Learning to See

By John Herd


Learning to see? That sounds strange; of course most of us, we lucky ones, see all the time. But how much do we really see? Our eyes are seeing, but what of our minds, and in turn our hearts?

The brain is an incredible filtering system. Our eyes, ears, noses, nerves, and taste buds continually send messages to our brains. If our minds were aware of all that sensory input we’d have so much information overload we couldn’t function. It would be akin to a massive Internet denial-of-service cyber attack in which we couldn’t focus upon matters at hand.

Despite the brain’s amazing filtering capabilities, our cognizant minds are still to varying degrees overloaded all the time. Daily aspects of our lives, tasks we need to attend to, worries, joys, intrusive sensory distractions… it all keeps our brains functioning at full throttle all the time we’re awake, and to a lesser degree even when we are asleep.

Something’s got to give. One of those things is how much is about us that we don’t notice.

Granted there are many things we probably don’t want to or need to notice. But so too do we miss out on seeing a lot of the wonderful things that are all about us, beauty, interesting things, funny things… all sorts of stuff that could bring additional pleasures to our worlds if noticed them. Becoming more aware of those pleasurable things can greatly influence our overall impressions of our worlds, our lives and our moods.

All of this sounds very rudimentary but that’s what is so deceptive about it. The more one exercises intentionally looking, taking the time and effort to look, the more one sees. It’s like working out on an exercise machine; the more you do it not only does it become easier but the motions involved and the level of exertion increasingly feels more natural. It’s basically practicing a new habit until it becomes instinctive.

Although I had been a professional photographer, years away from it and years of living under the continual requirements of my daily life had distracted me from being a habituated observer. At a point in which I was making some major changes in my life I became aware that something was missing. I knew I wanted to focus on exercising my creative abilities more but I wasn’t sure in what direction. Then one day I thought of taking photographs with the camera in my cell phone.

I liked the idea because of the limitations that cell phone cameras impose. Not having a telephoto lens translates to having to get close to subjects of interest, often very close if one wants a really good picture. I don’t know about all cell phone cameras but many have a little bit sketchy auto focus. Getting around this often also requires getting close so background details don’t fool the focus. But I’ve always liked the world of close, the world of the small. As a medical/scientific photographer much of what I had to photograph was from the world of the small, often the very very small. I had learned that the world of small had all sorts of wondrous things to see if one got close enough.

When on the prowl for things to photograph I have had to look closely at things, often down on my knees and inches away from my subjects. To capture the unusual I began to enjoy looking at things from perspectives that others might not look from. Even something as simple as looking up, sometimes getting down very low and looking up, yields images of things that others might not see. Capturing other kinds of subjects demands always being prepared, constantly scanning the surroundings and being ready to click in a split second. For in the realm of the world in motion getting the picture all too often demands reacting instantly or missing the picture.

What I found over time was that the level of observational vigilance did become habitual, but it also bestowed upon me a gift of something far more precious. Increasingly with each passing day and with each new beautiful and/or interesting thing I found to photograph, the more I realized there was beauty and fascinating things all about me.

It’s not that my immediate world is all that beautiful. It’s not. It’s a very urban setting with lots of apartment buildings, stores and two shopping malls. A casual observer passing through would probably not notice anything remarkably attractive or interesting at first glance.

That was part of the challenge I liked, to excavate the out of the seemingly mundane things of beauty and interest. Since starting the project about 8 months ago I’ve photographed several hundred images of things I’ve found. Each day I have gone out to photographed my world and then have shared 4 or 5 of my discoveries on-line.

By being more observant and finding new beauty to photograph every day, the project gave me a whole new appreciation for my world, and in turn an additional level of happiness. I felt happily more a part of my surroundings and visa versa. Each daily quest has provided me new moments of delight as I have come upon new subjects.

On one gray overcast morning I am sure many people looked outside and thought “what a gloomy day.” The air was heavy with moisture, there was no sunshine, no blue sky, and even the birds were silent. It looked and felt as if rain was going to break loose from the sky at any moment. I pulled on my raincoat, my rubber boots, donned my hat, and headed out.

As I was walking along I came upon a low shrub topped with several delicate spider webs. I stopped and looked closer. Suspended upon the webs were hundreds of tiny dewdrops. Because of the day’s soft gray light the spider webs were almost invisible. The dewdrops looked like dazzling crystal orbs magically suspended in air.

A little later while having a cappuccino at the local coffee shop a brief rain fell. By the time I was done and ready to head home the rain had passed, leaving behind puddles everywhere. As I walked across a parking lot I came upon a puddle reflecting the world above. I stopped, moved around it and squatted down looking at the surrealistic reflections of nearby trees. It was beautiful. While shooting several photographs, unknowingly a silent hybrid car approached from behind me. No doubt the passengers wondered about the person blocking their way as he remained squatted down in the middle of the parking lot. I was in bliss as they were probably feeling impatient. I moved as soon as I realized they were there.

My day had been the antithesis of gloomy; I had found splendor in my world. Had I gone to the MET I wouldn’t have seen anything more beautiful than my discoveries of the day. All this from just looking.

For me this is a hobby and a way of life. But it’s not anything particularly special. Anyone can do it and anyone can reap the same rewards of seeing the beauty about them. It just takes practice. That’s why I have written this piece. I encourage you all to try it.

© John Herd, ’12
May be reposted with prior permission
Feel free to respond to me at: johnherd@johnherd.com

About johnherd

A free thinker
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