It has been said that photography is a way of seeing the world, and while I certainly feel that to be true, I think it is a statement worth qualifying: we all see the world differently. Sometimes revelations reside in the most mundane, obvious places that we don’t even think to look. To say that everybody sees the world differently is such a bland, generalized statement that it approaches rapidly on meaninglessness. But sometimes within the most obvious possible statement lies some unknown, undiscovered, potentially profound implication. Maybe we just need to not gloss over it and take it at face value.
Let’s start with this: the human eyeball. Not everyone’s is built identically. For example, 10% of all people have partial or complete color blindness. Many more have some form a visual impairment – nearsighted or farsightedness. The idea that 20/20 vision is average is fairly suspect; it relies on a test chart in an artificial lab setting which is at best an approximation of how accurate your vision is. It does not test your eyes while you are moving, or while the subject is moving, under varying lighting conditions, or any other number of variables. Most people do just fine with far worse than 20/20 and the impact of color blindness is minimal in real life. So… so what? What does this mean for photography? I will get to that shortly.
Pat of being a photographer, I think especially a street photographer, requires you to change how you see the world. The things that most people don’t notice immediately in a scene need to be obvious and self evident to you – for example: lighting. Photographers obsess over lighting constantly. Is there enough of it? Does it have a color cast? Is it directional? Is it diffused? If you are a photographer, these questions aren’t even being asked explicitly, they are continually implied while the camera is in your hand, your brain constantly computing the effects of lighting as you visually scan a scene and mentally frame a shot. But our way of seeing goes far beyond just having a light meter built into our eyeballs. Photographers are weirder than just that.
To be successful shooters we have to retrain our eyes to see the hidden world before us. So many things that pop into your field of vision as a normal person are ignored by default. The human brain has limited processing power and we tend to focus that processing power on the things that are important to us. The people we care about, our job or activities, and the moment to moment necessities of navigating the physical world as a person with sight. Step here, don’t step there. Watch out for that, go this way. Things that are of visual interest to the photographer are quite often perceived as “noise” by the normal human brain, they are filtered out and ignored. One of the best examples of this are reflections. When your brain walks by a store window, we tend to ignore the reflection and just see right through the window, into the store. We don’t perceive the reflection as important information which helps us, because as a normal person, it doesn’t. So we “see through” it.
Here in New York, we have it even worse. The stimulation levels vastly surpass those in nature, and our biological response to this excessive level of visual stimuli is to retreat. We go even further inside ourselves, we look at things even less. Unlike tourists, New Yorkers never ever look up. We glance at the taxi only to make sure it doesn’t hit us, we don’t really look closely at the hue of the paint or the expression on the driver’s face. We look at the traffic light as an instruction: walk or don’t walk. The visual data contained within, the red hand and the white walk symbol, the black grid covering the panel of LEDs, the dirt, grit, grime, stickers and graffiti covering the yellow exterior – all of those are seen past. A person with visual impairment might not even be able to see those things at all: some bright blinking blobs in their peripheral vision change to a solid tone, people around them begin to move – walk – our brain tells our legs to step forward and cross the street based on this very cursory data. It turns out, we don’t need to actually see much to make it through our day.
New Yorkers are an especially strange breed in that we don’t even see people. We can see their outline, their form, assume it is a person, and carry on walking past them. We glance at them, momentarily, just for a cursory examination, but this lasts a fraction of a second. In NYC, if you look directly at a person for one full second, it is considered staring. New Yorkers don’t stare, we ignore. We don’t keep gawking, we just keep walking. It an unwritten rule of the streets that you do not look at anyone – you glance. It doesn’t take long for new residents to pick up on this, because it is an adaptive biological response to overstimulation. When you could see one of 50 people walking down the street in a small town in Wisconsin, you look at them. When you could see one of 5 million people walking down the street in NYC, your brain does the math and shuts off.
What we are left with is some degree of tunnel vision. As photographers, it is our job to turn this adaptation off, reprogram our brains and relearn how to see the world. As it turns out, we’re born with perfectly good vision: kids stare at everything. It is only through the process of becoming an adult in society that we are habituated into tunnel vision seeing. As adults, it is only after a few drinks or when our brains are completely exhausted that we are able to see the mundane world around us with new eyes. It also happens when we travel. When normal people experience new environments, or take mind altering substances, we go back to being bug eyed kids again. The warm glow of a street light becomes novel again, the person we see on the street in a city far from our home becomes captivating.
You don’t take a photograph, you make it.
The only real trick to photography, it turns out, is to learn to let your conscious mind relax and let your subconscious, child like mind take over. This is the reason I find it necessary to shoot alone: I cannot achieve a sustained state of visual focus when I am around other people, I keep getting pulled back into reality. For me creative photography requires a suspension of certain brain states which makes it incompatible with socialization. I almost always shoot totally sober, but if you were to see me walking down the street with my camera in my hand, staring at some reflection or invisible feature, it may very well appear to you that I am on some pretty good drugs. But I’m not. I’ve simply deprogrammed my brain to see New York City the same way a tourist does.
To repeat that vague platitude I started with, we all see differently. Photography is the process of showing others how you see the world. In this sense, photography is a type of sharing – here, borrow my eyes. Depending on the photographer, you might be surprised at what you see. The novelty of your mundane world is made obvious. The essence of the subject is revealed, how could we miss it hiding in plain sight? Many of my favorite photographs do not have obvious subjects – they are photographs which have been made, not taken. When we view them, we go inside the mind of the photographer, we internalize how they perceive the world. For me, this is the value of the art form itself. We learn how other people think by seeing through their eyes.