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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Art Of Vision

Learn to connect with the landscape like the great masters Ansel Adams, Minor White, Philip Hyde and others

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White taught that a contemplative mental attitude when applied to perception caused the objects being perceived to "give up their secrets." He wrote that all artists are by necessity to some extent contemplative. He referred to "innocence of eye" as a means by which the artist can see the true nature of what they intend to show the world.
I invite those to whom these statements seem a compound of cheap psychology and cheaper metaphysics to clear their minds and submit this matter to an experimental test. If they will be patient and honest—and unless they belong to that minority which is temperamentally incapable of the simplest contemplative act—they will emerge from the experiment possessed of a little new knowledge as to the nature of the relation between the human mind and the outer world.
—Minor White
White assigned his photography students an experiment. They were to choose a single object for focused attention: a picture, statue, tree, plant, book or any other single item. They were to practice looking at this one thing, "willfully, yet tranquilly," and tune out all other messages and visual stimuli from any other aspects of the world. "Do not think, but, as it were, pour out your personality towards it," White said. "Almost at once, this new method of perception will reveal unsuspected qualities in the external world. First you will perceive about you a strange and deepening quietness; a slowing down of our feverish mental time. Next you will become aware of a heightened significance, an intensified existence in the things at which you look. As you, with your consciousness, lean out towards it…it seems as though the barrier between its life and your own, between subject and object, had melted away. You are merged with it… Life has spoken to life, but not to the surface intelligence."

The White Dome sandstone formations in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Nature photography should be a contemplative art. In situations where there's a limited color palette, slowing down to notice texture and graphic elements becomes even more important as aspects of a good composition.
White also called the contemplative approach the blank mind. He emphasized that this blank isn't a complete blank, but an active, receptive place of readiness to grab a photograph, but with no preformed image in mind: "To reach such a blank state of mind requires effort, perhaps discipline." In this state of mind, finding photographs changes. We don't have to be reminded to look around or behind; we're already in a heightened awareness of everything in all directions.

Often, photographers today are in a hurry. I'm no exception, though the more I photograph, the more I slow down. Photographers often must get somewhere else, or they're trying to shoot as many frames as they can in a certain amount of time. They may not be "allowing" or "making" photographs, but rather they're blasting away.

My father embraced the contemplative approach because he always was somewhat of a mystic, though White warned his students not to naively assume that what they were doing in this process was equal to the transcendental contemplation of the mystic, even while they were harnessing some of the same natural faculties as a mystic. Also, White emphasized that this perspective applies to the creation of photographs. Once the prints were made, White taught his students to shift into critical analysis.

Caribbean Beach, Isla Mona Near Puerto Rico, US Territory, copyright Philip Hyde 1973.
Fifteen years after Philip Hyde earned his certificate from photography school, I was born. When I was a boy, I remember my father on the lookout for photographs. My mother and I were often quiet in anticipation of the true quiet time, which began as soon as we pulled over and he took out his Zeiss wooden tripod and 4x5 Baby Deardorff view camera or the Hasselblad with a Bogen tripod. He'd say, "David, cut the chatter," or "I can't hear myself think," or "Quiet on the set." While he was composing a photograph, he asked me to be "seen and not heard," something he didn't often ask otherwise.

My father entered a different space mentally while in the act of making photographs. He had done this even before meeting White, especially while out in nature, but White formalized the idea as a method that could be taken further. Dad kept a kind of intentional perimeter around the area he worked. Stepping into that circle was like walking into church: holy, quiet and reverent. This working space was invisible, but quite palpable. In this enabling state of higher awareness, he missed nothing.


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