The day I took this photograph at the car wash, what is normally a rather mundane place became a source of play with my camera. This is what a pivotal photograph does; it takes you to a new level, a new place, or offers a new insight.
We are constantly changing and evolving. Every time we click the shutter we’re transformed in some way. Yet, life is full of stops and starts, times when growth seems stalled and times when we take a sudden leap into new territory.
Pivotal photographs are symbols of those leaps.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been writing about my experiences with photography, what I’ve learned, why I photograph, the obstacles I’ve veered around and the leaps I’ve taken. Part of this process has been to identify those pivotal photographs, the ones that made me see my life, photography, and even myself differently. They’re not necessarily the best, but they sent me in a new direction. Below are three examples.
Learning to See
It was October 2001. I stood helplessly in the midst of a field of dying plants at the property of renowned photographer Freeman Patterson in New Brunswick, Canada. What was there to photograph? I felt the pressure of being in the company of other more skilled photographers (in my opinion). Who was I to be here?
Freeman sensed my dilemma. He came over and gently advised me to get down on my belly and poke my camera in those plants; to focus in close and see what was there. I did as I was told and my heart leapt with surprise to see the beauty underneath the brown and brittle exterior.
This photograph was pivotal for me because I realized that there are many more ways to see than at first glance. It was the beginning of a lifelong journey of learning to see.
Expanding my Repertoire
At some point along the way, I became enamoured with rust. It’s everywhere and always comes in a new array of colour combinations. I find it simply beautiful. This led to a fascination with old and aging subjects in general, the discovery of wabi-sabi, and the study of abstract photography.
My repertoire of subject matter expanded exponentially.
To this day, more than half of my photographs are abstract in some way. If you’re interested in learning more about abstract photography yourself, the Going Abstract workshop is open for registration and begins October 24th.
Simple and Contemplative
In 2010, the term ‘contemplative photography‘ came into my awareness and I started doing the exercises in the book, The Practice of Contemplative Photography. While at a retreat in Kentucky, sitting on a bench, I suddenly saw this simple scene and recognized it as a fleeting moment and a true, contemplative perception.
Seeing ordinary reality as extraordinary has opened my eyes and enhanced my life.
I hope you’ll take the time to consider the pivotal photographs that have transformed you over the years. Create a folder or album on your computer or online to store them together. Write in the description how each one changed you.
See my online album of Pivotal Photos on Flickr.
Visual Intelligence: “the ability to see what’s there that others don’t, to see what’s not there that should be, to see the positives and the negatives, the opportunity, the invention, the upside, the warning signs, the quickest way, the way out, the win.” ~ Amy E. Herman, Visual Intelligence: Sharpen your Perception, Change your Life
You’d think my visual intelligence would be pretty high since I teach workshops on seeing. But, we teach what we need to learn, right? My natural tendency is to see the big picture and I can easily tap into the emotional undercurrent of a scene or situation. But, the details? Not so much.
In her fascinating book, Visual Intelligence: Sharpen your Perception, Change your Life, Amy Herman describes how visual intelligence can be learned like any other skill with daily practice. While working at the Frick Gallery in New York City as an art historian, Herman created a course called The Art of Perception, designed to train FBI agents, cops, CEOs, ER docs, and others to perceive and communicate better through closely observing famous paintings. This seminar teaches skills important for all of life; how to identify the most important information, as well as the threats and possibilities in every situation. These skills can change our lives for the better, and even save money, reputations, and lives.
“The ability to see, to pay attention to what is often readily available right in front of us is not only a means to avert disaster but also the precursor and prerequisite to great discovery.” ~ Amy Herman
What does this have to do with photography?
Well, like photographer Dorothea Lange, I believe the camera is a tool that teaches us how to see. The practice of presence and composition using visual design principles has helped me learn to see and make better photographs. Yet, Herman invites us to go further. She asks us to not just see, but to observe.
“Seeing is automatic, involuntary recording of images. Observing is seeing, but consciously, carefully, and thoughtfully.”
In my workshops, I recommend a practice of close observation where we look at a chosen subject from multiple angles and perspectives. Then, we take a minimum of 24 photographs. Along the way, we reach a point where we think we’ve exhausted all possibilities. But, we stay with it until new ideas come. This is where true creativity kicks in.
In Herman’s seminar, participants study famous paintings and identify objective details (the facts). They notice when subjective filters come up (biased interpretations and assumptions) and determine what’s missing and what’s unknown. They answer as best as they can the questions who, what, when, and where; and state only empirical facts. They notice when assumptions, opinions, and feelings creep in. For example, instead of saying “the girl is frowning,” say “the girl’s mouth is closed and the ends are turned down.” Herman also advises being as specific as possible, for example, instead of the word “car,” say “black SUV.”
Sometimes it’s a minor detail that turns out to be the most important. The essence is in the details.
We can practice the art of close observation while photographing by pausing and focusing on the details before clicking the shutter. Write down or make a mental note of all of the objective details of the scene. Now, look more closely. What did you miss the first time? Move around and look at the scene from different angles and perspectives. Does this bring up new details you missed from another vantage point?
“Slowing down doesn’t mean being slow, it just means taking a few minutes to absorb what we are seeing. Details, patterns, relationships, take time to register. Nuances and new information can be missed if we rush past them. Slowing down just a little can change a lot. And in many cases, it’s the small, purpose-filled moments that make all the difference in building relationships, securing business, and winning trust.” ~ Amy Herman
Next, prioritize the essential elements of the scene to determine what should be in the photograph and what should be left out. To include unnecessary elements only distracts from your subject or message. While this process may seem laborious, the practice will eventually become quick and intuitive.
When I posted this image of the grown up kids from our old neighbourhood, I initially panicked because it seemed as though my son was not in the picture. How did that happen?
First, you probably noticed the young adults in the picture were not looking at me. I was one of three photographers and I was on the far left. A closer look shows a hand and a hint of blue on the right shoulder of the boy with the plaid shirt in the top middle of the frame. I didn’t see this important detail on my first look. My son was between this boy and the girl on his left, visible to the other photographers but not to me.
I’ve decided to practice the art of close observation on a daily basis – while I photograph, or wait in line or sit at a stoplight. I can practice when I eat a meal or talk to a friend. I’ll post photographs weekly, with the first one this Saturday, on the Adventures in Seeing page on Facebook (and also on Google+). I invite you to tell me what you see. Can you discover details not seen by others? I hope you’ll join me there so we can practice together.
How do you practice close observation?
I spent the summer of 1976 with my Dad in Windsor, Ontario, a place I’d never lived before. He’d moved there a few months earlier and was able to secure me a job where he worked. I had no other options at the time.
I had a second part-time job that summer; I taught figure skating at the local arena. A few weeks after I began to teach, the skating club had a “test day” – where skaters perform before judges to see if they’ve achieved the required skills to move to the next level. The cavernous and cold arena was filled with the chatter of skaters, coaches, judges, and parents all gathered for the day. There was a sense of camaraderie in the air, through the sounds of celebration when someone passed a test, and the visceral heartbreak when they didn’t.
While I’d been warmly welcomed by the skating community, it was clear on this day I was an outsider. I didn’t belong. At least, I didn’t feel like I did. Most of the people there had long established relationships that would continue after I left. Surrounded by hundreds of people, I felt very alone.
Sometimes, we feel most disconnected and lonely in the midst of a crowd.
Maybe you’ve felt this way too. Since I was a young girl, I’ve yearned to connect in a way my family members and closest friends could not quite satisfy. It wasn’t the kind of connection met by conversation or through sharing experiences or memories. It was another kind of connection, but what kind? It took me years to realize what I was missing and how to fill it.
In fact, it wasn’t until I began to photograph that I discovered the very connection I was missing. When that first image of winter trees in my backyard appeared in the photographic solution so many years ago, I felt an aliveness I’d never experienced before. The photograph was a tangible representation of my connection to a place. Those intertwined branches represented the inherent way everything is already connected. My camera showed me how to be fully in the moment and to connect through my photographs.
“All my creation is an effort to weave a web of connection with the world. I am always weaving it because it was once broken.” (Anais Nin, Winter, 1942)
Ever since then, I’ve been reweaving my web of connection through photography. My camera teaches me how to slow down (pause), pay attention (focus) and then connect with what’s there (click the shutter). It teaches me about myself, what I’m drawn to and what I turn away from. It teaches me how to engage, and most importantly, how to trust what I have to share.
The photographic exercises in my upcoming book, Adventures in Seeing: The Camera Teaches You to Pause, Focus, and Connect with Life (available this October), will help you to tap into a deeper awareness of yourself and the world around you. You’ll rediscover your own connection with a world fully alive, a world where you belong and have a place.