We all agree that our senses and emotions are engaged when we look at art, but we do not readily appreciate the prominent role that knowledge plays in this experience.
Winters are hard in this desert. Hard for me, that is. I am a being maladapted to this environment: improperly equipped to survive it unaided, needlessly complex, energy inefficient, woefully lacking in insulation, and not so fortunate as to be able to hibernate. I survive by the grace of the genius and skills of others—kept warm by synthetic materials, nourished by food that cannot grow here, transported by energies liberated from the chemical remnants of life forms long non-existent. All I have of my own is my experience, perhaps amounting to delusions of free will and conscious agency. Be that as it may, what I experience as my own to make meaning from are my sensations, my perceptions, my emotions, my thoughts, my ideas. (Or, in words loved by cognitive scientists, philosophers, and intellectual braggarts: my qualia, my umwelt, my Weltanschauung.) My task now is to make some worthwhile meaning—to invent (and to convince myself of) some redeeming value that will justify my being here, shivering in the frigid desert, where the biological entity that I am does not belong.
Life retreats from this desert in winter. There is less green than in other times. Also, less motion, fewer sounds, and almost no discernible fragrances in the air. My primary source of sensory delight this time of year are my eyes. This is not meant so much as an ode to my sense of vision, but more as a lament of the diminished richness of my experience compared with what this place feels like to me in other times. The realization of how much poorer my experience is when mostly limited to vision also underscores how handicapped photography is as a means of communicating meanings and experiences.
I write this, you should know, to try to get myself out of a creative rut. I get more such ruts in winter than in other times. I’m starting to believe it’s working. No promises. Read at your own peril.
Recalling recent talks, where I answered photographers’ questions, I think of some curious commonalities. Several people asked about colors in my photographs—how I “get” them, whether I manufacture them, how much I manipulate them. The answers, respectively: I find them, I don’t, and not much. The problem, it seems to me, is that the same people who are impressed with the colors in my photographs would not have noticed these same colors if they were present at the scene. Most people are not conscious of the richness of colors in the world because of a phenomenon known as inattentional blindness. Simply put, the default programming of the human brain does not consider these colors (and other things) as important enough to pay conscious attention to, let alone consider using them creatively in an expressive photograph. John Szarkowski pointed to the same problem when he wrote, “Photography, if practiced with high seriousness, is a contest between a photographer and the presumptions of approximate and habitual seeing.”
In a greater sense, limited attention and how our brains assign attention by default, is the greatest limiting factor to producing creative, expressive photographs. I emphasize “by default” because we may, if we choose to do so, override these defaults consciously to a great degree, and even train ourselves to create new defaults. This is possible thanks to the plasticity of the human brain. By consciously forcing ourselves to notice things, to be more mindful of things, to not just recognize the identities of things but to use their visual qualities creatively and expressively, in time we adapt and train our neural circuitry to respond to visual stimuli in new ways. Like other forms of training, we start by identifying a useful exercise, and then learn to excel at it by repetition. Also, like other forms of training, there is no shortcutting effort and time to get good.
Most photographers go about the world filled with the false confidence that if something in their surroundings may yield a good photograph it will be obvious to them. Most photographers believe all they need to do is wander around long enough until some obvious arrangement—some “significant form,” as art mavens sometimes to call it—will materialize randomly and spontaneously before their eyes. Until such recognition of obvious visual significance happens randomly, they believe, there is nothing “there” to photograph. Statistically, this is true: the odds of experiencing a happy accident are directly correlated with the amount of time one waits for such accidents to occur. But expressive photography is not an art of happy accidents. Like any other art, expressive photography is an art of conscious creation.
Unlike painters and practitioners of plastic arts, we photographers create by identifying compositions—arrangements—of things already existing in our environment. The problem of inattentional blindness, simply put, is this: we can’t compose photographs from elements we don’t know exist. As so many experiments show, by default we notice consciously only a small fraction of what is around us, hence Szarkowski’s reference to habitual seeing. The solution: to become good creative and expressive photographers, we must work to break the habit. It’s not easy. It can’t be done by memorizing some list of tips, by purchasing some product, or by mastering any processing technique. Noticing things in our environment, and recognizing ways these things can be composed expressively, is a skill that we can train like so many others: by conscious and repetitive effort.
Some photographers asked me about the mechanics of visual expression, some even inquired about mastering visual expression. Beyond our intuitions about what people (like us) may experience in response to certain visuals, we also have some anecdotal scientific insights (from fields such as Gestalt psychology and Neuroaesthetics) into how the human brain creates meaning from visual stimuli. Still, such science barely scratches the surface. V.S. Ramachandran—a pioneer in the field of Neuroaesthetics—when asked how much neuroscience can tell us about how people perceive art, responded, “I think right now one percent or less is explained by neuroscience, but I think a time will come when we’ll maybe understand ten or twenty percent of it.” The problem of mastery of visual expression, simply put, is this: one can’t master something we know very little about.
A podcast host I listened to recently estimated that 95% of photographers struggle with composition. I think this deserves further qualification. Given that we know so little about artistic expression by visual composition, virtually 100% of creative visual artists struggle—and always will struggle—with composition. Those who don’t struggle with composition are those who copy other people’s compositions, or those who are content with limiting themselves to the handful of compositional templates already known to be effective.
When it comes to artistic expression, we must accept ambiguity. Indeed, we must accept that ambiguity increases with the complexity of whatever we wish to express. The easiest thing to express in a photograph is “here’s something I know most people will consider pretty.” Take it a step further, if only as far as expressing simple and known emotions—joy, contentment, melancholy—and the difficulty grows—not linearly but exponentially. Proceed further toward expressing more complex and nuanced emotions, and the difficulty may at times feel insurmountable. Indeed, some expressions may only seem possible after prolonged contemplation and study, trial and error, and/or by strokes of random epiphanies.
As an artist I must accept that some people will like my work because it has pretty colors; fewer may find deeper meaning in it; and fewer still may find the same meaning I intended to express. But so what? My meaning is no more important than any other meaning, except to me.