Ways of Seeing

10 June 2017

Your way of seeing comes from within you, not from your subject matter. Unless you want to use the camera (or your chosen medium) to merely record what is in front of you. Nothing is objective, as the choice of where to stand, placement of the frame, the exposure settings, post processing, and the preference of one photograph over another are all subjective decisions. Subjectivity can be reduced to a minimum but objectivity is a myth. 

I have a set of criteria that is integral to who I am. These are the backbone of my ways of seeing. They are criteria that form from an inner affinity, a spontaneous intuition of what I am drawn to and moved by. I can look at hundreds of photographs, including many that are considered great in the history of photography, but there are a limited number that resonate with my being. It is at this level that I seek to photograph, to create. The challenge here is to stay at this level of awareness when I photograph, and also when I edit and select photographs for a series I am working on. 

Why is subject matter secondary to this approach? Subject matter does have some bearing on an approach to it. Portrait photography and landscape photography require different approaches, but this is somewhat more technical than a way of seeing when it is scrutinised. There is still the photographer's inner affinities to guide and influence the way the subject is portrayed. Examples in portraiture include August Sander's and Diane Arbus' front-on approach, Arnold Newman's environmental portraits, or Robert Mapplethorpe's classical views of his subjects. Naturally there is a preference for subject matter, but the subject matter is then approached by the photographer's way of seeing. A third influence is the preceding and prevailing culture and history to the medium, such as Stieglitz and the modernists breaking away from the pictorialists. Australia's internationally recognised art photographer Bill Henson is an example of a photographer whose way of seeing covers a range of subject matters from portraiture to landscape to people scenes. Photographers Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kerstez and Ralph Gibson also spring to mind.

The myth of a personal style or a signature look springs from commercialism, not from the art photography canon. Most art photographers were concerned with finding their own voice or way of seeing. It is your way of seeing that is your style, not the technique or props you use. Richard Avendon's choice of photographing his subjects against a white background was indeed a stylistic choice and a personal preference, but I argue that this lack of variation hindered his work being elevated to classic status. 

In terms of my own ways of seeing, I have affinity with the following: 

  • Mood 
  • Tone 
  • Simplicity 
  • Intimate silence 
  • Form 

Your own internal criteria can become your own personal yardstick for editing your work, and also furthering your understanding of why you really admire the work of certain photographers and are less inspired by the work of other photographers. It is the realisation of your way of seeing through the resultant photographs that is the search for satisfaction and quality output. This is very individual, and probably why there will never be an agreement on what is good art and what is not. 

Your own way of seeing can be applied to other creative mediums. In music, I prefer the beauty of carefully selected and unexpected dissonance to briefly punctuate consonance, the elegance of well-timed silence between certain notes, and every now and then ending a piece on a cadence that suspends the listener into silence, without the comfort of a return to the tonic chord. 

The advantage of getting to the essence of your own way of seeing is fourfold: 

1) True creativity, as I have previously written about, is closely linked to self-awareness. Awareness of yourself and your own creativity allows you to stay in the present, at the edge of the unknown, where true creativity lies. 

2) Your own way of seeing can open up your creativity and photography by transcending subject matter. You can photograph different genres within the medium, at the same time practice and develop your own way of seeing through taking photographs. This way you are not limited to subject matter, or the availability of subject matter. Think of it this way: Picasso's individuality in painting, Thelonius Monk's jazz piano playing. 

3) When you reach a creative rut, get tired of taking the same old photographs, or you have outgrown what you set out to do originally (e.g. taking pretty shots of nature), then you can use this approach to develop further. 

4) You can deepen your understanding of photography and yourself, expand your journey and horizons, challenge yourself and your creativity, and potentially mine the riches of your discoveries. 

Each master in each field, at one point in their development, made this decision for themselves. What is your decision?


Darren J Harris 

(copyright 2017 Darren J Harris)

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