June 27, 2018

Aspects of Visual Discernment

Everyone is a photographer now. Yet despite the ever increasing number of photographs being taken, we seem to be suffering from what I like to call a poverty of visual discernment. The reasons are varied, beginning with the preoccupation of sharing images on social media, which generally short circuits the process of true seeing, let alone the creation of powerful imagery. Also, most of us go through our days noticing little of our surroundings; either so lost in our thoughts, simply not paying attention, or simply habituated to what we’re looking at. No matter how spectacular any view, large or small, once it becomes familiar, we stop really seeing it. Labeling a thing also gets in the way of true seeing. The minute you say ‘that’s a tree’, you stop really seeing the tree.

So how to cultivate a more sophisticated and enlivened way of seeing? How do we refine our visual perception? How do we become active rather than passive in seeing and engaging visually with the world around us? How do we develop a Good Eye?

In my workshop of the same name, we break down and study the individual ‘aspects’ of visual discernment: color, form, space and proportion, light and shadow, contrast, texture, line, angles and curves, composition, symmetry, and asymmetry. Although in many ways beauty is in fact in the eye of the beholder; some rules do apply. We do a deep dive into the dynamics of each, what resonates and why. Each of these ‘aspects’ become our subjects. We go out into the world looking for each, in and of themselves, and learn what each has to offer us. The irony is that by limiting subject matter in this way, our ‘seeing’ expands exponentially. The world literally ‘unravels at our feet’ as a result.

This is about the practice of seeing deliberately. It’s a kind of sophisticated attentional training. By breaking down the ‘aspects’, we wire our visual sense to see the beauty all around us, in everything, all the time. Like anything else, the more you focus (pun intended) on a skill, the more automatic it becomes.

By educating our Seeing in this way, not only do we hone our photographic vision; we bring a new level of mindfulness, engaged presence and heightened awareness into our day-to-day lives. We feel more awake and alive, more creative and intuitive, and more in the present moment, seeing beauty all around us. We learn how learn to create much more powerful and evocative imagery.

Here’s a tip: Take a walk with your camera (as always Iphone is fine) and choose one aspect from above to focus on. Go looking for light, color, symmetry, negative space, etc. Limit your subject matter in this way. Experiment with this new way of seeing and photographing the world around you; see if it opens your eyes to fresh seeing.

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