Imogen Cunningham, Minor White And Their Students On The Art Of Seeing

November 12th, 2013 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Photography, Art And The Art Of Seeing

Reading Photoblogs And Networking: A New World

Photo Session, Old Tower, Broomfield, Colorado, copyright 2013 David Leland Hyde.

Photo Session, Old Tower, Broomfield, Colorado, copyright 2013 David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90.

While junk dominates the internet in many categories of photography, some of the best photography ever made is also quietly being produced and published every day. Running a photoblog and networking with other blog writers has opened a whole new world.

One blog I have grown to enjoy is Mark Graf’s Notes In The Woods. He must be one of the most innovative photographers around today. He shares tips, tidbits and techniques that keep photography interesting. Jim Goldstein also runs a good blog with a wider mix of interests, at least indirectly related to photography, including expertise in social media and internet marketing. Recently, about two months apart, both Mark Graf and Jim Goldstein wrote about the same topic. Mark Graf advised, “Always Do That 180” and Jim Goldstein published, “Pro Tip: Always Check The Views Behind You.” Multiple bloggers post about similar subjects from time to time, but it is rare enough to stand out.

These blog articles, both advising to look behind you while you are photographing for additional photo opportunities, reminded me of my father, pioneer landscape photographer Philip Hyde, saying “a photographer has to look around.” Dad and other greats before him talked about looking in all directions. Mark Graf and Jim Goldstein are in good company. Their two blog posts triggered memories of my father in the field and how he approached making a photograph, as well as some advice given me by Stan Zrnich, one of Dad’s school associates under Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, while I photographed with him, and also a story about Imogen Cunningham told by one of Dad’s classmates, Benjamin Chinn.

Right after I read the blog posts I was photographing in Indian Valley in the Northern Sierra. I climbed into the bed of my Datsun 4×4 King Cab pickup, set up my Bogen tripod and pointed my Nikon D90 camera at the fresh snow on Grizzly Peak. In a few minutes, I turned around and looked behind me. Clouds were just peeling away to allow the sun to touch Indian Head Peak on the other side of the valley. I might have missed it if I hadn’t been recently reminded to look back.

How Philip Hyde Surveyed A Scene

My father would never have missed that moment of the light on Indian Head though… and he wouldn’t have to be reminded to look behind him. His overall approach to making photographs would have taken care of both. Dad’s approach was so different from how many photographers do it today. Often photographers now are in a hurry, I am no exception, though the more I photograph, the more I slow down. Photographers often must get somewhere else, or they are trying to “shoot” as many frames as they can in a certain amount of time. They may not be “allowing” or “making” photographs, but rather are “blazing” or “blasting away.”

When Dad was on the lookout for photographs, Mom and I were quiet in anticipation of the true quiet time, which began as soon as Dad pulled over and took out his Ziess wooden tripod and his 4X5 Baby Deardorff view camera, or the Hasselblad with Bogen tripod. He would say, “David, cut the chatter,” or “I can’t hear myself think,” or “Quiet on the Set.” While he was composing a photograph was one of the few times he asked me to be “seen and not heard. I remember him being in a different space mentally while in the act of making photographs. He kept a kind of intentional perimeter around the area he worked. Stepping into that circle was like walking into church: quiet and reverent. This working space was invisible but quite palpable, mainly made manifest by Dad’s attitude, emotional state and receptivity. In this enabling state of higher awareness, he missed nothing.

When he first arrived on any scene he would look in every direction many times and at every detail of the countryside around him. He would bend down and look up at a tree, crouch and look at a flower between two rocks, scramble up on top of a nearby overlooking rock, all in the interest of seeing every angle. He did some of this in his mind and some physically moving around in the area. By the time he settled in and planted his tripod, you knew he had checked all other possibilities and chosen one. There were exceptions to this longer process such as when he saw one isolated point of interest or when the light was fading or the situation was changing quickly for some other reason. In these instances Dad could move with the swiftness and efficiency of a stealth reconnaissance unit and make the image, but most of the time he did a good deal of looking around first.

Take A Walk In The Flow

The meditative state Dad adopted coincides with my experience in observing and photographing with Stan Zrnich, who also attended the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute, under Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Minor White. Stan Zrnich and I took our cameras and went for a walk in downtown San Rafael, California one afternoon in July 2009. Stan talked about how Minor White taught his photography students to go into an altered state of heightened awareness when they photographed. That explained the roots of my father’s method. Stan’s calm mindset was evident in his tranquil facial expression and demeanor while walking around. He showed me numerous instances where I walked right by something photogenic, mainly because my mind was chattering on about what I thought I was looking for, what I wanted to accomplish that day by photographing and so on. Often in photography it is easy to get “stuck in the head” and become too analytical.

The book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shares the advantages of getting “into the zone,” also called the optimal creative state. Being in this state increases effectiveness and quality of thinking, as well as even improving the quality of life. Flow describes this creative state:

People typically feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and as if they were performing at the peak of their abilities. Both the sense of time and emotional problems seem to disappear. There is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence, of breaking out of the boundaries of identity.

Flow and other sources teach photographers and other artists and creative people how to obtain this state any time on demand and how to control it, rather than merely leaving its arrival to chance. Through practice we can attain this state quickly at any time. My father described it as a state of receptivity in which he looked more closely at everything and saw objects more deeply. Not only did he see the graphic qualities of subjects and what they would look like transformed into the two-dimensional plane of the photograph, but he also saw the very nature of the subject matter more deeply as well and could thereby depict it more effectively in his art. This relaxed mindset is not complex or dependent on ceremony, it can be started quite easily through deep breathing or other methods of relaxation and available by recall the more it is practiced.

The Quiet Mind Of Seeing

This is the art of seeing in photography, pirouetting in dance, or “getting air” in ski jump competition. It is the main event in any endeavor where results improve with concentration. Photographers who are in a heightened space for seeing do not miss anything in any direction. I saw this first hand from observing Dad and Stan Zrnich, They and their comrades learned it from Minor White and Imogen Cunningham in their day. Benjamin Chinn, one of Dad’s classmates known for photographing the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown and of Paris, France, said that the “quiet mind” was responsible for much of his success in capturing people and moving events well. He said that one of his mentors, Imogen Cunningham, had made herself available for photo walks during photography school. When Minor White arrived at the right place in the curriculum, Imogen Cunningham took the students out for one or two hour walks to show them what they would have missed… and they missed a lot at first, but as their seeing strengthened over time, their images improved and they missed less and less.

What is your experience? Do you photograph better when relaxed and focused, or sometimes better when you’re in a hurry? Do you pre-visualize and plan or allow images to appear as you wander?

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16 comments

  1. pj says:

    Great advice indeed David, and a very thought-provoking post.

    I don’t plan images anymore. At least not very often. I’ve found the best ones come when you just stay open to what’s around you.

    That ‘zone’ as you called it is an interesting place. There have been numerous times when I’ve gotten into that zone and when I got home couldn’t for the life of me remember what I had taken photos of until I’d see them later. Some of my personal favorites have come to me that way. It’s a totally different head space… you can’t plan for it, you can’t force it, you just have to get out of your own way and let it happen.

    Again, fine post.

  2. PJ, Getting out of one’s own way is an important part of this. Glad you mentioned it.

  3. Mark says:

    Well David, I am flattered by the shout out here – and glad you found my reminder helpful in an actual situation. Sometimes I need to remind myself of my own reminders! :-) Guess that is why we write blog posts – sometimes they provide the solidification of our thought processes.

    I think about this “being in the zone” quite a bit – and unfortunately, try to get a little too analytical perhaps – only from the aspect of trying to figure out why I am in it or out of it. Perhaps I need to read that book you suggested.

  4. Hi Mark, I remember when we used to talk about the zen moment or “the zone” in skiing moguls. Over time we found “the zone” is not common or easy to attain, besides the minute you realize you’re in it, you’re out. I think in the creative act there are degrees and depths of zone. Sometimes we’re deeper than others into that alternate reality…?

  5. Rachel Cohen says:

    Hi David, what a wonderful and thought provoking post! It’s just what I needed right now.
    I do get into the “zone” quite a bit, but other times the whole process is rushed for one reason or another.
    Thanks for the timely and great read! :)

  6. Hi Rachel, thanks for taking the time to comment. Seems like many things in our modern lives are too rushed.

  7. I like this concept of your fathers, “kept a kind of intentional perimeter around the area he worked.” More of us need to use that in our lives. Thanks for sharing!

    Want to let you know I got your phone call and your email but have gotten around to responding to either. Totally my fault we were not able to connect out here. I believe we will have that opportunity!

  8. Thanks Monte. Now that you write, I remember. Oh well, as you say, we’ll connect sooner or later.

  9. David cut the chatter! Lol! Love it.

  10. Thanks Derrick. knew I would have been wiser to edit that out. Lol.

  11. What you say about looking behind you reminds me of something I’ve observed for years. When I go out photographing in nature, I often have to walk back to my car along a part of the same route I followed on the outbound segment. On that return segment, it’s not unusual for me to notice something photogenic I’d walked right past on the outward-bound segment but hadn’t seen, even though it must have been in plain view. That in turn has led me to assume that there have been lots of good things I walked past over the years and never did see. That makes me even more grateful for the things that I did manage to notice and photograph.

  12. Hi Steve, Appreciate your contribution of this additional aspect of seeing, or as the case may be, not seeing. We each walk past good photographs regularly.

  13. Robin Black says:

    Such good advice, and something even frequent shooters need to be reminded of, well, frequently. When I look back at my work over the last few years, more and more I find that my better shots, and my favorite shots, are from this kind of focused wandering. I think we come home with our most interesting images when we let go of preconceptions and try to see what’s not-so-obviously in front of us (and behind us, and a short stroll down the trail from us…).

  14. Hi Robin, Part of the fun of writing a blog and reading material from other quality photo bloggers has been keeping myself reminded of what worked so well for my father. Thank you for sharing the insights you have discovered regarding your own results. With this kind of introspection, you are in touch with your process and that also can only lead to greater rewards.

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