Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Friday, March 26, 2010

Are You Paying Attention?

“It is impossible to achieve the aim without suffering.” - A.G. Bennett

It takes effort to maintain ones attention. Actual, hard work. The suffering referred to in the opening quote does not refer to suffering in the usual sense. It refers to the fact that keeping your mind working at a level that rises above the usual mental state, driven by routine and habit, requires constant effort. Mental inertia runs towards the dull and unimaginative and it takes work to fight that inertia.

One of my hobbies, aside from photography, is the study of the human mind, especially as regards the nature of consciousness and human behavior. One of the more fascinating aspects that I've discovered is the common thread that shows up in some surprising places. For example: G. I. Gurdjieff, when realizing that the older, more exotic religious traditions were fading in Eurasia, made the effort to study them to learn their inner workings. What he learned was at once simple in concept, but difficult to act upon. At the center of these ancient practices lie methods to clear ones mind of 'noise' and to enhance one's attention and focus. This opens the possibility of thinking in high clarity, free of 'automatic' habitual behavior. Gurdjieff refined his ideas over the years into formal schools built around what he called The Work – which was various exercises designed to help focus and enhance one's attention. Gurdjieff's ideas were picked up and expanded upon by others, such as A.G. Bennett. This idea of enhanced attention also shows up in a somewhat similar fashion in the writings and teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti's teachings were more personal and less structured, but spoke to much the same thing – the awaking of the conscious self.

All of these gentleman could be classified as semi-spiritual teachers or leaders of a sort - which is an oversimplification, although Krishnamurti in particular strongly avoided this type of designation, considering it a destructive course. The first scholarly examination that took a unique look at the true nature of human consciousness was Julian Jaynes in the opening chapters of his book, “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. The topic is too broad and complex to discuss in this little blog, but the immediate heart of the matter can be distilled into this quote by Jeanne de Salzmann, one of Gurdjieffs most ardent supporters:

“You do not realize enough that your attention is your only chance. Without it you can do nothing."

Jaynes postulated that we spend a very small amount of our time fully conscious and provides a startling view of how we think and how the mind works at different levels of consciousness, switching in and out without our even realizing it. While the likes of Gurdjieff, Bennett and Krishnamurti tend to speak in generalizations and concepts, Jaynes gives specific examples that can be readily recognized and understood. The prime concept behind all of them, however, is the same: Most of us move through life only partially aware and your attention is vital if you want to fully experience your life and the world around you.

The application of this concept towards photography should be obvious. One of the things that draws me to photography is the constant need to be aware of your surroundings in the finest detail. When moving thru any environment, whether a backcountry landscape or the busiest urban center, I constantly scan for interesting light and form. This opens the world in a way that must be experienced to be understood and appreciated. It is probably easiest to relate to this experience in a natural setting, as the subject elements tend to be simpler and the distractions fewer. Once a subject has been identified, setting up an image becomes a fairly straightforward process of setting up the best composition in the best available light.

Urban environments are a completely different matter. The variety of lines, angles, details, light and even reflected light provide a sometimes overwhelming collection of choices. The surprise is how few people notice. Most people are so lost in their routines that they are never even aware of the magic occurring right in their midst. This is the common, semi-conscious state in which people spend most of their time. This state of mind is the enemy of all, but especially the photographer. I use my walks across and around Manhattan as an observational exercise. I spend my time actively observing and seeking out interesting site lines and details. The alertness pays real dividends. I capture only a small portion of my little discoveries with my camera, as my schedule does not permit much time to linger, but I note and return to those especially interesting locations with my camera gear later. I do carry a small, high quality camera, a Canon G9, that gets much use taking sample shots for later study. The really interesting subjects will find themselves in front of the big camera later, as this requires more preparation and a special trip for that purpose. Here are two examples:

The Flat Iron Building. I was walking down Madison Avenue late one afternoon, headed home when I noticed, some 10 or more blocks south the setting sun was highlighting the Flat Iron building in a way I had never seen before. I practically ran the 10 blocks in order to get within range while the light was still available. I had the G9 in my coat pocket, fortunately, and was able to record the wonderful moment.

Another unusual find was the fascinating rooftop details of a recently landmarked building, the Ten-Eyck Troughton, originally known as Allerton House. One of architect Arthur Loomis Harmon's earliest designs, it is the first hotel built in the Italian Renaissance style. I noticed one morning this spectacular oxidized copper roof lost in the surrounding high-rises – visible only through a very narrow opening between modern towers if you happened to look in the right direction at the right time as you walked along. Getting the right angle required climbing up on the front steps of a brownstone near the corner of Lexington and 38th Street in order to clear all the important details from the surrounding buildings, such as that delightful detail work on the peak of the roof.

How many people have walked right by these sights without ever seeing them?


  1. Sadly, I think most folks DO just walk on by... Nicely done, added you to my own blogroll.

  2. Thanks for stoping by and the listing. That looks like an interesting page you have going yourself!

  3. Glad to do so, you've got lots of thought provoking info already, can't wait to see more.