To See Or Not To See

That is the question.

Part I

Washington, DC, Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007.

The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later:
the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes:
A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes:
The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour:
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. The questions raised: in a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made…. How many other things are we missing?

Part II

From The Autobiography of Ansel Adams (paperback edition) page 240

In 1942 Edward [Weston] had an exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. He could not drive a car, so Virginia and I went to Carmel and drove him to Santa Barbara for the opening. […] On the drive home, we passed a large field, on whose distant edge was an interesting assemblage of weather-beaten planks and posts. I saw it out of the corner of my eye and continued driving. In a few minutes an image of what I had seen disturbed me; I had a growing sense of the importance of a potential photograph.

I said to Edward, “I saw something back there that bugs me. Do you mind if I turn back?”

“Not at all,” he replied, “I think I saw the same thing.”

We retraced more than a mile, parked the car, and carried our cameras across the wide field. The object turned out to be a pigsty with one embarrassed pig. We both made pictures; mine, Boards, Farm near Santa Barbara, is shown here for the first time. I never saw Edward’s results.

This was one of the not too frequent occasions where a transient image makes an impresson on the mind, though the photographer is not aware of it at the time. It seems to digest; the subconscious mind develops the impression into a quasi-visualization, then the conscience moves in and, with insistent pressure, makes the photographer feel quite troubled unless he returns to the source. On every occasion that this has happened to me, the subject was worthy of renewed attention. When I have not returned I am gently haunted with a sense of loss.

Part III

Shooting in the street, this feeling of loss is even more common. But it’s up to the photographer to obey the whispers of his mind. How many times I had passed this dog in the window, thinking that there was a photograph there, but not stopping, until one day the dog put his head through the blinds. Even at that point I continued on my way for a few steps because I was late to meet a friend. But the shot called me back. I walked back a half block angry at myself for missing this amusing scene happy to find that the dog was still in the same position. Click. Closer. Click. Dog begins barking and I continue on my way.

During most of my sessions with beginning students, the most common issue (that I picked up on) is that the students are simply not noticing the potential images that are all around them. Many times I have stopped to take a picture of something, a reflection in puddle, the way leaves have collected on a sewer grating. And just as often passersby stop and watch me, wondering why in the world I would be be bent down in the rain to photograph a puddle.

These same passersby, when I do stop to chat with them about what I’m doing, and show them the image on the back of the camera, immediately get it. It’s one of the things that I try very hard to form into an exercise with students to force them to see what’s around and not to just walk by. How many times have we been walking, talking about some technical camera issue, when I stop to take a picture and then continue on. Again, the beginning student is puzzled. The seasoned photographer just tries to stay out of my way, wait for the moment to pass, and then the conversation continues. It is the single most important skill, this sense of being aware of your relationship to the environment.

Related to this is the idea of watching a scene and imagining what could happen. This is really another step up from simply seeing. Here you are seeing what might be there and that is even more difficult to practice. I can only say that if you are doing something that looks somewhat strange to passersby, you may be on to something; don’t be afraid to look silly.


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My name is Dave Beckerman. I am a fine art photographer working in New York City.