On seeing the art around you

Jay Burton On The Streets 1 Comment

“A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera” Dorothea Lange

You’re walking down the street with a non-photographer friend, camera in hand. You snap a shot here, you snap a shot there. You snap shots everywhere. Your friend looks at you, puzzled, wondering why you took a photo of that trashcan. Later on, after editing your photos, you show a few of them to your friend, who then proceeds to say “Wow, I didn’t see that at all. That’s amazing!”. Or at least you hope that’s how they react. We all strive for the validation of others, after all (we’ll talk about that some other time).

This scene may seem familiar to you, and from discussions with other street photographers – as well as other visual artists from filmmakers to painters – this seems to be a common occurrence. Very few people in fact seem aware of the art all around them.

One of the things I personally want to accomplish as a photographer is to open people’s eyes to the beauty surrounding them. I am forever frustrated to be the only person in a crowded street to see the art in the seemingly mundane: A person sitting in a bus, reflections in windows, flowers peeping up from the asphalt, and so on. I am frustrated, and yet I find it difficult to explain how I see the things I see once someone finally asks me what I’m photographing.

So today I wish to tackle this topic: the question of why we see the art around us, and how we learned to see it in the first place.

Jay Burton photography swiss street collective
© Jay Burton

Because that’s the tricky bit. We photographers don’t usually see the need to put words on what we do. Street photography especially is very intuitive. We aren’t creating premeditated scenes or asking a model to pose. The dictionary of obscure sorrows defines the word “morii” as wanting to press pause in a world stuck on play. Sometimes I feel that’s all I do. I see something out of the ordinary, I visualize a photo in my head, and I capture that fleeting moment in eternity. And that’s that. Why bother to explain the photo when the photo says it all for me?

But enough people have asked me how I see the photos around me that I actually do want to provide them with a satisfactory answer. I can’t find it alone though, so I asked some members of the Swiss Street Collective for help. I asked how they see the art around them, and why were they attracted to thing they photographed. Let’s look through the answers.

© Daniel Sigg

Daniel Sigg told me that he does his best work when he isn’t overthinking things, when he’s in the moment. After years of experience, he unconsciously knows what he is attracted to (patterns, light, compositions and so on), previsualizes the photo he will take when seeing a scene, and then snaps.

© Raphaela Graf

Raphaela Graf explained that she is drawn to contrasts, not only in light, but also contrasts in concepts such as status (a homeless man next to a rich man) or age (an old, neglected building next to a new one). She also challenges herself to see objects in a new light by selecting a subject such as a trashcan and photographing it from different angles, trying to find the most pleasing way to represent it. This requires a certain state of mind though, as she often finds herself walking through her city without looking out for these subjects and will miss them entirely. Like myself, she wishes to show people the beauty in the small, seemingly boring or ugly things we walk past all the time, and is also frustrated by the “blindness” of the average pedestrian.

© Erhard Buntschu

Erhard Buntschu told me about an interesting concept coined by French philosopher Roland Barthes in his 1980 book Camera Lucida :The punctum.  “It is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me” (p. 26), “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (p. 27). In other words, we are talking here about the emotion that strikes you when looking at someone’s photo or taking one yourself. This is an important concept for Erhard, who tries to consciously identify the things that strike him in the streets. He is attracted to technical beauty, such as a harmony in colour or a perfect silhouette. He also photographs things that trigger his memory, a brooch that reminds him of his grandmother perhaps. And then he is attracted to surprise. A man dressed in ski gear walking down the Zurich streets in summer? That’s definitely a photo worth taking.

I suppose that after making the SSC members answer this difficult question, I should attempt it as well. For me, creativity is a muscle. Artistic inspiration is a state of mind. An illustrator friend of mine once said that an artist’s default mode is the creative block. I laughed at how true that statement was. It requires significant effort to open up the gates of creativity and allow beauty to fill us to our core. Once I make myself vulnerable to beauty, I start to see beauty everywhere. I make myself hold my camera wherever I go, lens cap off, or else I won’t take a single photo all week. After a year or so of doing this, it’s now definitely easier for me to switch my creativity on. Once in the zone, I see photos everywhere: Not in street scenes, but in details. I love to zoom in on hands, facial expressions, reflections, and other abstract elements. After time, I develop a sort of catalogue of images in my head, and naturally take photos of things I know will look good. I also slow down. If I’m walking too fast I won’t see a photo. It’s usually when waiting at a bus stop for 10 minutes that I start to see the great photos around me.

I also spend a lot of time looking at other photographers and understanding what works for them, and try to learn from their way of seeing the world. Bit by bit, day by day, the photos I used to love seem bad, and I realize that I’m getting better without really understanding why.

© Jay Burton

These testimonials are filled with great tips, thank you to everyone who took the time to answer.

A few things stand out to me when reading through them:

  1. Consciously push yourself to be in the present moment and be open to inspiration.

We are used to our surroundings. We have walked our streets enough to have put a label on everything we see: A train is a train, a building is a building. We feel safe in our environments because nothing can surprise us, and so we walk the streets in autopilot, going to our next destination looking at our feet or our phone. But you can never walk onto the same street twice. Not only are there new colours, textures, scenes, and contrasts to find, but you also change. Remind yourself that there are a million beautiful things around you all the time, and actively try to spot them by slowing down and looking around you. Many photographers say that they take two kinds of photos: The ones that they decide they will take before leaving their house, and the ones they happen to come across because they are vulnerable to their surroundings. And usually the better photo is the one that wasn’t planned.

2. Showing up is half the work

Imagine a girl called Mary. She is a brilliant neuroscientist and a world expert on colour vision. But because she grew up entirely in a black and white room, she has never actually seen any colours. Many black and white books and TV programmes have taught her all there is to know about colour vision. Mary knows facts like the structure of our eyes and the exact wavelengths of light that stimulate our retinas when we look at a light blue sky. One day, Mary escapes her monochrome room, and as she walks through the grey city streets, she sees a red apple for the first time. Did she learn anything new about the colour red? (Extracted from philosophy now)

Mary’s room is a famous thought experiment created by Professor Frank Jackson. It is meant to question whether physical science (neuroscience,  biology, chemistry, and so on) can capture everything there is to know, or whether you need conscience, subjective, experience to truly understand the world. I however am using this thought experiment to tell you to stop reading blog articles and tell you to go outside with your camera. Search for the art around you, and you will begin to find it. We do visualize photos before we take them, we don’t shoot randomly. This visualization comes from practice. There’s no trick to practice, you just have to log the hours.

3. Technical ability is important, but not key

Sean Tucker once said “If you let the internet tell you what photography is, you’d think it’s only a technical exercise.” Internet is full of technical tips and gear reviews, it’s true. I’ve spent over ten years learning the technical side of photography and choosing my gear, and I’m still learning new things every day and still spend hours watching gear reviews on YouTube. And all this is important. You do need to understand your camera, light, contrast, leading lines, composition, long exposure, and so on. There is also a science to beauty. Google the golden ratio if you don’t believe me.

Photography seems to be a very geeky artform. But it is art. And in the end, art is about you, your story, and the way you see the world. Master your camera and photography techniques, but don’t forget to train your creative side as well. It’s your style and your voice that will set you apart.

4. Shake it up

Challenge yourself to experiment in new ways to discover what works and what doesn’t. Change viewpoints by crouching down, change focal lengths with different lenses, change techniques by taking long exposures, and so on. Don’t forget to spend plenty of time looking at other people’s work as well. You can’t try new techniques if you don’t even know they exist. A famous Picasso quote comes to mind: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Don’t try to emulate or copy artists, but “steal” an element of theirs and incorporate it into your mix of influences.

5. Search for the unusual

A great photography tip that I try to use all the time is to look for tension in my photography. I like to explain visual tension by asking myself if the viewer will ask questions about my photo. Will my photo stimulate their interest? “What will happen next?” “What is this person looking at?” or “Why is this person wearing ski gear in summer?” This can also be called the curiosity gap, and you can achieve it by hiding certain elements from the frame, by avoiding showing the whole scene. Search for the unusual and photograph it in an unusual way. Or as Erhard would say, find the punctum.

© Jay Burton

So after this fun exercise I also spent some time on the internet looking for blogs or videos on seeing the art around you, or on developing your photographic eye. It seems that collectively, the SSC members did a good job of explaining how they learn to see the art around them. The internet is overflowing with tips and tricks on the matter, and we covered pretty much everything they say.

But one thing is still nagging me.

This blog has so far covered the process of how we see photos around us, but it hasn’t answered why we are attracted to the things we photograph.

Raphaela attempting to answer this. She has developed a sort of mission: She consciously wishes to show contrast through her photography. Poor and rich, old and new, ugly and beautiful. Through this mission statement she is consciously attracted to these types of photos.

This conscious mission is nothing new of course. Any photographer who has attempted a project is attracted to photos that further their goal. Edward Curtis springs to mind, who spent most of his life documenting native American tribes and their traditional lives before they would be lost to us forever. A more humble project could be documenting your home town for a photo book, and so you would be attracted to any photo in your surroundings that show the feeling of walking through your streets.

But I’m not talking about the conscious here. I’m talking about the unconscious. Why do I love taking abstract photos of reflections or zooming in on small details? Why do I take photos of the things I love, regardless of whether I have a project or mission in mind?

And on this we all agree, members of the SSC and the whole internet: We don’t have a clue.

Every single person who has ever lived sees the world through their own filtered lens. We are forged by the people we meet and the moments that change us. Such unique interactions over so many years have created 7.8 billion unique people who perceive their own versions of reality. One of my favourite words in the English language is qualia, defined as individual instances of subjective, conscious experiences. You will never be able to explain your subjective experience of the world: That feeling you get when you listen to a perfect song, see a perfect photo, or see a red apple for the first time. You can use some lovely adjectives, but you will never be able to share the actual feeling with anyone, even with your closest friend. That feeling may be the only thing in the world that is and always will be, simply, yours.

Are we destined to never find the words to describe the world we see? When someone asks us what we see, as photographers, perhaps we should be satisfied with the answer: I see the beauty that I alone can see.

Trust in what you are naturally attracted to. Don’t copy others or chase likes. Shoot what you find beautiful. That is the secret to finding your style and your voice. After quite some time and a large portfolio, your photos themselves will tell your story for you. It seems that words will never be enough to explain why we see the art around us. All we can do is share our pictures and let them talk for us.

“You have to train yourself to look all the time, swinging between the conscious and the unconscious” Henri Cartier Bresson

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