A reflection on ways of seeing.

I just had my first black and white film developed in over 20 years (Ilford HP5+, in case you are interested, shot on a Leica CL with a Summicron-C 40mm f/2 lens…). I received an email with a link to the scans (now that’s different to 20+ years ago, let me tell you!), dutifully downloaded the folder, and then set about reviewing all of the shots.

On the whole, I was very pleased. This shot was one of the first that caught my eye.

I sent this shot to Sharon, exclaiming my excitement at what I saw. Later in the day, when we met in the city after work, Sharon asked me to more fully articulate what it was that I saw, and why I found it exciting. And that got me to thinking… there are so many ways to see an image. So I thought I’d share my process of seeing this image with you – I saw it for the very first time just 8 hours ago, so I still recall the moment quite clearly.

FIRST, I see the image from a technical perspective. I look at the range of tones – and I immediately appreciate the rich range of greys here – there’s a warmth and tonality in the transitions – they seem smooth, analogue, not ‘stepped’ or abrupt. They blend into each other. This is clearest for me in the bright triangle directly above the man’s head – there’s still depth in the brightest point. And then I notice the shadows – melting to black, but still retaining just a suggestion of shape and texture. If you’re familiar with the Zone system, you might appreciate the range of zones present in the shot. I also appreciate the grain – it’s subtly different from digital noise – and just adds a touch of depth to the image.

SECOND, I see the compositional elements of the image. I guess this is still technical, but it’s perhaps moving towards something more narrative in nature too? I like the way there are so many diagonals in the shot, and the way they all seem to converge on the man. I have (of course) edited the shot, to crop out a metal grate that was at the front of the frame, which led my eye away from the man. All of the other elements channel my eye straight to him.

THIRD, I see the narrative. I wonder why the man is walking in such a purposeful way, into what is apparently a dead end. This then draws my mind to the only other ‘clue’ in the frame – the car. Is it his car? Is he meeting someone? He seems small, insignificant next to the architecture around him, dwarfed and yet still I’m drawn to him. This gives me a sense of mystery, a question that I want to answer. In other words, this creates gaps. My mind loves gaps – it fills them in with all sorts of stories, relationships, conversations, meetings, and so on. (In reality, there is an entrance to a car park on the left – he disappeared just moments after this shot!)

FOURTH, I appreciate what it took for me to actually ‘get’ the shot. Perhaps this is a return to the technical? I recall the scenario well (it was only this week after all) – I was shooting with a fully manual camera, with no light meter. So I metered the light in this little laneway before I even saw the man – anticipating that someone would walk past. I was just dialing in the settings on my camera when I saw the man walk past. I waited for him to pass, pre-focused on the spot where I wanted him in the frame, and then pressed the shutter. This all took maybe two to three seconds. I’m not suggesting anything that I did here was extraordinary “Ooh how clever am I as an old-school street photographer??” – more that I’m still a little amazed that with all of those points of potential error, I still managed to produce this shot. I saw it in my head, and was able to leverage my knowledge of light and the functions of my camera (not to mention a substantial chunk of luck) to move it from my head to a 35mm piece of plastic and silver. One nice aspect of film is it does somewhat dampen the effect of this particular way of seeing the image, as the process of finishing a roll and then waiting to get it developed (and scanned) means there’s a delay of some time between capture and review. Shooting digital (which I fully intend to continue doing) bridges this gap, and sometimes I find myself really pursuing an image beyond the point at which I’d normally discard it as lacking in interest or indeed against any of the first three ‘lenses’ described here, just because I know how I worked to get the shot in the first place. So I try to keep this particular way of seeing until the end, as it is the least reliable measure of an image if the intention is to share it with others (who will have little understanding, and potentially even less interest, in how fast you had to run, or how many minutes/hours/days you had to wait, to capture that man walking mysteriously towards a dead end laneway). Sometimes though, like here, it’s the icing on the cake for me.

So, that was my process – all of which took a couple of seconds as I flicked through the shots. I’d be interested to know your process, either for this image or indeed one of your own… what happens for you, when you see an image for the first time? What ‘lenses’ do you apply, to help you make a judgement about it? Is it the story that draws you in, or the technical qualities? Maybe it’s different for different shots – in any case, I’d love to hear from you…


5 thoughts on “339.

  1. It’s great to read about your process and thoughts. One has to find a balance between one’s own excitement and what pleases others, at least to a degree. Like you say in the fourth part, no one else is going to know, or likely care what it took to make the shot – except in cases like extreme “adventure” photos where it’s obvious that the photographer had to go through hell to get the image – but that doesn’t appeal to me. There’s a photo of a group of trees in my current post. I’ve seen them many times because I go to that place often. I decided to switch to the in camera art filter that emphasizes fine contrast and linearity, because that’s what I saw in the winter landscape. I could have set a really small aperture and played with processing for a similar effect, but it wouldn’t have had the same look. I don’t normally use those art filters but sometimes they’re nice.
    Then there’s a completely blurred photo that happened because the camera searched for focus and I realized there was beauty in the wash of color itself, so I pressed the shutter then. For me it’s not typically the story, it’s the arrangement of objects, light, colors and tones. When I slow down enough to think at all, I will try to tease out what I like about the scene and how to emphasize that aspect with the camera.

    The photograph above impacts me mainly on an emotional level – there’s a lot bearing down on that guy! I agree that the gaps your mind fills in with shots like this are important. I tend to notice technical aspects either when I’m irritated that someone missed something and could have made the shot much better (doesn’t happen with your photos) or if the image sort of screams out technical accomplishment. John Todaro’s work comes to mind – the technique is usually flawless, but luckily, it doesn’t overwhelm the feeling of the image for me. An example:

    1. Really appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts Lyn (as always!)… it’s a useful reminder that there are always other ways of seeing – after writing this post, I was discussing it with my wife (who is also a photographer – https://sharonpittaway.com ) and reflecting on the fact that my reaction to my own images is almost never an emotional one – I simply don’t see it. However, I’m pleased to know that this doesn’t preclude others from responding through an emotional lens! I’m checking out John Todaro’s site now – thank you for sharing the link.

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