Perception and the Photographer

As I mentioned previously in ‘perception and the psychic’, we all perceive the world in a slightly different way. When it comes to visuals, our eyes only contribute about 10% to what our brain is interpreting of the world it is experiencing. This to me makes the brain an utterly remarkable organ, it produces a view of our world with relatively limited information being provided by the senses, which are in themselves limited. Knowing this does present a problem or two, and we may have to realign the way we think in terms of our certainty of vision, and how we perceive the notion of truth for example. Only that which can be evidenced can be objectively true, what we witness we subjectively believe to be true. It’s not uncommon for witnesses of a single event to present different accounts of what they have seen, for the objective and subjective to overlap.

In relation to photography, this is to me, what makes the discipline so interesting. Can a photograph be judged good or bad? The idea of ‘good taste’ and what works for you as an individual, or doesn't, is pure perception and revolves around the inbuilt internal model of the world you possess. I think therefore that there is no such thing as bad art, only work that does not address the preconceptions of an individual or group. Is the job of the artist to fulfill expectations or challenge them? In my view, the latter is much more interesting. For me personally, the expression of beauty in the ordinary and every day is the reason I photograph. In my opinion, the obviously beautiful is better captured with eyes, mind, and heart. If you do point a camera at the clearly beautiful, the resultant image tends (in my experience) to be more of an aide memoir and possess the visual interest and longevity of such. There’s nothing wrong of course with such images, this is perhaps the greatest use of photography by people since the creation of the medium. It’s often the case that when a photographer travels somewhere new and visually astounding they produce mediocre postcard style photographs. It’s almost a case of the more outstanding the scenery the more ordinary and generic the photographs! To really see and fully understand an environment, in my view, requires the photographer to study it at length.

Bearing in mind that we only actually see such a small percentage of what’s in front of us, the decision surrounding what and how to photograph, for me, takes on much more meaning. There are plenty of rules when it comes to this creative endeavour. Using empirical compositional rules simplifies the process of creating images massively, though these images; unfortunately, are inescapably derivative. To my eye, the vast majority of mainstream landscape imagery that pops up on the internet, could conceivably all have been taken by one photographer. Sunsets, sunrises, blue hour, slow shutter speeds, ND grad filters, foreground interest etc. etc. by its very nature, the sameness of vision and technique makes this sort of work a wallpaper of similarity. That said, the creation of this type of imagery requires a huge amount of effort, energy, and dedication to produce. Photography and all of the visual arts for that matter encourage the participant to really look at the world and as such it is a life-affirming and enriching experience. If you're fond of getting up before sunrise and marching 90 minutes to the top of a mountain - more power to your elbow. If however, you want to produce imagery that says more about you than what you're pointing the camera at, I believe you have to adopt a different approach.

Therefore I would suggest the importance of not trying to take/make photographs! Counter-intuitive as it seems, the knowledge that such a high percentage of what you create is contained within your ability to perceive not see, means that to produce something which is truly personal requires you to go mentally to autopilot. It’s imperative that you be in the moment, fully focused and really experiencing what it is your trying to photograph. Make maximum use of that 10%. This state of mind exists in the subconscious, we've all tried very hard to be good at something and failed, only to find that when we don't try too hard we succeed. So, you may have a pre-programmed idea as a framework in the back of your mind within which to operate, or you may have nothing at all going on upstairs at the moment you release the shutter. The essential thing is that the mind is silent and you are fully immersed in that present moment to do it creative justice. What I’m describing is, of course, a meditative state.

On a practical note, I tend not to use tripods unless they are absolutely necessary, I personally find landscape photography to be often a very fast moving and dynamic enterprise. For instance, in order to photograph Slade #6 (page 11 of Loftus - The Hall of Dreams) so that I could catch the light, I had to run from Slade village to Blackchan, maybe half a mile or so over walls and through puddles like an unfit steeple-chaser. When I arrived at the vantage point as well as trying to breathe through my ears, I then had to somewhat precariously perch myself atop a wall to get the shot. There was perhaps a maximum 30 sec window to create the image shown. In my experience, you can never recreate a landscape photograph, once the light has gone it's gone. If you don't get it right when all of the elements of a terrific image combine, you’re sunk. That conjunction of so many different elements will likely never occur again. Being a minute too late at a location, shifting your camera by a fraction of an inch in any plane can be the difference between success and partial success. This way of working does mean complete proficiency with equipment and technique, the use of the camera has to be instinctive, I’m afraid there are no shortcuts on that front.

Steve M.

Steve Meyler