Note: Second in a series of essays on the spiritual nature of photography
"The glaring contrast between seeing and looking-at the world around us is immense; it is fateful. Everything in our society seems to conspire against our inborn human gift of seeing." – Frederick Franck
Seeing is not a passive process, looking at things is. A cursory glance, something catching the eye, sensing but not feeling – means to look and not truly see the world as it is. Seeing is an act of the conscience. By seeing the beauty of all things we open ourselves up to interpreting the will of God.
Within me, from the time I picked up a camera, to a man on the advancing front of his prime years, I’ve come to accept the gift of photography as one of deep reflection.
We make a lot of assumptions about the pictures we make and share. We assume, for instance, that we make pictures so we can remember who we are later in life. We make pictures to remember, people, places and things. We think photography is about freezing and framing time, but in reality, making pictures is about being in the moment. Photography is about being in the present.
Today, the act of capturing a “fleeting reality”, the decisive moment, signals an opportunity for transformation – an instance of awakening the eye of the heart. Annie Griffiths said, “Photography is a moment of truth touched by light.” Bell understood photography to be as fleeting as the reality a photographer seeks to capture.
During the 1930s, Henri Cartier-Bresson, a young French photographer, described his style of making pictures as the decisive moment. Bresson observed, “To photograph is to hold one's breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality.“
Memory is stitched together by a millions decisive moments. To hold’s one breath – to recognize a flash of universal truth in a tear or a smile –– when life becomes a series of discrete instances captured on film. Photography demands interaction. Pictures reveal relationships – subject and photographer, light and camera, what is seen and what we fix in time.
Thomas Merton said, “In modern life our senses are so constantly bombarded with stimulation from every side that unless we developed a hind of protective insensibility we would go crazy….”
Moreover, artist and philosopher Frederick Franck suggests, “We have become addicted to merely looking-at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking-at the world—through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, microscopes, stereoscopes—the less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others.”
It's easy to understand the aesthetic benefits of simplicity since a photograph holds only a finite amount of information. The idea here is that simplicity in the frame may seem like a matter of composition -- arranges elements so that they communicate a message more effectively. Clear and contributing backgrounds, foreground/background relationships, juxtapositions, contrast, are all part of the mix that can either simplify or complicate the message.
At the same, simplicity in photography can also be an attitude, an approach to making compelling picture, or a state of mind. Photography that positions the photographer in a more harmonious relationship with the subject and the environment is more likely to experience a greater sense of fulfillment in what they create.
Creativity demands that we go beyond the technical aspects of a craft and seek the liberation of true self-expression.