Zen Camera 3

Zen Stones

Show – Don’t Tell!

It is difficult to discuss visual communication, because, as Ulrich points out, we are never taught how to ‘see’ – how to understand ‘seeing’ and share our ‘seeing’. We learn, we are taught how to talk. As we grow from infancy we are taught grammar – how our language is constructed. We learn to read, which opens the world of other people’s minds, ideas and thoughts. And we learn to write, which offers us ways to communicate our own thoughts and ideas in our own words. Learning to communicate verbally is a long, intricate and highly valued part of everyone’s upbringing.

Why, then, is so little time, care and attention paid to learning to SEE?
It is a puzzle that does indeed puzzle me!
We are taught that seeing is somehow so simple that nothing needs to be taught at all. We are expected to be able to interpret the world we see all around us without any equivalent to the verbal array of tools and skills we are given. Is seeing really that simple? The answer is a resounding NO. There is so much that is communicated to us visually, if we can learn to see! Colour, shape, texture, light … all can communicate as strongly and clearly as words. By the time we leave school we all have a quite sophisticated grasp of our verbal language and how to use it in many nuanced ways – but the sum total of our visual language might be to render a faithful copy of an object that is set before us. How many of us still resort to drawing childish stick figures? We admit that we simply ‘know what we like’ in a picture, but can’t understand why we like it or what it ‘says’ to us, and how it ‘speaks’ to us. The very fact that we have to talk about seeing in terms that describe verbal communication speaks volumes about the gaping chasm that exists in our visual education!

And the good news is …..

It might seem a daunting task to start learning to see as an adult – it means unpicking a lifetime of habits, and beginning again as if you are a toddler! It starts to make sense of Picasso with his “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child” – it is a process that every artist has to go through. To capture that magical sense of seeing with fresh eyes! It makes sense of Dorothea Lange’s quote “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera” – and and the poet Theodore Roethke “I wish I could find an event that means as much as simple seeing”.
But the good news is that with a camera in hand to aid you, you can learn all those lessons that were never in the school curriculum. That’s what Zen Camera is about, and why I like it so much!

Look! Look deeply and long.

I was ill for a long while in my early 40s, and decided to spend my bed-bound time learning to draw. I tried to draw my hand, my foot, my shoe – it was a place to start ;o)
The strangest thing happened. The more I looked at my hand the more alien it seemed. As I went on looking and trying to draw it, it morphed into shapes and patterns, light and dark. I started drawing the shapes, just as I saw them (I could make a fool of myself, no-one else was going to see it!) And slowly the hand emerged on the paper. It took several tries, but I ended up with a recognisable hand with the right proportions too. I had been so immersed in studying the hand I started to see it as I had never seen it before.

A small figurine of a fighting Shaolin monk
A small figurine of a fighting Shaolin monk – and my Kimon Nicolaïdes freehand sketch

Kimon Nicolaïdes had the same process when he had his students draw an object without ever looking at the paper. Look intently at the object before you, and feel the contours of it with your eyes and draw what you SEE – as I did in the sketch above. In photography a similar exercise is to ‘shoot from the hip’ – not literally, but without using a view-finder or the LCD screen – shoot blind what you see in front of you. You and your camera together can both unlearn and re-learn the magic of seeing.

But that is stepping into the world of adult artistic training. If we all went to art school we would begin to make up the lost ground that our general childhood education (both home and school) didn’t give us. What about the other 99% of the population? Well, we didn’t stop learning to interpret the world visually – but what we learned and how we learned was entirely down to the society we lived in, and the individual childhood experiences we had. Recent generations have been brought up from the earliest age with brightly coloured children’s books, comics, TV and cinema as major visual influences. For my generation the influences were almost exclusively in black and white – book illustrations, comics, TV and cinema (if available) were colour-free zones. These changes must be reflected in the adults of today, where even clothes pegs are brightly coloured plastic ;o)

I may be misguided, but looking at the current output of the film industry I see a strong influence of childhood comic books. The simplistic characterisation, the graphic style, the simplified block colours of the comics seem to be reflected in Hollywood output in both plot and visual style. In Japan, with a long tradition of ‘graphic novels’ we see the Manga film style. We are all showing the effects of the visual input of our childhood. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it is to be expected! But there is no educational input to extend, broaden and deepen our visual education – something which we do with language and literature. Where is the equivalent of learning poetry, and studying the classics such as Shakespeare? We are left with the bare bones of our childhood visual experiences, and nothing to build on it.

So, let us begin the basics of a visual education! That is the next step in our journey ….
On to Back to basics 1
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