Meaning in Photography
“The real heroes anyway aren't the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention.” John Green
What happens before you click the shutter? Your answer defines your photography. You pay attention when you Find, Focus and Frame. These three steps are the essence of photographing. Clicking the shutter is the easy part.
Find, focus and frame are three vital steps in The Dance. The photography dance is defined by how and to what we pay attention. Tell me to what you attend, as a photographer, and I'll tell you who you are.
The secret? We must be completely involved. The dance begins in our brain. Before our body can respond, we perceive. Good photographers have great perception, attention and readiness. They find, focus and frame before letting go. It's the "ready", "set" in ready, set, go that makes a photograph!
When we find, focus and frame, we have to shift our attention. Not only do we take out attentional ability for granted, the true nature of what we call attention is unknown. Publications on the nature of attention are abundant. Attention can be spatially-based. It can be object-based. New research in object- based attention suggest that when we represent an object in our vision, paying close attention lets us perceive, process and remember its features much better.
For photographers, attention means we have to care, stare, concentrate and observe. Stephen Shore, one of the 20th century's master photographers, used the following metaphor from fly casting to describe attention:
"When you're casting you have to time your cast so that the fly on the end of your line settles gently onto the water, thus giving the trout the impression that it's biting at the real fly. It's a tricky procedure to master, and the key to it, the way the experts explain it, is constant pressure. It's a feeling of the line on the rod tip that is always there.
Without constant pressure the timing falters, and so does the fly line, leaving the caster with a disconnected, where-did-it-go feeling. Of course, it's very possible to take pictures without constantly paying attention to every decision that needs to be made, but my experience was that when my attention wandered and I started making decisions automatically, there was something missing in the pictures and I was left with that where-did-it-go feeling."
About every twenty seconds, our attention shifts slightly. This happens in our brains, somewhat like breathing, without our awareness. Our attention moves from "self" to "other." Our thalamus and parts of the limbic system are part of a vast network. It can shift our attention away from a focus inside our own thoughts, to thinking about what is outside of us. We can take a self(less)ie."
Photography is less about making pictures where we look to our Self and more about experiencing the world outside of us with full attention. There is a rhythm to this focused attention. For instance, consider an orchestra conductor. The conductor makes music’s meaning clear through body motion. The upbeat is the preparation for any event. The fascinating part of conducting is setting the right tempo. When we watch the conductor setting the tempo and dynamics for an orchestra, we can see he or she is just slightly ahead of the music and begins a leading movement, ahead of the beat.
Night scene near Yale Brewery in Vancouver, BC.
Some say that the camera gives us the power to focus our attention, but the baton does not lead the conductor. This comes from within. Here and now, we can train our attention. Why? Well, in the words of Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh: “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it."