Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What do you see?

What do you see? Seems a simple question at first glance, doesn't it?
As a photographer, this is obviously a question present in my mind almost constantly. It happened to come to the fore recently when someone was looking at a photograph I had just taken of the Great South Bay. After gazing at the image for a few moments, they wanted to know what the location of the subject was. I responded by describing where the photograph was taken from and the specific area covered within the frame. But, being me, the exchange prompted a new train of thought.

Was this persons perception limited to the physical reality of the photograph? Could they only see the wonderful color of the reflected light off the breeze kissed water, the strip of land in the distance? I will never know in this particular instance, but it is all but certain that this is the case for some people. All they see is the immediate reality before them. I suppose in some ways this is a good thing as it insures, at least to some degree, that they are engaged in the moment.

The photograph can still work on this level, but if it doesn't trigger more in the mind of the viewer it probably isn't working as the photographer intended. Photography suffers a bit on this front due to the very nature of the medium. The camera, at it's most fundamental level, is a recording device. It allows the user to record some event, place or thing in the present moment for future reference. All other artistic mediums are used in the opposite direction. The artist takes an unformed medium - paint, clay, stone, etc. - that has no inherent representational reality and manipulates it to communicate a message. Photography starts with a representational reality, and must be manipulated to convey a message. For the photographer, this is where the question of 'what do you see?' takes flight.

When I saw this particular sunrise, with it's wonderful and unusual soft, brassy light reflected off the silky smooth, quiet water of the Bay, my initial reaction was much like anyone else, frozen to momentary immobility by the serene beauty of the scene. Having my Canon 5D MKII under my arm, the next thoughts were strictly technical, within seconds the camera was up and I rattled through the process of selecting aperture, shutter speed, focal point, etc. and started shooting. Somewhere in this transient moment of seconds is where we separate the artist from the 'taker of pictures'.

(click on image to enlarge)

Most people in that moment see the water, the color of the light, the island in the far distance. The observant will also notice the cloud formations and the really observant (or sailor!) will notice the reflections and patterns of the breeze touching the surface of the water. The photographer sees all these things and more. The aspect that makes the difference - What do you SEE? - lies within the power of metaphor, the potential for broader interpretation within the scene.

One of the aspects of a truly effective image is its ability to trigger the imagination. The body of water and islands in this photograph are intimately familiar to me, having sailed, kayaked and walked these places since my youth. Even still, when I look at this image, the composition and various elements of color and hints of form evoke the wanderlust within me. Recognizable features and details fade away in the distance and my imagination brings forth thoughts of far away places and exotic cultures. The ever curious explorer in me wants to go there, to discover new wonders and experiences that may lie in the mysterious islands just visible on that far, golden horizon.

The camera becomes so much more than a recording device, it has the potential to become a key to other worlds and places, even other times. The photograph opens a door to the place of dreams and fantastic imaginings. This is what I see when I look through the lens. What do you see?