Looking and Seeing

look_and_see

In the late 1970s, two of America’s best rock climbers were on a tear in Yosemite Valley, putting up new boulder problems left and right. Visionaries, both, neither Ron Kauk nor John Bachar saw the line on the Columbia Boulder, right in the middle of Camp 4, an area packed with climbers all season long. Instead, a climber Bachar described as “a drug addict, schizophrenic, and a wild guy” spotted the line first. John “Yabo” Yablonski, addled as he may have been, he was the one who saw possibility where no one else did.

As a photographer (aspiring and amateur, admittedly), I have been snapping pictures of the world around me ever since my parents bought me my first SLR in the early 1990s. Since then, my time with a camera in hand has taught me a lot about seeing — the first step in the art of photography. Strangely, this is easier said than done. Anyone can look (“A beautiful bridge! How exciting! I’ll take a picture of it!”) But to make that picture even hint at the power of the bridge you experience in your marrow, at least with any consistency at all, you have to condition yourself to see what is there. What is really there.

I know this must sound basic, or hopelessly oblique — of course you have to see! But looking is not seeing. You have to look to see, but it is quite easy to look and not see — In fact, I think it is our default mode. The photographer, the climber, the scientist, the writer — basically anyone trying to make or do anything worth a damn — must strive to see what is really before her. Only then can she decide how to proceed.

There is the bridge: sprawling span of steel and stone, rooted in earth and water. The sun hits it from this angle, throwing shadows in such a direction, stretching shapes from light and dark, illuminating some textures and obscuring others. Now frame it in your camera’s viewfinder. What does the camera see? Will that red and white tugboat be in the picture? Perhaps you should wait until it moves forward a little. Maybe wait a minute more, until it crosses that ray of light. To find the image you seek you must become, as Minor White writes in his essay “The Camera Mind and Eye,” like a sheet of film: “seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it.”

To look, you need only your eyes — to see, your mind comes into play. When you see, you’re not just observing what is outside of you, but also what is inside. Both the external and internal fall under the heading What is There. “He can look day after day — and one day, the picture is visible!” writes White. “Nothing has changed except himself.”

When Yabo looked at that wave-shaped hunk of granite in Camp 4, he saw a way for a human form to navigate its spartan surface. In a similar way Charles Darwin, on observing an orchid with an eleven-inch nectary, saw that there must be a moth with a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar in its bottom. Only four decades later would the actual moth be discovered. Any scientist could look at the oddly shaped nectary, but not anyone could see its implications.

Luckily, like any skill, one can practice seeing (although, as far as I know, there’s no rulebook for it). A simple exercise: next time you’re looking at something, whether the face of a rock, a subject to be photographed, or some problem in your work or professional life, take the time to look for what is truly there. Don’t let other’s opinions or your own expectations overly influence you. Ask yourself again and again, “What is there? What is there?” When you do that and do it well, answers start to present themselves.

What to do with those answers? That’s another story…