On Seeing

Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. –Georgia O’keeffe

I saw a man on a street corner staring up with such intent he seemed to be studying for an important exam. I think he was.

In his hand was a camera, a Canon EOS, and the objects of his analysis were the powerlines overhead. Or he was noting the angles and shadows of the rooftops on the buildings nearby. Or perhaps it was the textures of the gray clouds left by our last small storm that fascinated. If his exam was an advanced one, he was considering all three.

The man was in the midst of what I’ve come to call the seeing – the act of poring over something, point by point, detail by detail, trying to figure out what is there. What is really there, not the small and disconnected bits we register in our day-to-day and then claim – foolishly – we’ve actually seen something.

Seeing – seeing – isn’t easy, and it isn’t common either. It’s a sense we probably made much use of in our hunter-gatherer phase only to lose it as we cluttered our lives with civilization. Some few of us are yet born with the ability to see – they are called visionaries or fools. Others learn it. Some never get the ability, perhaps because they find no use for it.

I remember when I first became aware there is a difference between looking and seeing. I was in high school, and like most lessons that stick from that time of life it didn’t come in a classroom but after hours, on a clandestine hitchhike with friends to the ‘hipper’ town up the coast. We were picked up by a VW van filled with hippies (yes, the 60s).

One friend and I sat in back among a huge pile of clothes covering most of a body, face down. A muffled moan told us that the body was not dead but nothing else. Long hair, tight jeans, the whole sixties uniform half-buried in a pile of dirty psychedelic laundry – gender I.D., so important to 16 year olds, was impossible.

I whispered to my friend: “Is that a guy or a girl?” My friend glanced over and responded instantly: “Guy.” He answered so fast I couldn’t believe him. “How do you know?” My friend rubbed his arm and gave me a look. I didn’t get it. Annoyed at my cluelessness, he pointed at an arm sticking out of the pile. “He’s got hairy arms.” I looked again – I saw this time – and my friend was right. When we got to our destination the guy woke up and there was no mistaking. How did I miss that arm? I felt a small bit of humiliation at my denseness that has never left me – and a determination not to miss the obvious again.

For a photographer, seeing is the difference between taking snapshots and making photographs. Ansel Adams called it visualization, others have different words for it. Georgia O’keeffe described it best, though. The above quote continues…

If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.

The man on the corner with the camera was composing a photo in his mind. He was seeing the wires, the buildings, the sky, as a unity, as a totality that would say something to others, make others see what he sees – if only he presents his vision it well enough.

There are times I go out with my camera I am focused so tight on my surroundings I see shots everywhere. It is an astounding, dream-like experience. When I enter the seeing I don’t want to leave and I can’t be forced to (to the consternation of Otto and friends) until, suddenly, like someone who’s stayed too long at a bar finally realizes they have to break away from the stimulation and alcohol, I flee into quieter space, one with less sensory overload.

Other times I go out eagerly anticipating the experience and see… nothing. Just a jumble of objects, nothing special about them, nothing cohesive. It is like losing a sense, and there is small panic in thinking it might not come back. This I fear is our new modern default: hammered by responsibilities, complications, the more subtle sense of seeing gets buried, just as our awareness of rain fades in after a car wreck.

When you begin to grasp the enormity of seeing and understand that some are so much better at it than you are – and others lack it all together – it is easy to think of it as some special gift. No doubt there are some who do have a gift. But for most of us seeing is like running: we are equipped to run, but only a few run so well they are called “naturals.” The rest of us must huff around the track lap on lap to improve. For most of us, there is no “natural” to visualization, there is only a developing awareness.

The irony is, when you get to this thing seeing you want to share so much, when you really begin to understand it, you find out you haven’t a hope of making anybody see what you see at all. Again, O’keeffe:

…Well, I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.

Does this matter, that you will never really see what I do, nor I, you? No, but it is a disappointment. O’Keeffe my not have imparted to those busy New Yorkers exactly what it was she saw but she got them – us – to stop and notice, really look at a flower. Study her paintings long enough and you’ll never see a flower the same way again. No small thing, that. It is a form of meditation, this seeing. And meditation, even if done in a group, is by definition solitary. Yet the value of meditation – of seeing – can be shared.

I photograph so I can see. Years ago, I thought a camera got in the way of experiencing something, but that was when I was taking snapshots, not photographs. Now for me photography is a magnificent excuse to explore this hidden sense, not a crutch. I know now I don’t need a camera, not really. Once you “get it” you get to keep it – if you pay your new found awareness respect.

But the real gift of seeing isn’t how it improves your perceptions for photography. It is how seeing enhances your perceptions of life, yours and others and the animals and plants and the world around you.

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  1. Andrea Says:

    Hi, Ed! About seeing: When I was about to go in for the first cancer surgery, I kept seeing trees and clouds and sun light and wind. There are so many shades of green! and sparkles from sunlight,and changes in tree shapes from the wind. I was amazed and didn’t talk during the whole trip, looking at the world up higher than the road and cars. Now I occasionally remember and Look, but often the world impinges on reflections. Thanks for reminding me. Lots of love to you. — A.

  2. EJB Says:

    There is an interesting article on the NY Times’ website about tourists in the Louvre snapping photos and romping through galleries without ever really taking time to look at what they’re seeing.

    When I visited the Louvre for the first time – my youth-backpacking trip in 1976 – I spent five days, opening to closing, staggering through that amazing museum’s galleries studying everything I could. I focused particularly on the classic Greek sculptures and pottery I so looked forward to seeing later in my wanderings. That “seeing” came not too long after the hitchhiking ride I mention in the post. I guess I did learn something.

    The Times’ article is here, though you may have to register to read it.

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