With Supertramp’s Logical Song in mind, I watched a baby playing with a toy today at my doctor’s office. I found him especially expressive, probably more than most, but maybe not. I’m single without kids, so I’m not in the custom of being around them regularly. His mother picked up a sock puppet, held it off to the side away from her, and made some baby talk, and I particularly noticed how he was so entranced by the puppet it never occurred to him that the voice was coming from his right, not in front of him.
I often contemplate the sheer wonderment of babies and toddlers. I watch them intuitively performing experiments to see what will happen in situations we take for granted because we did it already so long ago we can’t remember. I reflect on how the world is so new and amazing to them, and consider how it will begin to systematically crush him in the next few years. He’ll likely never be this happy again, and he won’t even get to remember it. I’ve always believed I need to approach photography with that newborn’s sense of wonderment. Even Pablo Picasso understood this, saying ?”It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” speaking of the famous Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino. Picasso was also famously quoted as saying “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”, proving this same subject weighed on him greatly.
One of the oldest things I can remember is trying to figure out an old split screen manual focus. My dad couldn’t understand why I couldn’t do it. He explained it to me very simply. The answer was simple: I was blind. Literally, legally, blind. I was well into grade school before it was caught. It turns out my eyes could have been much better had they been corrected years before. The doctor that performed my eye exam actually threatened to call Child Services on my father (this back when you could do that sort of thing and not have to worry about getting fired because someone complained to corporate.) He had to explain he’d had my eyes checked before, more than one doctor said they were fine.
We waited around, one hour glasses were a brand new concept, and on the ride home (I’m told) I had the silliest look on my face, staring in amazement at everything we drove by, taken in by the simplest of things like signs that I could read for the first time. It was like being a baby and seeing the world brand new again.
Since I carry a camera I’ve made it a habit to force myself to look upon things in different ways. Sometimes even forcing myself to revisit a spot I’ve already shot a long time ago just to see how I would shoot it differently this time. We’ve become bored and jaded by a lifetime of seeing the same things daily. Life has us too busy to notice the amazing scenes we drive right by on our way to being late for things we don’t want to do.
I love showing people pictures of the town they’ve lived in their entire lives and watch their reaction to things they see every day but don’t look at. I think when I show others the way I see all the beauty we’re surrounded by it will help them stop for an extra 5 seconds to take in that bird or sunset or insect or human interest. It takes less than 5 seconds to truly appreciate a sight you’ve beheld. As soon as realize you’ve appreciated it your entire mental state has relaxed and slowed. You feel calmed and you naturally start taking in other sites all around you. In an instant you’ve become a child again, seeing the world with newborn eyes.
The sad fact is it’s short lived. Inevitably life catches up and beats that out of you. Something needs your attention, and you don’t have the time any more. That I know this, it pains me that I have to make such a conscious effort. There’s a certain cognitive dissonance in knowing that I know I would stop if I ever put down the camera. Appreciating life is hard work. Robert Henri, a famous painter, said “If a certain activity, such as painting, becomes the habitual mode of expression, it may follow that taking up the painting materials and beginning work with them will act suggestively and so presently evoke a flight into the higher state.” I cerataintly consider myself an artist, I simply chose a different medium of expression.
Another photographer friend of mine says you should go watch the sun set sometime without your camera to get excited about the one that got away. Perhaps I’m not mature enough, but I’m quite sure I just couldn’t handle that knowing I did it intentionally. I’ve sat through too many mediocre sunsets and non-sunsets (totally clouded out) with camera on tripod, got there early setup my shot, and spent hours for nothing. I’ve seen too many amazing sunsets when I was away from my camera, or stuck in a situation I couldn’t get away from to get the shot. If you leave the camera at home to go to the store you start to get separation anxiety “What if I’m out and…” In photography, and life in general, I’ve had had more than my share of ones that got away.
Ar’alani wrote “One of a Million Reasons” in which he said “Picture this. I’m in a car with two other photographers, and we’re driving through an ever-darkening, ever-purpling storm. Out of the corner of my eye, I see this tree with a rainbow building behind it. I start to inarticulately flap, then screech, “Stop, Gary, stop! Turn around!” Gary (who was in Yellowstone with me and is now at least prepared for my antics) pulls an illegal u-turn, pulls over, and I erupt from the car, jump the ditch and drop into this field. A few breaths later, the quickly-flying clouds opened up and a tiny sunbreak hit the hills and my tree lit up. It lasted about 10 seconds. I emerged from the ditch, muddy and giddy out of my mind. This, my friends, is one of my favorite shots ever. This is what photography is all about. Capturing those precious moments that will never come again, just as they are. This fleeting moment will now last longer than 10 seconds for me because I had a camera. Photographers are such a blessed bunch.”
If you took a picture and never showed to anyone, never even looked at it yourself, and just stuck it on a hard drive somewhere never to be seen again, I think you would feel better just knowing you had it. You somehow even remember it more clearly and accurately. You can recall every detail of that picture, and even the events surrounding it. The mind seems to preserve that memory just because you took the picture, and seeing that picture brings back the most vivid details you couldn’t recall on your own even though they weren’t in that shot.
Right now try to do that with any scene that stood out to you a few years ago. Think hard and try to remember a nice sunset a few years ago. What were you doing? Why did you notice it? Where were you? What did you do before and after? What did it look like in detail?
Looking at the world through a lens totally changes your viewpoint. First you start seeing shots everywhere you go, not all of them you want to take, but something inside clicks and you start mentally composing your shot when you don’t even have your camera with you. One would think becoming more analytical of things would make it less special, but it’s quite the opposite. You start noticing things you never would have seen before, and you gain a deeper appreciation for everything. More importantly, while you’re going through this mental exercise, you’re spending much longer looking at that scene. You’re intently taking it all in, not just glancing at it thinking “that’s nice.” If everyone carried a camera everywhere for a year like it was their job, and got excited when saw a shot they HAD to have, it would make them better people, not morally, but spiritually whole, or closer to it at least.