Right-brained thinking in a left-brained world

I just attended a four-day “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” workshop and am exhausted. I never expected to be so fatigued – after all it was a drawing class! I feel like I ran four marathons.

The premise is interesting: that we lose our right-brained view of the world by about the time we become teenagers, once the language skills and quantitative training we receive in school really start to kick in. That’s why most of us (myself clearly included) as adults continue to draw as if we’re in about the fourth grade.

This training was based on the book of the same name, originally written in 1979 and still available as a book as well as a workshop. Interestingly, I purchased this book some three years ago but had not cracked the cover until a week before the class started. I read it as the class I was taking was taught in Hungarian and I wasn’t confident I’d understand all of the subtleties of the lesson, although I did fare rather well!

The class centered on looking at the world anew, suppressing the left-dominant logic when it comes to looking at shadows, faces and perspectives. Over the four days we learned how to look at objects leveraging our right brain hemisphere. I have to tell you it didn’t come easy for me and I consider myself to be pretty right-brained.

Beyond the overall lesson in drawing learned – and the vast improvement in my drawing in just a few days of practice – I also took away some more subtle lessons:

Use all the tools you have available. We were given six pencils – H, HB, H2, H4, H6 and H8 – that ranged in hardness and functionality. I found myself choosing a “favorite” many times versus leveraging the range of options available, and my drawings reflected this closed-mindedness. Several times I had too much graphite on an image and had I chosen another, better suited pencil, I would have fared better. We were also given three erasers: a basic one good for massive erasing, an eraser “pen” for more detailed corrections and a kneaded eraser for final touch-ups. All three had their role and I used them all extensively!

Look for what’s not there versus what is there. The left-brain tells you what is there and what’s logical. The right brain shows you what isn’t there – the negative spaces in an image that make an image an image. Really searching for what isn’t there was huge in helping render images as they really are as you learned the true spatial relationships between various objects. I observed one classmate (who happens to be in IT – serious left brain dominance) struggle with the assignments, even arguing with the teacher at one point about what he needed to do. He struggled with suppressing the left hemisphere more than some in the class and was extremely frustrated most of the time. We had to trust the teacher in looking for what was not there versus grabbing onto what was obvious in front of our eyes.

Have patience and persistence – and believe in yourself – and the image emerges. Many times I questioned myself about how I was shading part of a picture or what highlights I was leaving on the paper. It seemed counter intuitive at times, yet when I would step back from the image just a foot or two, the logic became clear and image would indeed appear as it was supposed to. Being patient and persistent were key and, coupled with choosing my tools well, made the difference between realizing an acceptable image (I’m no Vermeer mind you) and one that needed a big eraser or, better yet, a new sheet of paper.
I’m sharing here the before and after images I drew – click on the image to see it larger. Each of us was given a photo to draw as our first assignment on day one. On day four, we redrew the image and, well, the difference a couple of days of training makes is obvious. Everyone showed marked improvement in their drawing skills no matter where they started from, just by learning how to use the right side of their brains.

P.S. Also, welcome to the new home of my blog! Better name, better design, better focus (pun intended) and more functionality with this site. Please feel free to join the conversation!

 

Half of photography is luck, the other half is looking

Which half do you want to rely on?

Photography is naturally about seeing. Looking for the right moment – the right angle, the right light, composition, everything – is critical so when that moment presents itself, you’re ready.

You’re present in that moment.

One doesn’t need to walk about all day long with camera pressed to face, finger on the shutter release, but one does need to be looking at all times. Have his/her eyes truly open to notice that certain something that makes a moment an image.

Looking doesn’t require any special skills or special training. It’s just about being aware of where you are and what’s around you. Sorting through the clutter to find the essence. Thinking in terms of borders – what’s included in an image and what’s not. Being this aware takes some conscious practice, but it’s doable without being an intrusion on one’s life. Rather, it becomes the way one normally sees the world. Being in the moment at all times.

Being in the moment is about consciously using one’s senses – all of them, to absorb that point in time. A five-senses test so to speak: How does where you are right this minute look, sound smell, taste and feel – and how can that be captured in an image?

Being aware ensures that one is ready when life presents “the decisive moment” as Cartier-Bresson taught us. The difference between capturing golden light or grey. A telling expression or just another face. Being ready to
capture exactly the image that needed to be caught.

Then the other half – luck – takes its turn by helping you be in the right place at the right time. Or is it luck?

10,000 photographs

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Henri
Cartier-Bresson

I’ve always liked this quote and, while never totaling my collection of negatives, slides, Polaroids and digital images, wonder when I passed my worst photographs. Someday when I’m bored beyond belief, I’ll count them…

Just the other day I picked up Malcom Gladwell’s recent tome “Outliers”, where he discusses the threshold of 10,000 hours of practice for one to be truly proficient, whether it’s for hockey, computer programming or to become a musical virtuoso.

Is it a coincidence that 10,000 is the magical number; that Cartier-Bresson and Gladwell both mentioned this threshold? I suggest not, especially in the heyday of Cartier-Bresson, which consisted of shooting 120 roll film (generally 16 images to a roll). At that count, one needed to shoot 625 rolls to hit 10,000 images – actually not that many rolls when one is shooting professionally on a daily basis. The rhythm of shooting, the routine, the constant learning that came with each roll moved one’s art forward. The key is that with film, every image mattered as every image had to be set up, framed,
focused and then shot – no motor drive or automatic focus back then. Plus, every image had a price associated with it – the cost per frame for the film, the chemicals to develop and the paper and chemicals to print the final image. One did not waste images if at all possible, forcing one to consider every mashing of the shutter release.

In our digital world, one can hit 10,000 images in a couple of days without really trying. What’s the cost? Zero – just the one-time cost for a memory card that can be written over multiple times. No cost to develop, save the one-off for some software. And one needn’t print an image to view it in its final form.

When trying to achieve the 10,000 mark, it’s not enough to hold the trigger down, let the automatic shutter/focus/everything do all the work and reel off tens of images at a time in hope of capturing that one shot. That’s counting on luck, not skill. One must shoot, review and learn from each and every image that’s captured. Like Cartier-Bresson did, only it’s a lot easier today thanks to the helping hand of technology.

The challenge, as always, comes down to seeing – what do you see, what do you capture and why? After 10,000 images I think one knows what to see and why.

When did I pass 10,000 images? I really don’t know, but if those are my worst, bring on the best.

Seeing what others don’t

“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I
didn’t photograph them.”
  Diane Arbus

While this is particularly true about Arbus and the people
from the margins of society that she photographed, isn’t this the charge all photographers
have in carrying out their art?

If I shoot what people see regularly, where’s the magic in
that? Nice postcards may be the result, but they’re hardly unique and rarely
interesting. I need to bring something to the image that makes it unique and –
more importantly – uniquely mine. While virtually all of my photography
captures what is naturally there (in that I don’t “Shop” my images beyond what
adjustments I would do in a darkroom with film) my goal is to share my unique
take, my unique perspective on the subject to show others things that they wouldn’t see if I didn’t photograph them.

Each of us possesses a unique perspective on subjects around
us – whether a camera is involved or not. It is our obligation to share these
unique perspectives in order that others may “see” things that they normally
wouldn’t. Often these different perspectives remain unseen due to the politics
of a situation or the insecurity of the person who has this perspective. We
need to be daring, need to push ourselves to share our ideas so that others may
see what they would otherwise miss. Only then can a subject be fully explored, understood and perhaps seen in a new light.

Ralph Gibson

My mentor, Howard Stephens, introduced me to complete new worlds of photography. He took the basic building blocks my father had established and expanded my view of the craft. I’ll write more specifically about him in another Catalyst, but his teachings came more from conversation than from demonstration. He regularly challenged my thinking and perspective – not by critiquing my work per se but rather over a cup of coffee reflecting on something he had read or seen.

One such conversation focused around a quote by Ralph Gibson. I don’t recall exactly where the quote was taken from (some book) but given when Howard showed it to me, it had to come from the mid-1970s at the latest. For me, it sums up the challenge of photography better than any other I’ve seen:

The question these days is not how to photograph because we have automatic cameras and sophisticated materials and you can become a fairly accomplished photographer technically after a few months of real work. It’s not like painting. So I think the first question is what to photograph. And then the question is, once you know what to photograph, where do you put the camera? If you get these two right you’ve got yourself a strong work. If the what is strong and you put your camera in the right place, it’s very simple.

This is more relevant today than it was 30 years ago, no?

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