Seeing Beyond Seeing

Vakkert inngangsparti

Photographing is closely related to seeing – in the sense of being able to notice and be aware. But seeing is something so naturally, something we do without even noticing, that the conscious process of seeing with the purpose of photographing almost forces us to start over having to learn it all again. We see, but we don’t notice – we see, but aren’t aware what we see, unless something makes us alert.

Ordinarily, seeing refers to a broad range of experiences: From automatically sensing to complete immersion in the visual realm. At one extreme, you could be driving or walking along, talking with your friends, and then you see a red light and come to a stop, all without interrupting the conversation. At the other extreme, you could be stopped at that red light, and then see it – you see brilliant, saturated colour, the patterns formed by the facets of the lens, the red glow cast by light on the street or the cars, and the light blue sky that surrounds the whole scene. From a purely functional point of view, these two instances could be described in the same way. In each case you have seen a red light. But from an experiential point of view, they are worlds apart.

When you unconsciously notice the traffic light, what happens is primarily conceptual. When you really see that same light, what happens is then perceptual. The process of perception is subtle and complex. Unnecessary to say, conception is clear and straightforward even though we hardly notice it. Usually perception and conception are blended, which makes it hard to distinguish them.

In photography you need to be able to practise perception, to start seeing things as they are and not just take for granted your conception of what you see. To see clearly you need to untangle perception from conception. Let me try to clarify: If you bring your mind to the animal horse, you can clearly see its shape, four legs, a long neck, its mane and tail and maybe its well built muscular body. You have no problem seeing it for your eyes, without even having a horse in front of you. It’s a mental image – it’s the conception of the horse. The mental image is a general image; vague and consisting mostly of shape and form. On the other hand what you see when you look at a real horse is an image that is very specific. It is minutely detailed and complex. The mental image is like an indistinct replica of the actual seeing.

Visual images appear when consciousness connects to the eye. On the other hand mental images appear when consciousness connects with the conceptual mind. What appears to the conceptual mind is only an abstract, general image that encompasses all the views and pictures of a thing you have ever seen. Concepts are useful. Without them, you wouldn’t be able to arrange to get together with friends for dinner, use a computer, or read this text. Abstract thinking can help you navigate the complexities of life, just as maps help to navigate a new physical destination. But in the same way a map is not the real world, neither is conception. Concepts can blind you to what is vivid and real. In photography you want to go beyond the conception of things – you want to see as they are for real. Next time you go out to shoot, try to look beyond what your conceptual mind is telling what you are looking at, and try seeing without labelling or conceptually identifying anything. Slow down and open your awareness, see things as they are without attaching any concepts to them. Suddenly you will discover a whole new world.


79 thoughts on “Seeing Beyond Seeing

  1. I’ve definitely noticed a change in the way I ‘see’ since taking up photography, but on the other hand , my sight has also been influenced by stopping work, slowing down and having the time to ‘look’.

    I’m far more aware of texture, colour and light. For me, it’s been a return to my youth of 40 years ago (when I was studying art and design – it was all about texture. colour & creativity then – now light has been added into the mix). I don’t remember studying Light 40 years ago, but maybe I’ve just forgotten that aspect.

  2. The camera is certainly an instrument that has taught me to see and become more aware of my surroundings, even when I’m not carrying the camera with me. (And then of course I see this and that and think, if I’d only… :-)) Most interesting is the fact, that I THINK that I observe a lot. That I’m getting better and better in actually seeing what’s around me. But I’m not. It’s a slow process. I only see what I mostly see, what I expect to see, what I’ve learned to see. For instance, when I am in North Norfolk, the most perfect place for seeing beyond seeing, where the surroundings “Slow you down” automatically, and go for a stroll with Klausbernd, I’m utterly amazed what he sees and what I take in. You have given me a lot to ponder on now…
    Thanks a lot for your inspiring words, Otto. This was yet a great enjoyable reading.

    1. I think it’s great to go out on a discovery with somebody else like you do with Klausbernd. Because everybody sees the world differently, you can really learn to observe this way. I enjoy doing myself, whether it’s with photographer or non-photographers.

  3. “to look beyond what your conceptual mind…” — inspiring! Most of the time, we are too busy in capturing the moment to look beyond…

  4. Io devo ancora imparare bene “a vedere”, tante volte mi accorgo che non scatto foto perché mi sembrano banali e poi magari vedo lo stesso soggetto fotografati da altri e lo trovo stupendo!!
    Eh si, devo imparare 🙂
    Molto interessante quello che hai scritto, è un valido aiuto, grazie!!
    Ciao, Patrizia

  5. For me to see beyond what is in front of me requires to slow down and a lot of practice. Probably also being alone. I was strolling in Milan today with a friend I had not met since a long time and even if I had a camera with me I didn’t manage to take a good photo. The conversation with him was interesting and keeping all my brain and all my senses occupied.
    But if you are well trained things are different and seeing beyond becomes automatic…I think

    1. Whether or not to be alone, depends on the nature of the relationship, for me at least. As you say if you are conversing together, it’s really hard to open your eyes at the same time, but if I am shooting together with a friend both of us get much more perceptually activated. But, yes, I agree it’s necessary to slow down and it does help with practise. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Robert – always appreciated.

  6. First of all, the picture is awesome. It seems to have well balance of colors and lighting. To the topic, unfortunately I could not follow too well. But I think I get the git of it that you need to slow down and see what your conceptual mind is telling you when you see things. I hope that is right. If it is so then I am not sure that is an easy thing to do. Thank you for the post.

  7. I think it is so easy to not see…., especially now… soo much multitasking, so much technology, so much busyness. There was/is a saying
    – stop and smell the roses. For me its about letting my mind be open to what I am seeing and yes seeing beyond seeing, as you say…..its a gift to be able to do that and sometimes what that brings is amazing ……love your insights : )))) trees

  8. I think also there is seeing something in the literal sense and then seeing what else it could be. Minor White wrote ‘Photograph objects for what they are, and also for what else they are’, which is a brilliant way of putting it. The traffic light is of course a stop sign on the road, but it could be a metaphor for so many things.

        1. I don’t know what it would be according to White, but in a sense of his quote; photographing by conceptual seeing would be photographing an object as you believe it is – or what your mind has established it to be.

  9. I have noticed over time how much photography has opened my eyes and REALLY made me see. I also find that photography with mono images in mind opens up a whole new way of seeing the world.

  10. Perception can be a tricky thing. I can be standing with He-Who looking at the same thing and he doesn’t see what I see. He interprets things visually quite different than I do. There are subtle things he misses completely yet sometimes his perception of something is quite refreshing.

  11. Thanks for sharing your insights as always Otto. I am reminded of Ansel Adams words ” “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” .. or just as you said it ” Seeing beyond seeing.”

  12. This very much reminds me of a book I just finished, called “The Practice of Contemplative Photography.” It is definitely a different, and not necessarily easy (given the way we are “trained” to see) way of seeing things.

  13. I think you just described ‘mindful’ photography, Otto! I find myself seeing the least when I have too much chatter in my mind and when I am not mindful of what I am doing or of what is around me. I lose all concentration. That’s why I do best when I go out photographing alone and get completely lost in it. Then time stands still for a moment.

  14. Great post Otto. I certainly agree. On one hand, as a photographer I find myself seeing more of the details around me than ever before. However, on the other hand, I find that one of my biggest problems is not seeing the details around me.

  15. Slowing down and opening awareness–that’s a really clear challenge and I think I do know what you mean. I believe I often photograph the “concept” in an attempt to capture too much in a short time. If I were to slow down it is possible I would see more. This is a very helpful guide, Otto.

    1. Slowing down is generally a good thing, not only for seeing, but life in general, don’t you think? Too much we are stressing out and running around like crazy and not living fully any more. All the best, Debra.

  16. Good explanation of “seeing”. Sometimes seeing is so natural to me that I can’t conceive of not seeing… and then there’s all the other times when I don’t see anything at all because I have stuff to do and people to see and “seeing” feels like a luxury. Which it isn’t. It’s a necessity.

  17. I love this post, Otto. Since I started taking an interest in photography, I often catch glimpses of what I think you’re saying. For example, I can be standing out in the street talking to a friend and suddenly I see a scene developing usually without looking for it. I’m sure I’m not as aware as you but I shall definitely try your closing tip next time I go out shooting 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

  18. Mina tankar och mina ord…jag kunde inte ha sagt det bättre själv…
    Tack för att du tar upp allt viktigt och osagt…det öppnar många ögon och det ger liv åt fantasin, åt de egna tankarna.
    Lever i en ond bubbla just nu…något vi alla måste gå igenom för att komma ut som hela och starka individer…cést la vie…och det går vidare.

    1. Takk for dine støttende ord igjen Gertie. Det gir meg en følelse av at jeg av og til kan gjøre noe riktig. Men det gjør meg vondt å lese at du går gjennom en vanskelig tid – føles nesten gjennomgripende livsavgjørende. Jeg håper det aller beste for deg.

  19. I see your point very clearly, and I have experiernced it myself many times. Especially when you suddenly SEE something you you have seen a hundred times before. On the other hand, conceptual vision must be necessary when you plan for instance a photoshoot.

  20. Dear Otto,
    what a great post. I really like your sentence: “To see clearly you need to untangle perception from conception”. Indeed, that’s very important – actually for a writer as well – and one has to learn it. I went through a training where the exercise was to become aware what I really was seeing every half hour (walking around for 4 hours). I notice I have to tell myself, f.e. if I walk in the marshes, to see and not to think – to see doesn’t get automatised (at least not for me) and therefore I have to remind myself to do it.
    Conceptual vision is easy, we are all used to it by practising it daily. Therefore it is – not only for the photographer’s sake – important to practice real seeing for an inner ballance which then is reflected in the ballance of the pictures.
    Greetings from sunny Norfolk

    1. Thank you for your insight, Klausbernd. I like how you describe practising perceptional seeing – and it does make sense that writers – or anyone for that matter dealing with creativity – need to practice the “art” of perceiving. Enjoy the sunshine in Norfolk.

  21. I could not agree more. We must have a circular and 3-D way of seeing–now just what’s in front, but the meandering in all angles and directions, up, down, left right, over the edges of the rational and reason.

  22. Of course, you are absolutely correct in the interplay of the conceptual and the perceptual. It could be that sometimes there is some likening of “impressionism” with conceptual seeing. All of those dreamy, soft, misty photos (which I happen to enjoy, by the way) seem to illustrate that point. In that case, there is a platform for the conceptual just as there is also a strong platform for the perceptual photograph–the one that makes the fine print read clearly and that can bring us to an “Ah, Ha!” moment when the details make our minds click, just as much as a dreamy conceptual photo can stir the imagination. This may not be a clear explanation. Consider it conceptualized.

  23. hello, sir Otto… hope things are spinning well, your side of town. you appear busy, ahaha. 🙂 just dropping by to say that i always learn something whenever i read here. thank you for all that you share, they’re appreciated… btw, i once tried to cover the photography sites you feature and it got me hooked and my eyes got tired, hehe. those artists are rather talented, original and devoted to their crafts. it is a humbling experience to come across artistic and dedicated people, ahaha.

    i like your discussion here of the difference between conceptual and perceptual. warm regards… 🙂

  24. Så bra förklarat Otto, inte enkelt att överföra teori till praktik. Cognitiv Neurppsyklogi är ett intressant område. Har också ändrat mitt sätt att se sedan jag började fota. Njuter verkligen av de stunder när jag lyckas med att inte släppa in seendet till begreppsvärlden. Upplever det som både krävande och befriande. Vid ett tillfälle (sedan jag läst detta), ansträngde jag mig medvetet.
    Fascinerad av hur krävande det var och hur ofta jag fick påminna mig själv om att fokusera på att inte se som vanligt. Vanligtvis tänker jag inte på detta utan bara ÄR där jag ÄR.
    Tack Otto för dina intressanta och alltid lika efterlängtade inlägg.
    Ha det så gott.

    1. Det er en interessant øvelse å prøve å bare se og ikke bli blendet av vår begrepsforestilling. Men som du sier kan det til tider være vanskelig. En må i hvert fall være veldig bevisst på det. Takk for en fin kommentar, Monica.

  25. I’m slowly beginning to see in the way you’re describing here, but it takes a lot of practice.
    Another inspiring post Otto, thank you for sharing this, I always learn something when I visit you.

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