Receptive & Observant

In Without The Frame by David14 Comments

 There’s something magic about the light in Italy, even at it’s highest and hottest it seems beautiful and the shadows it creates seem to have a life of their own, like Peter Pan’s shadow, which is what I thought about when I made this, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I was in Italy again for a workshop of sorts, bringing clients to some of my favourite places in the world and introducing them to the magic. This particular town holds more magic than most for me, it was here a couple years previous that I fell in love, not only with the place but with the woman who now shares my life. We’d wandered these same streets together, our vision of the place a little distracted at the time, but now heightened for those memories, and seeing wonder around every corner. I tell you that because it plays into my frame of mind at the time, and frame of mind is everything.

We talk so often about having a photographer’s eye, which is, of course, total nonsense. We see with the mind. We experience, and perceive, and interpret what our eyes see. It’s why two photographers standing side by side will often create two wildly different photographs. Their eyes see the same thing, but their minds, do wildly different things with the input. It is not our eye that gets inspired, or distracted, but our mind. Speaking of distraction, I had been photographing here for a couple hours, stopping now and then for a glass of wine and some olives, allowing the world to pass me by, raising my camera to my eye now and then, when I saw some of my students walk past. I kept quiet, waved my hand, they kept walking, didn’t see me. I made a note to remind them that the job of the photographer is not to make photographs, but to observe. And then I got up and walked around the corner, and saw this great scene – an open door, a blue bike, a fantastic shaft of light. As I was watching a kid ran down the steps and I noticed the shadow, pulled the camera to my eye and completely missed the moment. It happens. But when I find a great stage I will often wait a very long time for the right characters to grace it. And so I waited, photographing kids, mothers, couples holding hands, sometimes with my camera, sometimes with just my eyes.

At a point my wandering students, the ones I’d made a note to remind about being observant, came and stood with me. I explained what I liked about this scene, and what I was hoping for. The open door, the blue bike, the shaft of light into which I was hoping a moment would come. “I love the tree sticking out of the wall,” said one. Tree sticking out of the wall? What was she going on about? And then I saw it. Right in front of me. A tree. Sticking out of the wall I’d been staring at for fifteen or twenty minutes. I decided now was not the time for a lecture about how to be observant. Perhaps I’m more of a “do as I say, not as I do” teacher, anyways.

For all the talking I do about being present and observant, being receptive, I’m as easily distracted as the next person. And more so when I’m looking for something in particular. Looking can get in the way of seeing. I’m not suggesting there’s no place for the looking, I think there is. But I think we need to do the one without sabotaging the other. That’s the struggle. When we look so hard for one thing, our expectations and hopes for what will be can blind us to what is.

My students walked on, clearly impressed by how observant I could be, and I remained. Waiting. A little more receptive than I’d been minutes ago. I slowed down, took a few deep breaths, let my eyes relax. And then he walked around the corner, hopping down the stairs, playing with his shadow, his blue shirt and the blue bike a perfect visual rhyme. Patience is as much a skill as the ability to focus or expose. Sometimes the hardest part is showing up with open eyes and open minds, and waiting for the moment to reveal herself.

This article originally appeared in PhotoLife magazine, in my column, Without the Frame. Email subscribers can see the image here, with apologies for my blog not playing nicely.

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  1. I’m working through The Traveling Lens.
    “Patience is as much a skill as the ability to focus or expose. ”
    This is the line that really grabbed me. Patience is a skill. This is one that I definitely need to practice. It seems I’m always in a hurry.

  2. I am reading this as a part of the module for the Traveling Lens Course and I really have to say that his offers so much context with what you are talking about in the course.

  3. What a timeless photograph …it makes you wonder how many generations of that boy’s family lived in these walls. -–Christian

  4. Very good thoughts, David, and very pertinent to me right now! As I plan for a writing workshop in NYC in September, I’ve been on a relentless pursuit of research – where I “should” go to do some city photography. It dawned on me about a week ago that maybe I should pick one or two locations and just sit and let the moments come to me. I’ll have to “grow some patience” between now and then, as my MO is to scramble and try to see it all. We’ll see how it shakes out! Thanks as always for your post.

  5. Beautiful and powerful image. And, you are so right. I’m practicing the craft of observing all that’s around me.

  6. Thank you for the humor, as well as the picture, David. Too much looking for something too intently and, as you say, you miss the moment. And that applies to all things in life, I reckon. Glad you have some good memories of Italy.

  7. Hmmm… I’ve have always, since I first saw it loved this image of yours. So many elements come together to make it inviting. The ancientness of the buildings, with their warm earthy colors, the unseen person living there that owns the bike and the wonderful, playful child totally lost in life as it is happening to him in the present. Oh yes, and the tree! And I guess I should mention the wonderful light that makes it all glow so intimately.

    Wonderful capture, patience and luck came together for you in that moment!

  8. My wife constantly sees something in the images I show her that I do not see until she makes mention of it to me. So I totally agree with what you are saying here. Since retiring and no longer shooting for a profession, I have totally changed my gear in favor of something lighter. But “seeing” with just a couple of prime lenses has been a chore and one which I am still trying to settle into. But your next to last sentence in the final paragraph is the one I hope I can remember.

  9. Love this picture. Beautifully composed and shot. Makes me want to see this place!

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