Thinking versus Seeing ... A Review of The Photographer's Mind ... A Return to The Practice of Contemplative Photography for the Antidote
There are two ways to approach the mental side of photography. One way is cognitive. Analyze what's in a "good" picture (after defining "good"). Then make it habitual to make your own pictures better. Create a mental check list of these qualities and practice it with enough frequency that it becomes automatic. Compositition is important. So are lighting, texture, color, depth of field, contrast, perspective, balance, cropping, and dynamic energy. Learning how to use the equipment correctly and efficiently is essential. So too is it necessary to keep in mind how the picture will be adjusted in post-capture processing. This list is just a start. It is almost endless. From this point of view there is so much going on at once in the photographer's mind it's surprising that the brain doesn't explode or just shut down.
Don't despair. People are trying to help.
Michael Freeman gave us an organized way to approach composition in photography with his book The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos. There is a review of this book in a previous post. I offered a positive reaction to it and welcomed it to a small but growing list of competently written and instructively useful books on the subject. In it, Freeman attempted and succeeded in presenting a taxonomy of compositional considerations that affect the way we visually interact with photographs. He must have left some things out of this book, however, because he recently produced a sequel titled The Photographer's Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos.
I had expected some discussion by Freeman about seeing versus thinking, at least in the introduction to the book, since this is so obviously a companion volume. This book was more than I bargained for and less than I expected. Allow me to expain. Freeman is a master photographer from whom one can learn much by simply studying the photographs that populate his books. He also is a methodic analyst of the elements that make photographs work for the viewer. But the amount of conceptual information in this book was overwhelming to me. And, as a sequel, it leaves some questions unaddressed. Freeman never spells out the difference between "mind" and "eye" . How does thinking differ from seeing when taking pictures? Aren't composition and design cognitive activities? Can one compile a list of creative photographic thoughts? In an artistic creative process, can one clearly differentiate between seeing and thinking at all? Does thinking slow down creativity, or accelerate it? Is there such a thing as creative seeing, and how does that differ from creative thinking? Maybe I expected too much from a book that has the words mind, creative, and thinking in its title. And possibly my expectations were too high because I was on a rebound from The Photographer's Eye, which I loved.
So, Freeman's cognitive approach to photography might create more clutter in the mind than it clears up. But there is an antidote. It's the second way to deal with the mental side of photography. Andy Karr and Michael Wood spell it out in The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes. I've reviewed this book in a previous post and won't repeat what I've already said. But to add something new, let me simply say that Karr and Wood are concerned about showing an alternative way to creativity without wholesale rejection of the useful analytical insights that people like Freeman write about. The point Karr and Wood make is that the way we experience the world strongly affects the artistic result. As they put it, "... concepts can also blind you to what is vivid and real. If you can't distinguish conceiving from perceiving, you might be looking at the map instead of the road [p. 38]." The kind of atlas that Freeman gives us is of great value as we plan our trip, and as we review the miles we travelled after the trip, but it's not the journey itself. The journey for the photographer has to do with the way we encounter the world we photograph. And the less clutter we bring to that encounter the clearer and cleaner will be our vision when we are eye-to-eye with it.
Freeman's book is a valuable tool to use before and after the trip, but while we are in our journey the approach of Karr and Wood has the most to offer us. Being there is always better than talking about it. We have to get our head out of the map to truly enjoy the trip.