Several years ago I took my first photography class. One of the assignments the teacher gave us then was to shoot, develop, print, and mount one photograph each week. On Fridays these photographs were displayed in front of the class and critiqued by the teacher.
After about the third week, one of the students raised his hand and said, “There’s nothing left to take pictures of; all of the good things have been done.”
There were about 40 students in the class, and in the three weeks we’d been displaying photographs, every prominent building, statue, water fountain, and stray dog in the area had been exposed, printed, and dry mounted several times.
The teacher mumbled something about “seeing and imagination” and then dismissed the class. The following Friday the teacher, after the regular display and critique, set out 20 of his own mounted photographs.
“I took these in the parking lot,” he said. “Outside of this building.”
His photographs were beautiful. There were pictures of the abstract designs of cracked paint on curbs, the texture of rusted gutter bars, reflections from windows, rows of head lights that looked like eyes, the design of a hundred car hoods, a student looking for his car in a sea of cars. The photographs were more than just nice images. They made a statement about the culture of our society, about us. The beauty, the communication, the sensitivity—all of the elements of art were in the photographs.
For me, this experience with this teacher was discovery. It formalized something I had already sensed. From that point on, everything around me became something to be seen, to be photographed. I took pictures of pipes on ceilings, vegetables, fruits, tattered billboards, and nearly everything else that I saw. Looking, seeing what I saw opened an entirely new universe for me; everything I saw was alive with excitement. It was a little like a fish discovering water.
After this discovery of seeing, I made another discovery. It was summer, and it was late in the afternoon. The sun was close to the mountains and had turned a warm orange color. I was in my grandmother’s house. The windows on one of her doors are made of hand-cut glass. These windows formed a prism refracting the orange light into an incredible spectrum of color on a white wall. The sun was dropping behind trees and the shapes of leaves were silhouetted on the wall with the colors. The wind was blowing lightly, moving the leaves and the shapes and colors on the wall. It was one of the most beautiful images I’d ever seen.
I had my camera with me, but I knew there was no possibility of catching what I was seeing. I knew the image would be gone in a matter of seconds. I had to appreciate it for what it was, when it was. I realized then that there are many images I can’t photograph that are both beautiful and important to see. Beyond that I realized there are many other things I had not yet been much aware of—sounds, smells, textures.
It was seeing, the recognition, the sensitivity, that was important to photography. What I discovered was that this sensitivity, this awareness is important to every art, including the art of living. I started again, a little differently, to try to see what I’d been seeing but hadn’t been aware of. I have found universes even brighter and more exciting than what I’d discovered by learning to see. I have also found that the more I am aware of and sensitive to the people and the world around me, the more I begin to understand about those people and that world. And the more I understand about the people and the world around me, the more I understand about myself.
Edward Weston: “The photographer’s most important and likewise most difficult task is not learning to manage his camera, or to develop, or to print. It is learning to see.” (The Art of Photography, Time Inc., 1971, p. 17.)
Paul Strand: “It is one thing to photograph people, it is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness.” (Documentary Photography, Time Inc., 1972, p. 133.)
Henri Cartier-Bresson: “I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds—the one inside us and the one outside us. … And it is this world that we must communicate.” (The Art of Photography, p. 21.)