The Art of Seeing

The photographer, Ansel Adams, used to have his workshop students set up their tripods and large format cameras, frame their image and just when they were ready to click the shutter, have them turn around and photograph what was behind them. What was he up to?

We all develop our habits, our tics, our frames of reference, and over time we tend to rely on these more and more. Last night a friend and I were telling a new acquaintance about the joys of eating popcorn with brewer’s yeast on it. The new guy in town, unfamiliar with some of Santa Cruzan’s culinary habits, said he was kind of a traditional guy––plain popcorn, same flavors of ice cream, and so forth. The idea of brewer’s yeast sprinkled on his popcorn was not at all appealing, although he did say, perhaps under duress, that he would give it a try.

It is important to know and honor our preferences; I return again and again to coffee almond ice dream, and to the landscape of the desert. But as an artist, I want to learn how to pay attention to everything and not let habit narrow my vision, or my possibilities of engaging with the world. Of course one can’t really pay attention to everything; we have to make choices, select out from massive amounts of sensory input, but we can cultivate our skills of perception and of receptivity. We can learn to be open to what is both in front of us and behind us, what is all around us. Ansel Adams was teaching this skill when he had his students turn around at the last moment and bring into focus what they had turned their backs on.

What are you not paying attention to? This might be a practice question for the next month in all of your affairs, be it art-making, writing, cooking, the art of friendship, the art of daily life. Whenever I am stuck now with my work, I ask myself, what am I not paying attention to? This simple question re-directs my intention and my focus, often with surprising results. I once spent over an hour looking for the Yellow Pages in a friend’s house I was vacationing in while she was away (there was no internet service, so I was not able to go on-line to find whatever it was I sought). Frustrated I gave up. The next day, feeling determined, knowing she must have such a thing, I went looking again, and much to my chagrin, found the book lying right where it ought to be, next to the phone––only the Yellow Pages were blue, not yellow––that’s why I had not found them. This is a bit embarrassing to share, but my guess is that you can relate.

So my friends, try it out. What are you not paying attention to? Just notice. You don’t have to change everything. You can still photograph what’s in front of you, but don’t be afraid to turn around and look at what else is there.