By Johna Till Johnson
(Addendum and photos by Vladimir Brezina)
The opposite, in fact. I’m one of those people who can walk by a large object—say, a 60-story building—every day for a month before exclaiming, “Has that always been there? I’ve never seen it before!” And I’m perfectly sincere: I really haven’t noticed it. I think in terms of narratives, not pictures—and I often fail to see what’s literally right in front of my nose.
So a few months back when I was on a trip to the Arctic in the company of some fantastic photographers (more on that in an upcoming post), it truly amazed me how differently each person saw the same scene.
Toward the end of the trip, I was chatting with one of the better photographers, who had taken a spectacular picture of a place we’d been to as part of a group. We’d landed from Zodiacs, dropped off our life jackets in a box on shore, and headed up for a hike in the mountains.
The photo was of the pile of life jackets in the box, against the backdrop of the beach. It captured the loneliness and desolation of the location beautifully, and was a visually stunning composition as well: the red-orange life jackets a vivid splash of color against the misty blues, pinks, and yellows of the far northern light.
I had been there, but I hadn’t even seen the pile of life jackets (or I’d seen but not noticed). I was distracted by the waves, ice floes, mountains, and the two dozen or so other people. And interestingly, although most of the other people had cameras as well, nobody had taken a shot remotely close to his.
When I complimented the photographer on his exceptional eye, he replied, “Everyone has the ability to see things.” My response, naturally enough, was, “I don’t.”
“Nonsense,” he said (or words to that effect). “Everyone can learn to see: I did.”
He went on to tell me that when he was a schoolboy, one of his teachers had given his class an unusual homework assignment: Map out a square meter of ground outdoors somewhere and go look at it every day for a year. Look—really look—and report back on what you see.
That captured my imagination.
When I got back from the trip, Vlad and I agreed to map out a spot in Central Park and visit it each week. Vlad already has a spectacular eye (as anyone who sees his photos can attest). But he liked the idea of looking again and again at a particular place, watching it change through the seasons.
Our criteria were simple: It had to be relatively easy to get to, with landmarks sufficient for orientation, but fundamentally boring in conventional terms—a place that would require work and effort to appreciate visually.
We located a spot beneath a chestnut tree, just off Central Park’s loop drive. There was nothing particular to recommend the spot: just patches of tufty grass and scrubby flowers, with here and there some dry leaves left over from the autumn before.
I sat down to look, and discovered I hadn’t the vaguest clue how to begin. How, exactly, do you “look” at something—particularly when you don’t know what you’re looking for?
My logical, structured, engineering side took over, and I decided to mentally divide the ground into small squares and methodically examine each in order.
Guess what? That didn’t work at all.
My mind quickly interpolated for me, and instead of seeing each unique square of ground, it replaced them with a sort of “summary vision” that was blurry and indistinct. (I’ve since learned this is actually characteristic of many mental processes. For example, when reading, our minds “fill in the gaps” of each word, so we quickly grasp and recognize words as a whole without parsing each individual character.)
After a bit I decided just to sit quietly and let my mind wander, and see what I noticed. A few seconds later, I was rewarded by the sight of something moving: An ant, walking along a fallen branch. Soon I noticed another ant, and another following the same track… and grew absorbed in watching the insects parade back and forth on their “highways” of branches and dry leaves.
I was delighted by the first day’s experiment. I’d learned to see!
And in subsequent weeks, I looked and saw as leaves flamed out in fall colors and fell; as various insects buzzed, marched, flew, and ultimately disappeared; as flowers bloomed and faded; as the grass turned brown and dry. Chestnuts fell, mouldered, and split open. Patches of bare earth appeared among the clumps of grass, and grew bigger as the grass receded.
This “boring” patch of ground has become a fascinating panorama. Every time, I’ve seen something I’ve never seen before. Our last visit was yesterday (fittingly enough, on the first day of the new year), and the new sight was of hard nubs of flower buds, poking up through the moist earth. Vlad thinks they are snowdrops, and won’t be damaged when the winter’s freeze sets in.
I hope so. We’ll see. And more importantly, I will see!
The most fascinating part of the experiment, thus far, has been the impact it’s had on my ability to see other things.
It’s not that my eyesight has improved, obviously (although some days it feels that way). It’s that I now have the ability to pick up on beautiful things all around me. Not just the big, obvious beautiful things (like sunsets, or the way the light bounces off a building), but tiny, obscure things that would have been invisible to me before.
For example, on a recent walk with Vlad, I noticed a group of silvery-brown seed pods glittering in the dry undergrowth. We stopped, and he took some beautiful photographs of them, which you can see here.
It’s a small thing, and something that good photographers—and many other people—take for granted. But I’m proud of my new-found ability to look… and to see.
Addendum (by Vladimir Brezina):
Johna is in good company when it comes to appreciating the value of disciplined observation.
Since September, The New York Times has been running a weekly series, entitled “Autumn Unfolds”, that has tracked the progress of fall, and now of winter, in a small patch of forest in Inwood Hill Park at the northern tip of Manhattan…
After meeting Bill de Kooning, one thing that first became apparent was that he had amazing skills of observation. Not only was he more visually active than everyone else but he also appeared to enjoy the act of seeing more than anyone. It seemed like he noticed everything and was able to find something extraordinary in the most ordinary of places.
……… Many times the first thing he would say about the painting he was working on was, “It reminds me of…” and it could be anything, such as a bedroom with an unmade bed, or a bathroom with a tub and sink, or maybe a couch. Or it could be a beach scene with the surf, sand, atmosphere and sky, and some figures laying around… all suggested by a few simple lines. All he needed was the suggestion of form and his imagination would take off. Another person might see something completely different or nothing at all and that was ok. But the free associations were very important to him, the surprising scenes of ordinary life.