Familiar Things

“In order to see, you must first forget the name of the thing you are looking at.”

— Monet

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen leaves in my pool and thought only about the effort it would take to skim them out. I’ve seen them so many times that each one became a familiar label: “leaf in pool”.

APAD-20D-041111-5183 One day, though, while making an effort to see things in a different way, I looked harder at the leaf, and began to See it. 

I saw the colors; the beautiful blue-cyan shades, the aging brown. I saw the shapes; the symmetry of the leaf, the velvet-like signs of surface tension in the water.

And I saw something other than “leaf in pool”. The label was gone, or at least temporarily misplaced.

When we are children, we think primarily in pictures, not in words. But as we learn the analytical skills of an adult, we depend less and less on the part of the brain that encourages visual thinking. This pattern becomes so established the we try to label everything we see. We rule out visual exploration, and concentrate on the data. How many of us, when photographing a bird, are concerned about the species more than the image?

FP-10D-040131-7624 I fell into this rut (“Oh, that’s an ordinary bird”). By doing this, all I saw was a bird.

I didn’t see how the sun from behind gave him a gorgeous rim-lighting, how he cocked his head to look at me with a very obvious curiosity.

If we want to learn to see, we need to learn to learn the recognize the value of the familiar.

How can we do this? This first thing we need to do is slow down.

“This benefit of seeing… can come only if you pause a while, extricate yourself from the maddening mob of quick impressions ceaselessly battering our lives, and look thoughtfully at a quiet image… the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate. ”

— Dorothea Lange

mirrorcandle Try this: Close yourself into the bathroom. Give yourself at least twenty minutes to take ten images. If you aren’t feeling desperation by the tenth image, take ten more.

Force yourself to look at familiar objects in a new way. Look at things you see each and every day, and try to look at them as if you’re seeing them for the first time.

Take what you’ve learned and try it someplace else. Try another room, or your backyard. In my bathroom, I found a candle and two mirrors. A little experimentation, and I came up with this.

Abandon your labels. Learn to See.

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