In 1851, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” Thoreau was a writer and philosopher, not a photographer. In fact, he penned those words when photography was in its infancy. And yet his quote is as relevant to making compelling photographs as it is to understanding the world around us. Heck—I would argue that understanding the world around us is the key to making compelling photographs.
In 1857, five years before his death, Thoreau made this journal entry: “Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray, i.e. we are not looking for it. So, in the largest sense, we find only the world we look for.” Pow! How many times have I set out to photograph a specific subject and missed better opportunities? More than I’ll ever know.
The year 2017 marks what would’ve been Thoreau’s 200th birthday. If he were alive today, I like to imagine him being a sought-after photography workshop leader. But how can a philosopher teach photography? By teaching us to see. To go beyond what our senses perceive and open our minds to possibilities we aren’t expecting. To move us beyond our comfort zones and preconceived ideas of what an image “should” be. I can envision an exercise where participants sit quietly next to Thoreau’s Walden Pond, look at the scene before them, and describe what they see. Thoreau would encourage them to dig deep until their descriptions went from “pond” to “serenity,” or “forest” to “comfort.” And only then would cameras be allowed out of their bags.
In our rush to capture fleeting light and moments, it’s easy to just look, compose and shoot. “Seeing” requires that we slow down and shift into a different headspace. The brain resists being rearranged, and the body resents the energy required to do so. Push them anyway.
Case in point: I arrived at dusk in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley in late September. My intention was to rise early the next day and photograph the autumn colors of the area’s signature aspen trees. It’s difficult to time a short trip to coincide with the peak leaf colors, but in the dim light I could make out that my timing was ideal for what I sought. I went to sleep with visions of spectacular fall images dancing in my head. I awoke the next morning before dawn. I peered out the window, and, to my dismay, 4 inches of fresh snow blanketed the ground. So much for good intentions.
It would’ve been easy to roll over and go back to sleep, but I headed out anyway. Everywhere I looked all I could see was snow on trees, ruining my preconceived idea of what a fall photograph should be. Discouraged, I gave up the idea of photographing and decided to just take a walk in the crisp mountain air. The more I walked, the more I relaxed. My mind opened. The question is not what you look at, but what you see. Sure enough, Thoreau was right. Before me was a gorgeous fall scene. The dry snow had sloughed off the broad golden aspen leaves while sticking to the green needles of the surrounding conifer trees. I wasn’t just looking at a forest; I was seeing a graceful transition from fall to winter.