Musings on Photography

Paying Attention

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on February 24, 2007


You can observe a lot just by watchin’.

-Yogi Berra

One of the things I like about photography as a pastime is that it’s an excellent way for me to ensure that I’m actually paying attention, not just when I’m behind the camera, but the rest of the time as well.  It seems I’m constantly looking at things and thinking about them in photographic terms, and as a result, I observe a lot of things which apparently go unnoticed by lots of other folks, even folks you’d think would be paying attention.

For instance, we were once asked by a local theater to donate some trees, for use as part of a set.  The set designer had asked for Birch trees, about 20 feet high.  And, although I can no longer remember the exact dimension he wanted, he specified a diameter at the base which was preposterously large – something like 8 inches.  It seemed to me at the time that the designer, who you would think was fairly concerned with how things around him looked, had never actually really looked at a Birch tree.  He had this mental model of a birch tree, and it was entirely unlike birch trees in the real world.

In a similar vein, I was once teaching a workshop on the coast, and the group was on the beach just before sunset.  I’d told everyone what time the sun would actually set, and people were moving around on the beach, getting in position for their ‘sun hits the horizon’ exposures.  One of the students asked where the sun would end up, and I looked at my watch, told her sunset was in 10 minutes, and started to explain that the sun moved 360 degrees in 24 hours, or one degree every 4 minutes, how she could measure angles approximately by holding her thumb at arm’s length.  Then she explained that theory was all very nice, but what she wanted to know was which direction the sun would move.

To say I was stunned would be hopelessly inadequate.  I immediately explained that, in the northern hemisphere, if you faced the sun, it was always moving toward your right.  Problem solved.

But I was left puzzled – how could anyone actually live in the northern hemisphere and not make the very obvious observation that the sun rises in the east, crosses the southern sky, and ends up in the west, and that this means that when you face the sun, it’s always moving to your right?  I thought this event was an aberration, but then about two years later, I saw a play which was set in northern hemisphere, and the set design included a video animation which depicted the sun (and moon) as traversing the sky from right to left. 

So I’ve concluded that lots of people live lives so disconnected from the physical world that surrounds them that they’re unaware of how the real world actually works.  And photography (and here I’m particularly thinking of landscape photography of all stripes) gets you out into the world, and as a result of dealing with the mundane practical problems you  learn some fundamental things about how the world around you actually works.  Just the simple task of thinking “If I wait a couple of hours, where will that shadow fall?” will teach you pretty quickly which way the sun moves, what its arc across the sky is like.  And photographing for a year will teach you about how the height of the sun’s arc changes across the seasons.

The implication here is, once again, that in many ways it’s the art process that’s important – that we’re improved and more engaged with the world when we regularly engage in artmaking.  Or, to shamelessly steal (and amend) a turn of phrase from William Penn, true Art does not turn men out of this world but enables them to live better in it.

5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Billie said, on February 24, 2007 at 11:20 am

    There is so much to see, I think that artist have an advantage of being able to put a “frame” around pieces of the world and really SEE it. It makes things orderly, even if they are not, and it keeps us grounded and connected. My life is much richer because I see with a photographer’s eye.

  2. Kjell said, on February 25, 2007 at 2:56 am

    The good ting about the fact that a lot of people don’t actually see the world around them, is that as a landscape photographer, you can surprise your viewers with the most obvious things. Well, at least it is obvious to the few who really pays attention to the world around them.

  3. Bryan Willman said, on February 25, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    One part of it is that people are indeed very disconnected from the physical world (cars, houses, electric lights) and so most of the time *it does not matter* that they don’t know how it works.

    Further, they not only don’t observe it’s behavoir, many people don’t seem to grasp the underlying structures. So they expect the sun to move left-to-right in the southern hemisphere as well….

    There have been times when lots of landscape photography was about exotic places. It more and more seems it will be about “exotic” places and conditions, like “outside the house” or “the world before 8am when my alarm goes off”.

  4. Julie O'Donnell said, on February 27, 2007 at 5:11 am

    I love it when I nearly shout “Yes!!!” out loud when I’m reading your blog, because something just resonates so well with what I’ve thought for a while and haven’t been able to put into words. Photography in general is a fabulous thing that makes us pay more attention to the world around us – even without a camera in hand.

    More recently though, I’ve also been getting so many comments from my friends I go out shooting with about how I notice the details of everything, while they are there with their wide angle lenses I’m wandering round with the 50mm on the digital body making it more like an 80mm, perfect for finding those little bits that nobody else notices.

    Anyway, just saying thanks, again, for the inspirational read. Yourself, Colin Jago and George Barr stop my brain turning to mush at the office every day…

  5. […] By Kjell Harald Categories: art and photography Today, Paul Butzi wrote this post about paying attention. I couldn’t agree more. Paying attention to the world around you is one of the things that […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: