Saturday, August 20, 2011

Availability: Seeing as Staring

The last post ended with a reference to John Stilgoe's book Outside Lies Magic, and I want to transition into another investigation of a skill that is crucial to "availability"--seeing. It seems to make sense that if you want to cultivate availability, you need to be able to see the things that are around you for what they truly are. As Stilgoe says, "Explorers quickly learn that exploring means sharpening all the senses, especially sight. Seeing intently means scrutinizing, staring, narrowing they eyes, even putting one's hand across the forehead to shade the eyes on one of the oldest of human gestures." But seeing, it turns out, is a much more complicated than it first appears to be.
In the 1930's Walker Evans surreptitiously took photographs of people on the subways of New York City; he wanted to try and capture people "as they really were." In order to do this he took the photos with a camera hidden in his coat. Many Are Called was unpublished for twenty-five years until a volume of eighty-nine photographs was released in 1966 with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art as well. As Evans remarked about the photos (which he had withheld from publication because he thought they were so private), "The guard is down and the mask is off. Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people's faces are in naked repose down in the subway."

For Evans, photography was "the art of seeing unblinkingly." But how can you learn how to do that? In the afterword to Many are Called, Evans gave a bit more of a description as to what he meant by seeing "unblinkingly." He wrote, "It's the way to educate your eyes. Stare. Pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long." Still pretty cryptic in some ways, but there are two key pieces in the quote that I think are crucial if you are developing your capacity for "seeing." The first is that seeing involves perseverance; by definition one does not stare for a short period of time. This is not easy to do and you would need specific techniques to achieve this state. There seem to be two major techniques that I tend to utilize--analytic and intuitive. Analytically, we can take something apart and see all its component parts. We can categorize what we are seeing, and explore how the pieces create the whole. The second way is to think intuitively--the see the whole as a whole and attach a metaphor to it. For example, look at this picture:

Now, attach a metaphor to it--does this building remind you of anything else? Does it look like another object you have seen before? Architect Philip Johnson's building in mid-town Manhattan is sometimes referred to as the "Lipstick Building." If you take a group of people to that building and ask them for metaphors that is always one of the ones that is first offered up. (As a sidelight, it is also where Bernie Madoff's company was housed; I don't know if that changes your metaphor or not.)

The second piece of Evan's advice is more surprising to me. I think what he is saying is that it in order to "see" you have to engage in a relationship with the thing you are looking at--"die knowing something."

In the subway photos, Evans' camera was doing the spying, prying, listening and eavesdropping but how do we develop those skills without being surreptitious? One possible answer is to realize that one always sees subjectively, and that idiosyncratic way of seeing is to be embraced and celebrated. As Evans put it one time when he was asked whether he thought it was possible for the camera to lie-- "It almost always does."

"Seeing," in other words, demands commitment and engagement. In order for you to fully see the way Evans is describing you have to be willing to bring your own self to the observation; if you do not do that then you will not be able to fully master that skill. As Evans observed, "leaving aside the mysteries and the inequities of human talent, brains, taste, and reputations, the matter of art in photography may come down to this: it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt."

"Observation full and felt"--that may be one of the key techniques in increasing one's ability to see. To truly be available you have to be willing to "die knowing something;" you have to commit.

No comments:

Post a Comment