Forget What it Is, What Does it Look Like?
There's an old pastime of lying on your back on a grassy hill, watching the clouds drift by and seeing their shapes as anything but mere clouds. Great things can happen if we approach photography with this same imaginative spirit?
In or normal day-to-day life, we usually see other things as distinct, specific other things. That is to say, when we see a can opener we recognize it as such. In a parking lot, we understand that those big lumps sitting in regular rows with lines between them are cars not just big lumps. Indeed, we can pick out our car from amongst all the others. We do this for everything, immediately labeling and categorizing it before we even know we are doing it. We don't see each other and as amorphous blobs. We recognize people as people and specific people as specific friends, coworkers and acquaintances.
It's an evolutionary thing. In the dangerous world of our early ancestors we needed to know what could serve as a wholesome, delicious meal, and what might instead see us as being good to eat. The more quickly they separate friend from foe the longer they might expect to survive. Identifying and categorizing things long ago became automatic and instinctual. This process serves as a foundation for language too. It's hard to carry on a conversation without a framework for what to call things. Our brains are hardwired to perform this process.
Clouds are among a small set of things that defy our efforts to do this. A cloud doesn't really have any definite shape. It drifts and changes. When you look up at the sky and watch the leisurely transformation of passing clouds, they change shape as they go, sometimes merging together and sometimes breaking apart again. As you watch them, this age old process in your brains of labeling and categorizing is busy working to put a name to what those shapes look like. If you relax and allow it, this process of attempting to make sense out of the ever changing cloud shapes does its thing automatically. Look, it's a rabbit, now it's a slice of peperoni pizza with a bite out of it — whatever. It's a free association thing.
The situation is a bit different when we're out on a photography trip with a camera in hand. Our mindset tends to be different. Just like our early hunter-gatherer ancestors, we're looking to identify and categorize what we encounter. We're busy looking for photo subjects and don't want to miss any good opportunities. This sort of quest for good images a common trait of photographers, building on the groundwork of our instinctual desire to figure out what things are. Most of us generally aren't even aware of this process or if we are, we actually trying hard to do the best job of it we can. We want to find things and take their picture.
But instead of trying to figure out what things are, suppose we try to see what they look like. When lying on a hill watching the clouds go by, we know what we're seeing are clouds, but we allow a mental shift to happen and imagine what their evolving shapes remind us of. What if we did the same thing when on a photography outing? What if we allow that same mental shift to happen? Never mind what is actually there in front of you, what does it remind you of?
Barring an encounter with a grizzly bear or something like that, you're not apt to get eaten by a wild animal on a hike with your camera. You can relax, safe in the knowledge that a grizzly will get your attention no matter what. And you don't need to find your next meal in the wild or risk starving to death. If you didn't pack and carry your lunch with you, it's probably there waiting for you when you get back to your car or the next town down the road. Try to put yourself in the same frame of mind as you were the last time you took time out to relax and what the shapes of clouds drift across the sky.
One common way to approach this shift is to look at the world around you as being composed of simple graphic shapes rather than discreet real world objects. Forgetting what things actually are, see them merely as triangles, rectangles and circles, or perhaps just as a series of lines both straight and curved. I learned this from noted nature photographer John Shaw, a technique he aptly dubbed as "Photo Graphics." That mountain is just a triangle. That grouping of flowers forms a circle. And yes, that cloud formation is a square.
But it doesn't have to stop there. Just like watching those clouds, the forms of nature can remind you of much more than just graphic shapes. That sunflower reaching for the skies could remind you of the sun itself. That pile of rocks may look like it has arms, legs and a head — if you look at it just right. That tree may look like a flower. That flower may appear to be like a tree. Who knows? Perhaps the pattern of bushes on that hillside reminds you of a cloud formation. No need to be literal in what something reminds you of either. Perhaps it's more of a feeling that a thing.
Close-up photography can serve as an excellent opportunity to explore this type of abstract seeing. By getting close to your subject with a macro lens you leave behind your usual way of looking at a particular thing and can thereby freely explore what its component parts may remind you of. The curve of individual flower petals can be just a rich to investigate as those clouds passing overhead. Move your camera just a bit and you can change your view completely. The possibilities are endless. But the same thing is possible as you explore the pebbles on a beach or the weeds in a gravel pit. In fact, it can actually be advantageous to go somewhere that lacks the subjects you normally photograph to explore your surroundings with fresh eyes.
When you are fortunate enough to notice this sort of thing, it can be worth it to explore the photographic possibilities even further. Move to position your tripod in a way to optimize that illusion. Go out of your way to accentuate what it looks like and forget about what it actually is. Make that your subject.
Forget what your subject actually is. What does it look like?