent that you can permit yourself, temporarily, to ignore what you would ordinarily see something as and instead see it merely as a collection of geometric shapes, you open the experience of seeing to new possibilities. Such devices give your mind something to hold onto so it won't be so quick to cling to its normal habits. Once you're more familiar with setting aside the influence of your normal conceptual ways of seeing, such devices aren't as necessary, but as a place to start, they can be invaluable.
Concepts let us deal with more complicated constructs, but they also serve as guardrails that limit how and what we see. In so doing, they limit creativity by limiting possible ways of seeing. As a photographer, we need to pay attention to how we see and to learn from it.
Seeing is important.