Anecdotal Evidence: Tools to help you see photographically – by Fred Rosenberg

Translation problems keep cropping up
during the hearing and yesterday
Mr. Mianiscum was nearly
unable to testify because he could not
understand the Cree translation of the
phrase “Do you swear to tell the
truth, the whole truth and nothing but
the truth”.
Three interpreters were needed to
explain to Mr. Mianiscum that what
he was to say didn’t have to be the
absolute truth but
“verity as he knows it to be”.

I’ve been photographing on the street for years and have been keeping notes. They cover everything from the epiphanies on the nature of seeing; insights into what lies behind appearances; the geometrical nature of manifest reality; discovering Zen and the three questions that have motivated me in my work — who am I, who are you, and what the hell is this place, the only place there seems to be?

Sometimes the answers are photographs. Sometimes the answers are words. Sometimes the answers are more questions.


When Mondrian was young he did some paintings over his old canvases. When a friend pointed out that he was wasting perfectly saleable canvases, he said, “I’m not trying to make paintings, I’m trying to find things out.”

A few years ago I made a distinction between photography and photographing. It clarified a mystery I didn’t know I suffered.

Photography is collecting technique, equipment, ideas, rules, production and presentation; the foundation for photographing that can be an end in itself. The mastery of craft emerges as one dominant purpose of the photograph as well as the raising of tools to exalted importance. This is a conscious mind appropriated by consumerism in all its beguiling facets. This is territory to pass through, after integrating the basic lessons.

Photographing is perception moving one’s body through time and space, receptive to intuitions and intimations; anticipating change and it’s subtleties, waiting relaxed and patiently in that anticipation for the unexpected to fill out the moment; sensing metaphor and geometrical harmonies in physical relationships, where one’s body is part of the technique that unites the physical world with the perception of it; where technique is integrated enough to allow the photographer to relax tense effort and collapse the distance between perception and subject; where one experiences 3D reality as an infinite number of 2D projections from one’s perception. This is the domain of the sub-conscious mind, the mind that shows you the way while you’re looking the other way.

I see the entire photographic practice, the study and the effort, is not to make and collect photographs, but to consciously experience and record a moment’s essential beauty, at least, verity as I know it to be. Candid, spontaneous photographing on the street is a magic hat trick that happens internally. The print is the rabbit.

A dream fragment:
Breaking and falling through the basement floor
into a dirt pit chamber below. It felt like I was in a
treasure room:
filing cabinets full of paper
and boxes full of valuable and important stuff,
though I had no idea what.
I then suddenly realized that all this stuff was already mine,
that I had stored it all away, safe and secure
and forgotten.

What follows are a few ideas I consider essential to candid photographing. They have collated over time with contemplation and perhaps have been directed by the photographs themselves and were not predetermined rules or any conscious strategy to get the picture.

What I find most useful is that they provide a glitch free inner experience, a receptivity without expectations, responsiveness without thinking and an attunement to what lies behind the surface; they provide the simplest way to be fully present for the moment, whatever moment comes. They provide a stable platform for one’s emotions, psychology, prejudices and world view to guide the way.


Defocusing

Defocusing splits focus from attention, where one can be aware of having two kinds of vision at once: one’s eyes hold focus sharply on a detail, gesture or expression, while one’s attention scans the frame for significant relationships to that focused detail. Defocusing enables one to bypass the natural tendency to sharply focus on one thing at a time, where all else is peripheral and indistinct, and perceive the whole of the visual field equally unsharp, all at once, at leisure, without the eyes jumping about clutching at and lurching from one sharply focused thing to another. This is essentially 2D seeing.

See in 2D

Seeing in 2D shifts focus, allows one to see simultaneously:

  1. Positive space (the subject and its surrounding complementary shapes.
  2. Negative space empty of subject that surrounds and supports the subject, the shape of what is between shapes and the frame, and…
  3. The balancing of shapes, line and texture within the frame. Defocusing moves back and forth between 2D and 3D seeing and is a powerful practice for seeing what and when to pull the 2D plane from 3D space.

Use slow shutter speeds

Using slow shutter speeds demands one’s bodily participation to be in sync with the subject’s, to keep things sharp and identifiable, yes, but more so to be in sync means that one sees/senses the subject’s “fullness”: the slower the speed the more one sees of the subject, the more one needs to sync with the subject’s action, gesture or emotion, whether it’s a person drinking tea or the streets full of demonstrators.

Slow speeds demand self-awareness and discipline, to be equally there with one’s subject and one’s bodily self during exposure. Nothing puts the photographer’s presence in the photograph more than using slow shutter speeds. What speed does camera shake begin to show? What speeds do hands appear as smears, eye lids as transparent veils? What speed does one notice releasing the shutter is twitchy? What speed does one’s breathing or one’s heartbeat thumping against the camera held to one’s chest, your face, affect steadiness? What speed feels like one could read a book during exposure, there’s so much time to experience the moment? At 1/8000 sec, conscious experience is a vaporous itch.

Estimating distance and visualize focal length

Estimating distance and visualizing lens focal length puts one at or near the correct distance to the subject before lifting the camera. These mental facilities make space a thing, a physical property to adjust like the objects they are in, and are important parts of the craft.

Remember: Viewfinders affect one’s seeing

There are 100% reflex finders where you look at, 72% rangefinder finders where you look through; finders to look down into a reversed image, or at a reversed and upside-down image; peephole finders, distorting optical finders; finders with indistinct frame edges and finders with uncorrected parallax. Viewfinders should suit how one moves, the speed one works, how one relates to the subject and to subject movement as well. This choice intertwines with the ability to estimate distance and visualize focal lengths.

Overheard:
She has bad eyes,
six or seven operations;
in crowds she gets dizzy,
in the elevator, on the escalator.
I think her problem is
she looks too much at people
instead of pretending
they just aren’t there.

Exercise your optics

Like stretching before sport and yoga before meditation, eye exercises contribute a physical dexterity and a quiet, relaxed mental platform to go deeper into one’s practice and are openings into what else eyes do besides focus on the surface of things. Eye exercises develop smoothness and flexibility in focusing, the ability to focus on space, independent eye use, the ability to see in 2D, and add depth and breadth to binocular vision.

The exercises strip away everything disruptive to catching the photograph: the thoughts, doubts and expectations manifest in stressful, hurried looking, psychological projection and emotional propaganda. The exercises invigorate, refine and guide the ability to see photographically and they mark an understanding of an internal order that is reflected in the photographs.


A life unexamined is not worth living.

~ Socrates

A life unlived is not worth examining.

~ Alfred E. Neuman

Palming

Palming — where one covers their eyes with one’s hands — is a deep look at nothing. No thing. Space before objects. We spend our lives looking intently at everything, all the time. Palming is taking a break and looking equally intently at nothing. Even nothing has substance: there is movement and grain in the darkness without objects.

Now, with eyes open, looking into any dark environment, we see with familiarity that objects have indistinct soft edges and details are granular or absent; shapes and their visual weight predominate, not detailed minutia. I sense this is a foundation for the mental platforms other exercises use. Palming in the dark complements defocusing in the light.

Sun gazing

Everything in the world is seen by reflected light. Gazing directly into the sun, into the source of life on earth, is to have a direct experience of the Sun of God, no religion required. This exercise relates to visualizing distance and focal length, two powerful ways to see space as an object to adjust and is a direct experience of seeing what’s behind the surface.

Candle gazing

Candle gazing in a darkened room makes for a relaxing, comforting visual field, a simpler, kinder vision without depth, without the eyes flitting about focusing on things, making sharp shapes more important than soft shapes makes binocular vision seem brutal and materialistic.

The practice develops and strengthens eye muscle tone, peripheral vision and corresponds to the attention/focus split.

Near to far exercise

Near to far exercise stretches and relaxes the muscles holding the eyes and the filaments holding the lens, toning and strengthening the lens’ ability to accommodate, and balances the eyes’ ability to focus together. One sees in planes of focus, as a camera lens does. This exercise excites the idea that wherever one focuses, it’s a point on a 2D plane, that movement makes it 3D and that 3D reality is made of an infinite number of 2D planes projected from one’s perception.


I have provided instructional guidance on palming, sun gazing, candle gazing and near to far stretches at the foot of this article.


Geodesics

The essential structure of all manifest things and the relationship of things to each other is geometrical. Complete geometrical forms or segments of those forms are always moving into and out of symmetry. The five Platonic Solids are an exquisite place to start a study: building the solid and skeletal forms as well as drawing these figures gives “hands on” understanding. Doing this practice is as illuminating as the structures themselves. In integrating this practice one begins to recognize geometrical relationships in everyday living; felt, sensed, connected to the structure of things, as to oneself.


An immensely relevant use of these figures is to study how subtly change happens: holding and turning a tetrahedron, the triangular faces turn effortlessly into a four-sided square. Pinpointing precisely when is the trick, the key to discerning when an expression on a face changes, a mood, a hesitation in a gesture; when is this moment different from the last?

Paradox is a foundation stone of manifest reality.

~ Alfred E. Neuma

Just because it’s a fiction doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

~ Alfred E. Neuman

Chanting

In chanting, while not visually orienting in essence, I have found contrasting with the repetitive, rhythmic and vocalized sound patterns are internal rhythmic and tonal reflections, somewhat dissonant sound patterns to the spoken ones, as though the internal shadow of sound isn’t equivalent to the sound itself.

I’ve found this an apt equivalency for photographing: one practices seeing the things of the world, the surface of things, but one can photograph an alternative to appearance, touching the structure, foundation and motivation for appearance. In this way, a function of appearance is to guide one to what’s behind appearance when one pays attention.

A dream fragment on my birthday:
Early this morning, before the ravens started up,
I was imagining my birthday party:
in a dirt yard, people loud and drinking,
eating under-cooked meat, happy with themselves;
a reception line formed where everyone I’d ever met
in 60 years came up to me,
looked me fully in the face with such
open pleasure
that they all looked like the same person;
they each then in turn shook my hand and said,
“Wake Up”,
with a benign compassion
that was both impersonal and sincere.

What I’ve written about here is preparation for photographic seeing. It is an abridged version of a document I’ve been working on for nearly a decade and it’s the first time I’ve let it out of the house. These are techniques and ideas that develop perception and enable a 2D photograph to embody the 3D experience, and the photographer to embody the photograph — some of which I’ve spoken in public about over the years.

Please use what you will from this, think what you think, see for yourself. Don’t settle for less.

Say you have seen something.
You have seen an ordinary bit of what is real,
the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through,
and time’s soft-skinned people working and dying under slowly shifting stars.
Then what?

ANNE DILLARD, THIS IS THE LIFE

~ Fred

Instructional guidance on eye exercises

Palming

Rest elbows on table, cover eyes with palms, sealing out all light. With eyes open, look around as though looking at a clock face, clockwise and counter clockwise, stretching to make the largest comfortable circumference. Vivid colours spark and streak as one feels the eye muscles tension. Look diagonally all through the clock face. When stretching brings no more colour or muscle soreness, gaze from this perfectly relaxed state into an infinitely deep and comforting darkness.

Sun Gazing

The technique involves gazing into the sun, constantly moving diagonally through it’s circumference and beyond (the idea being not to stare fixedly, without regard). These passes through the sun are additive; built in layers, each pass builds to a fuller, longer lasting imprint. Earlier or later in the day is less challenging than during aggressively strong midday sun. After a time, close your eyes to see the phosphenes, the complementary coloured afterimages, either spots (blinking makes constellations) and/or the tracking trails of the eye movements. These afterimages exist comfortably in the “real” visual field, fading after many seconds: one has photoshopped reality with one’s own eyes.


Candle Gazing

View two candles, six inches apart, from a comfortable distance and height. Cross eyes (or spread them as for the Magical Eye technique), to see three candle flames, focusing on the middle image. While keeping that focus, move your attention between the three images, then to other areas in the wider field of view. This attention rather than fixed focus allows one to wander about the visual field without changing one’s focus on things: the eyes are still, it’s attention that moves. Attention is the focus to use for photographing. Attention focuses on shape, weight, tonality, emotion, movement. Focused eyes focus on surface, content, purpose, expectation. Add one or two more candles for a wider stretch. This exercise can be done with one’s fingers or any other two similar figures.

Near to Far

Sitting, elbows supported to comfortably hold a hand over one eye, the thumb of the other hand held out to one’s closest focusing distance. Slowly and smoothly focus out to a distant reference object. In the beginning, use objects at intermediate distances to “rest” while learning how to keep the transitions smooth from near to far and back. Change eyes. Then use both eyes to look at one thumb. It’s challenging to move smoothly, near to far, when there is nothing to focus on. Does one eye focus closer than the other? Do the eyes focus closer or more clearly after practice?


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Fred Rosenberg
Fred Rosenberg
I've been photographing and printing since the early-60"s and I'm seeing signs of progress (a wink to Pablo Casals).

6 COMMENTS

  1. I enjoyed this, it’s great to come across pieces that aren’t laden down with gear. It strikes me that the eye exercises aren’t really about exercising the eyes but rather finding ways to focus the chatter of your brain upon the moment. I think many photographers have experienced entering a different mind-state while photographing, if only rarely, “being in the zone”, in other words. Practice, like what’s described here or other methods like yoga, meditation, prayer, self-hypnosis are ways to achieve that mind-state more readily. And yeah, don’t stare into the sun.

  2. LIHV, Thank you for commenting! I just jumped down here to say exactly the same thing about staring at the sun.

    The hippy new-age language I can live with – different strokes for different folks – but looking at the sun is dangerous. I was also waiting for a “note from the editor” comment!


    I guess that’s the strength of the Emulsive community though. Em can we please get a note on the article about the dangers of this instruction?

    “Even very short direct observation of the sun has the potential to cause damage,” said Dr. Russell Van Gelder, a clinical spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) and director of the University of Washington Medicine Eye Institute in Seattle.

    “Focusing the sun’s rays on a single point creates a lot of energy,” Van Gelder said. And the lens in your eye is about four times as powerful as the type of magnifying glass a child might play with, Van Gelder said.
    “If you take a lens that has that much power and point it directly at the sun, the energy becomes very high,” and is enough to literally burn holes in the retina, or the light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye, Van Gelder said.
    Patients with this condition, known as solar retinopathy, show a very characteristic pattern of eye damage during an exam. “It looks like someone took a hole punch and just punched out the photoreceptive cells in the retina,” Van Gelder told Live Science.
    It’s thought that this damage happens when photons (light particles) create free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules that can “poison” cells and kill them, Van Gelder said. The damage occurs in the fovea, a spot in the retina that is responsible for sharp, central vision. As a result, patients with solar retinopathy may have blurry vision or a central blind point in their eyes, according to the AAO.

    This is from here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/science-says-why-we-cant-look-at-the-sun/

  3. I’ve been enjoying Emulsive for a great deal of time now, and this is the first article I have come across that has given me pause, and a reason to comment. Aside from the self-indulgent and overwrought language of the post, advising readers to stare at the sun is just irresponsible.

    Those “complementary coloured afterimages” are not phosphenes (such as the small lights you see when you press your eyes with your hands) but are the first stage of photokeratitis – sunburn of the cornea. Whilst this damage is rarely permanent, much like sunburn on our skin, it is never advisable. Remember the public surprise and dismay when U.S. President Trump stared at the solar eclipse? There was a reason for the mockery.

    For a website predicated on the use of our eyes, I am surprised this got past the editing process. Although there are some points that did resonate (seeing in 2D space for example is a great way of describing the process), I felt like I was attending a new-age religious seminar reading this post, where providing an outlet for the author’s ego seems to be the main theme.

  4. Stare into the sun: Yes or No


    First question on the Stanford Binet Intelligence Scale (Beta version 1916).

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