Seeing is deeper than noticing

Hydrant with shadows
Kodak Monitor Six-20, Kodak Ektachrome E100G, 2011

“A camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” That’s a famous quote in photography circles, from famous photographer Dorothea Lange. This has certainly been true for me.

I never used to see shadows. Not really. I noticed shadows, particularly when I passed into our out of one while walking. But seeing a shadow means registering its qualities: its darkness, its shape, its size.

I saw these shrub shadows while driving by them. Before I started photographing things seriously, I might have noticed these shadows, maybe. But I would certainly not have appreciated their qualities.

Much the same, I never used to notice flowers, let alone see them. I remember riding in the car as a kid and hearing Mom name all of the flowers she saw by the roadside. I recognized that they were flowers and that they had different colors, but that was it. As an adult, I finally started noticing flowers when I began my hobby of following and photographing the old roads. They were everywhere along the roadside. I started photographing them. I used to publish an annual “Roadside Flowers” post on my blog, cataloging them. I had no idea what most of them were called; people named them for me in the comments. Soon I recognized many of the flowers I saw along the road, and began to recognize attributes about flowers that let me look them up myself so I could learn their names.

We all can see things that we are naturally interested in. I’ve been a car nut my whole life. I’ve always looked deeply at cars to enjoy their design. This has led me to recognize how the same car can differ from one model year to another. The details are often subtle, such as a change in the bezel around a tail light. But because I was interested, I naturally saw these things, and as a result I can tell you arcane information about the 1972 Chevrolet and how it differed visually from the 1971 Chevrolet, which was built with the same basic body.

Now I can recognize differences in flowers. One of my favorites is phlox. They come in easily a half a dozen colors, and there are creeping varieties and varieties that stand up tall. It’s been fascinating and wonderful to discover all of the variations as I travel the old roads!

Just because I can see something, however, doesn’t mean I can photograph it well. I was so excited to make this image of a fire hydrant anchoring all of these shrub shadows. But it wasn’t until I saw the scans at full size did I see that I didn’t hold the camera perfectly still, and the image suffers from a little shake. Oh well.

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7 responses to “Seeing is deeper than noticing”

  1. matt Avatar

    I think we all know you well enough here to suspect you wouldn’t use it as an excuse for shoddy work; but I think the concept of わびさび (wabisabi) applies here. The medium is inherently imperfect.

    In an effort to avoid mounting a soapbox in an arena that isn’t mine, I’ll simply say: I’m often hesitant to invoke わびさび because I’ve seen it used where I do think it’s a fallback excuse for bad process. And I think it’s a ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’ idea anyway; not a creator telling an audience, “this is how it is”.

    But despite the shake, I think it still works pretty well. A bit soft, but the extra chaos in the leaves and grass hint at real nature versus the carefully curated version in the scene. Or I’m just overthinking it, like any good software developer would.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Matt – the image isn’t truly bad, which is why I was willing to share it. I don’t know if it rises to full wabisabi, though! I like the thought that maybe the blurriness represents the natural movement of the leaves and grass in the wind.

  2. brandib1977 Avatar

    This is an interesting photo. The pop of color pulls the eye in and that interesting shadow keeps the eye moving.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you! I anchored the image with that hydrant.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        It’s fantastic!

  3. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    The longer I practice photography with intent, the more I see. There is always something fresh and new!!!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s true, and it’s been great seeing more and more as I get older!

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