Red Wall, Window

Photographic Vision, or: Re-seeing the same things

Many photographers complain about “I don’t have anything to photograph where I live… there’s nothing interesting, blah blah blah… I get tired of seeing the same things over and over again”. If you’re getting tired of seeing the same things over again, then you’re not looking right. Not only are you not paying attention to what’s around you, but you’re failing to observe change in your environment and to record that change, which is one of the greatest functions a photographer can fulfill.

Case in point: two images of the same house, taken about two years apart. The first image is the earlier one. I was foremost interested in the gas meter as an organic pattern against the rigid geometry of the red brick and the white window at the time I took this one. The window and the gas meter were each singular objects set off against the dark, weathered red of the wall. At a bright and cloudless sunset, the meter casts a long shadow, further repeating its organic pattern.

Gas Meter, Red Wall, V Street
Gas Meter, Red Wall, V Street

Returning two years later, the house has been re-painted, this time in BRIGHT red, along with the gas meter plumbing and the bollards protecting it. Instead of looking at singular items tightly framed, this time I pulled back a bit and gave the scene a narrative – there’s a person visible inside the bars of the one window, the other window closed. The lighting is flat from an overcast sky, pushing the drama of the scene into the deeply saturated colors and the enigma of the house – who is that person inside? how did they get in there when there is no visible door? Why is the one window bricked up but the other one open?

Red Wall, Window
Red Wall, Window

By re-visiting the same subjects, we not only learn to see them, but to see them differently instead of as static, unchanging objects. It also helps with story-telling and narrative development. Being able to tell a story with an image is one of the key differentiators between a factual record (“on this date, this building/car/person/plant/animal looked like this”) and an artistic output (“why does this look the way it does? Who is that? Why are they there? Why are they doing what they are doing?”). I think that we should all strive for that artistic output and not just factual recording (not that there is no value in recording of facts – we need facts recorded!).

This is one aspect of photography that I would hope to help inspire my students toward, as an educator. But it’s also the hardest thing to teach – photographic vision is something that has to happen, organically, natively, within the individual photographer. The best you can hope for is to provide exercises to stimulate them in the direction of building their vision, and to provide constructive critical feedback to focus that energy.

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