September 26, 2009

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HOW WE SEE THINGS Posted by Sheila Connolly (filling in for Leann Sweeney, who is in New York watching her talented daughter perform) My colleague Kate Flora's post earlier this week started me thinking. We're writers, and we work with words, but I've had friends who say they think in colors or images. Me, I know I think in words; in fact, I have dialogues in my head (which started long before I became a writer–should I be worried?). But I am also a visual person. In fact, I was an art historian for a time, long, long ago. My grandmother, who lived in Manhattan when I was growing up, made sure my sister and I visited plenty of museums, and I guess I paid attention. Even in high school I could identify and distinguish among paintings, which mystified my friends. Me, I was mystified that they couldn't see the differences that were so obvious to me. My father was the designated photographer in our family during my childhood. He was an engineer and liked mechanical things; my mother less so, but she could point and shoot with the simpler cameras. We always had cameras, including a stereo camera and early Polaroid cameras, and even a movie camera back in the 50's. Of course he took all the required adorable baby pictures of me, the first child in my generation in the family. But he remained in charge of all the cameras, and they were off-limits to my sister and me, except for the requisite Brownie I had. I will admit that the whole concept of f-stops and exposures intimidated me for years. Once I finally figured it out, when I got a "real" camera after college, I could have kicked myself because it was so easy. I probably went overboard after that, because after that I learned how to use a darkroom, at least for black-and-white pictures. All skills, alas, that are now of little use. One other major problem, back in the era of film, was that taking photos was expensive. You not only had to buy the film, but you had to pay to have it developed, and you couldn't tell if the pictures were good or bad until you'd shelled out your money. As a result, you could end up with a lot of pictures of feet or sky, but you had to keep them because you had paid good money for them. Worse, you had to consider very carefully whether any given picture was worth taking. I made my first trip to Europe with three rolls of film. Ouch! How many wonderful images did I fail to capture simply because I couldn't afford the processing? But that was reality: when you're doing Europe on $5 a day, there's not a lot of cash left for photos. Recently I've been going through my archival photo collection, from my earliest family photos up until about ten years ago. They aren't aging well. I've kept them in those pretty file boxes every store loves to sell you, but if the boxes aren't crammed full, the photos inside tend to curl and warp. I haven't yet figured out how to flatten them again (suggestions welcome), without making lots of stacks and putting a brick on top of each. (And don't even talk about labeling them. You swear you're going to remember each and every one. Trust me, you don't.) Then came the digital era, a cause for much rejoicing (except that it killed the instant camera, but that's another story). You could take as many pictures as you wanted, once you'd acquired a camera (my first one died of exhaustion; I have a third in reserve, against the inevitable death of my second, which goes everywhere with me, along with extra batteries). You can see them immediately, and delete anything that doesn't meet your standards. You can save them forever on your computer or in cyberspace; you can share them with friends and strangers alike, if you choose. And when I went to Australia a few years ago, I took literally hundreds of photographs. One of the plusses or minuses (depending on your point of view) of the digital camera is the ability to alter your photos. Don't like the way you framed that shot? Crop it. Too dark, too light? No problem: push a button and it's fixed. I'll concede that in the case of old, faded photos, photo-editing can be a blessing: it can correct color changes wrought by time and enhance contrast. But for current pictures, is it right to change your first image, the one you wanted to capture? You can argue about whether photographs are intended to document events or whether they're "art" (whatever that may be). But I think in either case, to be a good photographer you have to have an eye that sees things that other people don't. That can focus on a particular detail, while blocking out all the rest of the noise. That can find beauty or poignancy or emotion in everyday objects and sights, and make others see it too. Training your photographer's eye helps with writing too. You need to pay attention to the details that make a picture or a chapter come alive. You need color, light, a strong sense of place. So maybe "seeing" in our minds spans both words and images.

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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