Updated: Feb 3, 2021
What does it mean to know something? When I read a non-fiction book, for example, my mind generally understands the information in a fairly straightforward way, and I can reflect on it in a fairly logical or linear way. But when I read or write a poem, it feels that I'm letting my mind, heart, imagination, and spirit collaborate to do the reading or writing. It's the same with photography, except I'm letting the imagination and spirit do the "seeing" for me even as my mind helps me get the technical part right. It's relatively easy to make a documentary (non-fiction?) photo of a car so that I can sell it on Craigslist for example, but who wants to look at it? It's another thing to start exploring a car's many shapes, colors, reflections, shadows, and other right-brain elements. How about getting down to ground level and taking a closeup of a tire meeting the pavement, with the various indentations in the asphalt and tire? Or looking at the water droplets on the door of your shower, or the shadow of a shoe in late afternoon sunlight?
And what about gardens? Most often we think of taking a picture of a shoe or flower at its peak of beauty, or a whole tree at the peak of autumn colors. These can be very nice of course, but are we really seeing the world in a deeper way? Are we taking photos that everyone else takes, and seeing what everyone sees? Are we seeing the tree's shapes, textures, colors, and how it holds light? Or are we just taking a snapshot of a thing? What about the worn tips of shoes, for example? Aren't they more interesting than new ones? We really see the shoe.
One might argue that just seeing things in a snap-shot sort of way is the verbal equivalent of blasphemy - something we use for our own purposes, but don't see as an element of the Creation - just a this and a that rather than its light or beauty or spirit.
One way to go deeper into seeing is to not think about the names of things. In this photo, for example, the mind could say, "Oh, there's some dead grasses. Who wants to look at photos of dead grasses?" On the other hand, we could let the eyes explore more basic things: curves, lines, movement, light, depth of field (how much of the photo is in focus), shadows, and so on.
In this photo, I was fortunate to have a "real" camera with me, meaning one with a lens that has adjustable aperture settings (f-stops) that go from wide-open, which lets all the possible light in, to very small, which severely reduces the light. The value of a small f-stop creates a deep depth of field, meaning that almost everything in your photo will be in focus. An iPhone has an always-wide-open aperture, so all your photos will be in focus from near to far. A lens with a large f-stop, on the other hand, can create more artistic possibilities by allowing for a narrow depth of field, which creates an image with only a narrow range of focus. That's what this image has - sharp grasses in front, blurred ones it back.
This "real" camera made it possible to make the dead grasses close to me become more prominent, which emphasized their beautiful curled leaves against the soft-focus background. As a result, when I look at this image, I am drawn to the curls and light of the dead grasses, their beautiful shape highlighted by their contrast to the still-green grasses behind them.
My intuition as a photographer is to always look for what is "alive" in an image, even if it's a dead leaf. Then I play with the camera to see how I can best allow the light and gesture of the dead leave to "come alive," so to speak.
When I look at this image on my computer, I keep noticing how these curls keep drawing my eye to the tiny, sharply-focused tips of two strands of dry grass near the center of the image. They seem "alive" in some sense. Then my eyes roam around the rest of the image for a few moments, and then find themselves back at the two tiny curls near the center once again.
There's a miracle here.