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The problem of catching eyes

Encroaching Green

To continue on my Simone Weil theme of a week or so ago, here is another quote of hers of which I am very fond:

“Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.”

Weil is referring to the heart-stopping aspect of art — the way that a particularly beautiful work, can seize our attention in a way that sort of shuts down or fades out the chatter of our bodies and minds, giving the viewer/reader/listener a sense of pure observation, akin to meditation or spiritual communion or — at the risk of sounding quackish — the “flow” state described by Csíkszentmihályi and folks.

This is an aspect of photography which is of great importance to me. I became seriously interested in photography around the same time I started noticing myself slipping into a frame of mind I was more familiar with from the meditative practices I more or less abandoned years ago. A basic technical fluency (fluency meaning no need to think about the operation of the camera as I operated it) combined with a kind of disciplined vision (a “trained eye,” although how well-trained at that time, or the present?) caused me to photograph without overt thought. Just eyes and hands and legs adjusting position, framing, focusing, shooting. And every now and again, when I’m both good and lucky, I can put enough of that into the photograph that the viewer, too, will be seized by the image, and look with a still mind.

Of course, I’m usually not both good and lucky at the same time, and all too often, I’m neither. : )

But something that worries me, in general, and with my upcoming sofobomo project in particular, is that in some cases some of my best work — or what I consider my best work — may not have enough initial eye-catching-ness to gain and keep the attention needed for the viewer to give the image a chance. It seems like popular photography skews hard toward images with a “wow factor” — whether in heroic content or bravura technique or intense manipulation — that make them leap off of a screen of flickr thumbnails. (Although this problem is not a digital innovation — I think it goes back at least as far as the ascent of Ansel Adams (as opposed to Edward Weston or Minor White or other folks of that general time) in the mind of lay photographers and the general public. The flickr thumbnail is just an incarnation of the problem I happen to encounter on a regular basis.)

I’m very wary of creating images whose success is based on such a “wow factor,” because the typical response to such images is, “Wow, I wish I was there,” or, “Wow, how did you do that,” or, “Wow, I wish I had that lens/camera/film/etc.” This is not the response I want to evoke, or at least not all of the time. (Sometimes it’s inevitable; you can’t take a non-crappy picture of a bird without getting these responses.)

So, partly because of this issue, my sofobomo project (“Engulf”) is deliberately constructed to avoid as many “wow” factors as possible. The subject — small-scale conflict of nature vs. civilization — is not at all heroic. (By small-scale, I mean manifestations in highly mundane urban settings — for example, a tree which is growing around a metal pole and engulfing it.) I’m not utilizing sophisticated lighting techniques or macro lenses, or naked ladies. In fact, many of the images will be of largely two-dimensional subjects.

This leaves me with a limited vocabulary of photographic elements — texture, color, and shape, essentially. This prevents me from getting caught up in the arms race of eye-catching “wow”-ness — but I wonder if it won’t also get in the way of the deeper goal that Weil described — I worry that if I do not catch the eye, I cannot captivate the flesh.

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One Response to “The problem of catching eyes”

  1. gmac101 Says:

    I don’t know if this helps but in the recent snowfall in London, I took my camera out and all of a sudden things stood out, either form or colour. A few days later they were still there, still the same shape or colour they seemed a bit more hidden, but just as interesting.

    Try walking out with a child – they notice all sorts of rubbish until you look more closely then it is actually a strange shaped stone, a shiny wrapper.

    Some of my photos are on my Flicker site gmac101