Thursday, November 12, 2009

On seeing square

Something about it isn’t natural.

When I think of sight and seeing, what comes to mind isn’t the wide panoramic vision of humans but the way the burrowing owls at Chatfield Reservoir in Colorado used to rotate their heads like Linda Blair in the Exorcist, first to the left and then to the right until they were looking behind themselves, an arc encompassing approximately 348 degrees, more or less. And then, as if that weren’t impressive enough, upwards and backwards until their beaks were craned toward the limitless sky, the better to take in the model aircraft buzzing near their burrows. The immense receptivity of their eyesight, how they see in the darkest depths of night, effortlessly gliding through dense nocturnal woods without bouncing off trunks or beheading themselves on low-lying branches, how nothing escapes their purview, never fails to stun me—me, half-blind without my reading glasses and often oblivious to things directly in front of me.

Case in point: Lori on the laptop asks if I have a particular issue of a popular news magazine.

“Which one?” I ask.

“This one,” she says, pointing to the computer screen. I see a man at a desk and a lot of stuff scattered around him.

“What magazine?”

This one.”

“I don’t see it. Where?”

“Right there! By his elbow!”


Nevertheless, even when I can’t see what I’m supposed to, my visual abilities extend outward in a broad orientation extending almost ear to ear. Not bad, considering the location of our eyes in the central part of our heads. I wonder what a lizard sees, or a dragonfly or a spider with its eight eyes. Or a rabbit, for that matter. Surely their brains must compensate for the disjointed visual data. Mine, I’m sure, would simply melt down.

As it is, I’ve been having my own adventures in vision, self-inflicted to be sure but with a stated goal of jumpstarting creativity and learning to experience—not merely see, it goes far beyond that—my place in the world. The Winter Solstice Project is now one week old. The images I’ve posted to my Web site have been surprising not so much for their composition but for the fact that I was the one who shot them. More than a few were taken in places I normally would be without a camera, and others were deliberately chosen for their atmosphere or mood; and yet even there, in shadowed corridors of deserted railroad depots or abandoned houses, or on small-town downtowns where half the businesses are shuttered, their windows blacked out or hung with sale bills dating back a decade or more, images I might once have skipped or overlooked now leaped out as if calling out to me.

Of course, it helps to be paying attention. I suppose it’s something like what Walker Evans said about fellow photographer Robert Frank, who spent a year in the late 1950s traveling the nation for his photo book called, appropriately, The Americans. Frank’s success, Evans asserted, was his ability to “find to see,” surely a self-explanatory description.

The problem was in squaring the images. Square, of course, being the format I opted on for my 51-day project.

A photographic image is a constraint of sight. It’s a form of tunnel vision only the vision is more interesting than, say, looking at a sink full of dirty dishes or a cracked sidewalk or a stack of unpaid bills. (Though in fairness I’ve seen some interesting pictures of cracked sidewalks, and once a captivating monochromatic image of a grubby kitchen cluttered with unwashed plates, cups, pots and pans and a half-dressed woman, the latter adding an unexpected point of interest. Unpaid bills might make an interesting story, one pertinent to the times, but I’ll pass on that one.) A photograph grabs a three-dimensional section of what we see and boxes it up into a two-dimensional rectangle or cube, tossing away the rest without a by-your-leave as if its inclusion were merely superfluous, distracting from the core. It isolates what it deems necessary. It pares down to the minimum. It focuses.

Most photographers see the world through the rectangular frame of a viewfinder. And like most photographers of a certain age, that rectangle possessed the dimensions of a 35 mm negative. Digital changed the dimensions somewhat, mostly paring down and drawing in and in other ways making life a bit more challenging for old-school shooters, but the concept, if not the exact shape, were the same.

Still, what one sees through the viewfinder is what one expects to capture when the shutter is tripped. With today’s cameras, that’s often not the case. The rectangular aspect of the digital negative is still rectangular, however, and from it we base our conceptual vision.

Trying to imagine the world through the rectangular viewfinder in terms of squareness is a bit more challenging. In fact, sometimes it’s next to impossible.

The most egregious example of the limitations of square was found in the abandoned railroad depot in Marysville. The place was gutted and trashed, the sunlight spilling through the dirty windows gritty and harsh, but a narrow beam of light glazed the entranceway tiles in a long diagonal stripe ghosted with the superimposed emblem of the rail line. I could frame that beam perfectly across the rectangle of the sensor but there was absolutely no way I could capture it within a square. I tried anyway but the results were less than ideal.

Experimental photography like with anything else, cooking or baking or pottery or painting or grand ideas or relationships: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, we learn to move on and learn from our mistakes. But if it works, if after our preparation and planning, our processing and execution, we find ourselves with the exact thing we set out to accomplish, we’ve touched something beyond ourselves. Something unique, personal, ours alone. We call it success but it’s really much more than that.

My project was never about success; it was about challenging myself. Seeing square provided the challenge. It’s too early to talk of success.


Bud Simpson said...

Tom, in projects like yours, success is often in merely accepting the challenge itself. You take off the seat belt, roll down the windows and drive like hell, singing along with the radio. The square model brings it back to center - a zen touch.

Prairie GAl said...

I think you are doing a stunning job with your photos, even though I agree with you that square formatting is not natural. My favorite, so far, is the vehicle with a dust trail running beside a moisture-spewing irrigation system.
My foray into square photos came last spring when I edited 86 photos of Ensley Gardens at Lake Shawnee, Topeka, into a slide show experiment (googling "Ensley Gardens Yoho" will link).
Taking the photos was easy. Limiting each one as a square was much harder.
A musically-inclined friend suggested I put the whole show to music. I didn't find much free, quality music available. What is there gets to be painful quickly-- but I added a control, so you can turn the whole mess OFF.

Tom Parker said...

Carol -- Ah, you understand the limitations of the square. Still, there's something interesting about it, and for many images it works perfectly. But I'd hate to have to stick with forever.