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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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When my father first arrived on any scene, he would look in every direction many times and at every detail of the countryside around him. He would bend down and look up at a tree, crouch and look at a flower between two rocks, scramble up on top of a nearby overlooking rock, all in the interest of seeing every angle. He did some of this in his mind and some physically moving around in the area. By the time he settled in and planted his tripod, you knew he had checked all other possibilities and chosen one. There were exceptions to this longer process, such as when he saw one isolated point of interest or when the light was fading or the situation was changing quickly for some other reason. In these instances, he could move with the swiftness and efficiency of a stealth reconnaissance unit and make the image, but most of the time he did a good deal of looking around first.

The meditative state my father adopted coincides with my experience in observing and photographing with Stan Zrnich, who also attended Adams and White's photography program, starting the year my father graduated. He and Zrnich became friends through Ben Chinn, and they photographed together on a number of occasions. Zrnich, in turn, honored me by taking me out photographing. One afternoon in July 2009, Zrnich and I picked up our cameras and went for a walk in downtown San Rafael, California. Zrnich shared the familiar idea of going into a calm, heightened state of awareness with me, as applied to photography, which then explained many of my father's comments and actions in my earlier years. Zrnich's mind space was evident in his tranquil facial expression and demeanor while walking around. He showed me instances where I walked right past something photogenic, mainly because my mind was chattering on about what I thought I was looking for, what I wanted to accomplish that day by photographing and so on. Often, in photography, it's easy to get "stuck in the head" and become too analytical while in the field.

The book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shares the advantages of getting "into the zone," also called the optimal creative state. Being in this state increases effectiveness and quality of thinking, as well as even improving quality of life. Flow describes this creative state:
People typically feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and as if they were performing at the peak of their abilities. Both the sense of time and emotional problems seem to disappear. There is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence, of breaking out of the boundaries of identity.
—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Dad recommended to his many photography students a number of sources to learn more on how to see deeply, including Flow, Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel and Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson. These sources help creative people, through practice, obtain this state anytime on demand. They show how to control it, rather than merely leaving its arrival to chance. Not only did Dad see the graphic qualities of subjects and what they would look like transformed into the two-dimensional plane of the photograph, but he also saw the essence of things and depicted them more effectively. Dad taught that this relaxed mind isn't complex or dependent on ceremony. It can be triggered and enhanced simply through deep breathing and conscious muscle relaxation. The more it's practiced, the easier and more quickly it can be recalled.

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