Visualisation is a muscle

Yesterday I met up with a friend who has not had a lot of time lately to make photographs. He was telling me how he often finds he needs a 'warm-up period' each time he goes out with his camera. It's certainly not a unique problem as I've often heard clients on my workshops tell me it takes them a day or two to get into the mode of 'seeing'.

Here be a dragon. Except that I didn't 'see' it myself. I was on a photographic-tour of Iceland and one of my participants - Stephen Scott told me he liked the ice because it reminded him of a dragon. I'll admit - I was tired and I wasn't feeling it until he pointed out to me how special this piece of ice was. My visual-muscle was taking a break but Stephen's wasn't.

Here be a dragon. Except that I didn't 'see' it myself. I was on a photographic-tour of Iceland and one of my participants - Stephen Scott told me he liked the ice because it reminded him of a dragon. I'll admit - I was tired and I wasn't feeling it until he pointed out to me how special this piece of ice was. My visual-muscle was taking a break but Stephen's wasn't.

 

On some of my workshops we've discussed this to varying degrees. I've often said to my participants that I don't have that 'warm up period' unless I'm very tired or maybe suffering from overdoing things ( too much of a good thing can leave you lacking enthusiasm and once that goes, you don't see anything worth shooting). 

Now some of my participants have said that the reason why I don't have that 'warm up period' is because I'm doing photography all the time. I can see their point of view, but for me I think it's always been an innate thing. I've been drawing and painting from a very early age and being an arty kid, I think composition, light, colour, tone were instilled in me from an early age. Even when I worked in IT for 14 years, I only ever made photographs when I took my holiday time and went traveling, and holiday time at work dictated that I got a maximum of six weeks a year. I'll often leave my cameras in their bags for months on end with no desire to make photographs, but once I'm on my travels, I'm making photographs right away and I've never suffered from a period of feeling that it takes me a while to warm up.

So I've been thinking about this for a while and wondering why it is that some of us need a day or two to get into the photography mode of 'seeing', and why some of us don't and I've come up with some ideas about how we use our vision most of the time.

Let's consider a commute. Each day you do the same trip in your car to your office. Each day you see the same things because everything repeats and repeats and repeats. I think you'd go mad if you noticed the same things each day and I believe that what our brains do is 'filter out' what we don't need to know. Rather than process the same visual images time and time again, we 'skip over' the stuff we are familiar with. We do this also with our homes. Each time I walk into my sitting room and nothing has changed, I don't notice the objects, but if someone comes in and moves something around - it's the first thing I notice.

This suggests that I build up a visual map of surroundings that are familiar to me. Just as you know you've taken a turn into a street you didn't expect to arrive at, but know it is familiar to you, your brain is basically mapping it to a known visual imprint.

So consider that most of the time, we are going around 'filtering things out'. We are now effectively walking around ignoring things.

Do this for 20, 30, 40+ years and we're now going to find it very hard indeed to 'see' each time we pick up a camera after an extended break away from it. Since our normal mode of operation is to 'filter things out',  the act of photography is to do the opposite - to notice the smallest details, to take delight in the shade or texture of objects within the frame. I think this is why many of us are attracted to photography in the first place - because it gives us permission to spend time just 'looking'. It's not something we do on its own.

For those that have been involved in the visual arts for a long time, I think this is an innate activity. 

I remember reading once that one way to get yourself tuned up for 'seeing' is to imagine you have a camera with you all the time. Each time you see something interesting in your day to day activities, blink and imagine that the blink is you taking a photograph. I've sometimes done this and it's great because I've noticed I start to anticipate things coming together. 

Visualisation is like a muscle. For some of us if you don't use it, you lose it. Each time we put our camera away and go back to our normal daily lives, we give ourselves permission to stop 'seeing'. We are in the habit of compartmentalising our life: if i have a camera in my hand - I am now 'seeing' and if I don't, I am no longer seeing.

If we consider that there are photographs around us all the time - regardless of whether we have a camera with us, - it's still great to watch these visual-photographs unfold before us. It's also great practice for the times ahead when we do go out to make photographs.