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The Art of Seeing

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | March 29, 2014

“The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but has no vision.”
Helen Keller

I love photography. Most of my friends and all of my family know that because sooner or later I will probably ask them to pose for a picture. You can imagine my joy, then, when I came across Chris Orwig’s “Visual Poetry; A Creative Guide for Making Engaging Digital Photographs” (2009). 

Sure, I learned some photography tips from Orwig but I learned more about the art of seeing. Years ago someone told me that the most important lens for photography is “this one,” as they pointed to their eye. Careful seeing always comes before good photography.

Weston said, “Art is an end in itself, technique a means to that end; one can be taught, the other cannot.” For him technique served a higher purpose. Orwig has these suggestions to help us learn how to see.

Observe. Poets live in the same world as the rest of us. But they keep observing language and reality and by that observation they create something the ordinary person missed. “Learning to see,” Orwig said, “requires that we follow the poet’s path. It is the poet who reminds me that it’s not what we see but how we see it.” One of the ancient leadership roles was described as a “Seer” for the person who had a heightened capacity to see what others could not.

A. A. Milne said, “Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.”

Listen. The photographs of world renowned photographer, John Sexton, had a profound impact on Orwig so Orwig asked him how he created such powerful images. Sexton said, “I listen to the trees.” 

How easy it is to half-listen. More than once I have found my mind wandering during a conversation. That lack of attentive listening causes me to miss most of what is being said. We can do the same with photography.

Orwig suggests, “If you want to make pictures that stop people in their tracks, become friends with silence and solitude and bring them with you wherever you go.”

Mindful. I usually know which way is north. Rarely do I need a compass. I think my mindfulness for direction came from my early years on the farm. Most of our routines were tied to sun up and sundown and all of the increments between.

Learning to see requires the same type of attention. I remember hearing about a tourist who reached the summit of a beautiful Swiss alpine mountain only to blurt out, “I heard there was a great view up here. Can someone tell me where it is?”

Every place has beautiful light, colors, shades, depth and perspectives but not everyone sees them.

Nuance. “If you want to create more compelling photographs, you need to look deeper,” Orwig encourages. “The first view and the first click of the shutter is often too obvious. … In learning to see, nuance is key.”

Carry. I always carry my camera with me and because I do, I am always subtly looking. The other day I passed a huge pot of unusual cactus. I stopped and looked. I took out my camera. I looked some more. For a minute I was transfixed by the beauty of what I saw.

Kim Clark said, “The best camera is always the one you have with you.” And the best way for me to see is to look through my camera as I am about to take the picture.

Filter. At first I thought Orwig was referring to a camera filter but I soon learned he was describing our capacity to eliminate clutter from our perspective. Albert Einstein said, “Out of clutter find simplicity; from discord, find harmony; in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

No wonder Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, Pa. 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu 
Official page: Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer
Follow on Twitter: @DrDonMeyer
Archives at www.vfcc.edu/thinkaboutit