Deeply Looking – Mark Cousins’ journey through our human visual experience

17 April 2022

I didn’t know anything about author and film maker Mark Cousins when I purchased his book, The Story of Looking, in January of this year. Neither did I know that he also had a 1.5-hour documentary film released with the same title during 2021. I still have yet to read the last 30 pages or so of Cousins’ book, in fact, but I am putting this blog entry together anyway since I won’t have time to do it later on this week. I will aim to finish the last chapter tonight, however.

Untitled photo

What we see and how we see it, as humans, is complex. I already knew that from my own lifetime of observations and experiences. What I did not appreciate before reading Cousins’ book is how our perception and thought processes have changed – and also in some ways, remained the same – throughout time since we humans and our pre-human ancestors began to visualize the world around us.

Our perceptions are ever-changing and the changes are brought about by events and the inventions around us. Cousins meanders through centuries of visual-cultural human living in an artful way which is best absorbed in small increments to allow rumination on details. Cousins takes us back to the earliest visual experiences we all have, such as when we first see our parents or care-takers, and also back to a time before modern humans had invented so much of what we know today. He then works forward in time and stops to examine a wide variety of elements and concepts which shape how we visualize our world today. Our physical sight and the arrangement between baby and parent probably have not changed too much in the past couple hundred thousand (or more) years, but so much else has.

I buy books by picking them up, if the title and cover look interesting enough, and having a read of a few random pages at random points within. If I am absorbed, I usually buy the book. This one was no exception.

However, this was not a book I could not put down. In fact, I needed to put it down a lot because it stimulated so much thought as I was working my way through it that I often found it exhausting. No, it’s not deep philosophical narrative, but The Story of Looking is filled with content that got me thinking about my experiences with my visual world in a very deep way.

Well after I finish reading the last few pages, I am sure that this book will continue to resonate with me each time I see an image of Earth taken from afar or through some new tool or device. I will continue to appreciate the differences in understanding how the visual experience of being human is affected by each new development or event around us. Judging by the reviews I have seen of the film production, I am glad that I read the book and didn’t try to take away the many messages in it from the cinematic adaptation. I can’t imagine that I would have gotten as much out of it that way.

If I were teaching a photography class, I would use this book as a text book. I don’t think a book can get a much stronger recommendation from me than that. It’s well worth a read.

Playing Catch-Up Once More – Concepts and techniques

3 April 2022

The conflict at the eastern edge of Europe stopped me cold. It has left me with a combination of anger, fear, and guilt which have simultaneously acted to make me at once much less productive and much less willing to engage in conversation with those who are focused on the ‘who’s right’ and less on the tragedy and risk it has brought to this world. That’s the reason why I skipped over the rest of February and all of March and didn’t even attempt to put words into this blog space.

With that said, and despite no improvement in the situation I alluded to above, I will attempt to restore the course of the momentum (I thought) I had back at the end of January.

The first element of this blog entry is my rumination on the so-called portfolio image. I’m sure I’m not alone when I confess to watching far more YouTube than I should. The concept of the portfolio-worthy image keeps coming up in videos presented by a number of photographers.

At this point in my life and my photographic journey(s), I try to be selective about what I show to the world and also in my photographic habits. What’s interesting is that I have a bunch of images that I am very proud of that most others find dull/poorly executed/crap. At the same time, I have a bunch of images that I’m not too thrilled about that get a lot of attention. This paradox brings into question the concept of the portfolio image – presumably those images which are representative of my best and most indicative work. What are they, really?

Should I bother to curate my own images at all or leave that to others? The photo below is an example of an image that, while I like it and obviously captured it because I like the subject matter, doesn’t really strike me as 1) my best and 2) clearly indicative of my style (whatever that is…). However, people who view this image tend to really like it and I have gotten some serious feedback on it across a number of channels.

Galway Bay Hotel and an Ominous Sky

Does that mean my opinion really shouldn’t be trusted with respect to my own work? It’s something I’m going to explore in more detail as the year continues.

The other item up for consideration in this blog entry is resting on my laurels. It dawned on me yesterday while out on the streets of Galway that, most of the time, I pretty much use the same photographic techniques that I developed back in the days of film SLR photography.

I am a single-point focus, aperture priority sort of guy who is happy to use the center focus point on nearly all of my cameras all of the time and happy to use single-shot capture (as opposed to burst capture) for just about every subject. I can hear the sports and wildlife (and photojournalists) crying as I write this.

What got me to thinking about it was chasing ducks. Quite honestly, it took me several minutes of missing multiple shots of two fighting mallards for the brain cells to ‘click’ and tell me to switch on continuous autofocus and let the camera decide which points to lock onto. A few minutes later, I actually engaged burst mode.

Not Mallards – a pair of cormorants on Christmas Day

I think I need to mix up my techniques a bit more to keep my skills sharp and improving. It’s important to realize this and I’m happy that two mallards were able to get me to think about it in a deeper sense than just being told what I should do by photographic ‘expert’ X. We’ll see what I get up to next. Hopefully I can keep keep the number of blurry duck photos to a minimum going forward.

Right Place, Right Time – Being there is the key

5 February 2022

I suddenly have so much to write about that I just don’t know where to begin. We’ll see if that persists throughout the year ahead!

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been saturated with information in much the same way most of us have. It comes in through the airwaves – on our phones, computer screens and televisions. It has often been overwhelming, especially in combination with isolation.

I didn’t make any ‘resolutions’ for 2022, but I am making a conscious effort to breath in and breath out without screaming for the rest of the year. What profound negative energy the world brings to me, often against my will, is not what this short life is about (at least entirely). My goal for 2022 is to keep my mind in check against the tide of dark information and sadness which has held me pinned to the wall for the last two years. It's bad, indeed, but the world is not all bad, right?

Where am I going with this? We’ll start with this image:

Pact in Progress - Sony A7 and Samyang 45mm f/1.8

Serendipity; that’s what this image represents. I got this image, like a gift from some deity, just because I was there at that moment to observe this couple at the edge of the water. And I was really there, not just physically present.

The world had not changed around me – the pandemic was still there, the conflicts between nations were still there, climate, poverty, etc – at the moment I took this pic. In order to see this scene at all, I had to shut out the wall of negative energy – coming in on my phone, my computer and the radio (I don’t often watch television, actually) – just long enough to be receptive to something else, something more positive.

During the year ahead, I want this sort of opportunity to present itself more and I want to be ready to actually see and feel it when it happens. Work is work. Pain is pain. But neither of these things should be so overwhelming every single day that we cannot work around them well enough to have a life that matters.


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