Nuts, Bolts, and Mindful Looking.

Copyright 2010, Kirk Tuck.  Primary Packaging, New York.

I'm going to try and make the argument that mindful looking trumps "skinning" a shot with technique.  First a few definitions.  Let's start with skinning.  It's from our friends that turn wire frame CAD constructions (drawings and renderings)  into what are commonly called CGI's or computer generated images.  Everything starts as a skeletal wire frame and once the shape and details are rendered the artist(s) apply the color, tone and texture; or the "skin" to the construction.  This is what makes it real.  Skinning also includes the application of shadows and highlights to the "skin" in order to complete the illusion of reality to the virtual object.

I'm using "skinning" in this instance to refer to the overlaying or application of a set of filters, actions or techniques to an existing photograph in an attempt to make it a personal expression or to add value or excitement to an image.  This could include:  hand coloring a traditional black and white print,  diffusing a print in traditional enlargement, using HDR techniques, the "David Hill Look", any one of a number of PhotoShop's native filters,  etc.

The idea of "mindful looking" comes from the practice of Zen Buddhists of being aware of one's consciousness and attention in the moment.  In a nutshell the idea is to look, without an agenda, at all the things that come enter your consciousness.  "Experience this moment" or be "present in this moment" are some ways people  talk about this philosophy.  In the practice of meditation ( and in certain realms of "Gestalt" psychology ) the idea is to sit quietly and examine thoughts that come to your attention without judgement.  And then to let those thought pass.

I'm stealing the philosophy and warping the meaning.  Not because of any dire intention but because I lack the talent and insight to really use it correctly.  What I mean by "mindful looking", in the context of photography, is the practice of approaching each subject without the conscious intention to change it's meaning by altering its perceptible structure.  Without altering it's integral and organic construction in an attempt  to make a new presentation or interpretation of the subject. Especially because the changes are done in the service of our egos.

The basis of Buddhist philosophy is the interconnectedness of all things.  In a way it's a repudiation of egoistical differentiation and an affirmation that we're all in this together.....along with the rocks, trees, stars and more.  From my photographic point of view each object has it's own objective appearance, although each of us probably experience it through our senses in very different ways.  We also filter our interaction or appraisal of objects through a filter of our experiences and our very DNA.

Because of our individual filtering, all of our seeing as photographers is flavored or filtered to some extent.  But here's the gist of my point:  If you have a technique or stylist post production tweak in mind as you go about your existence as a  photographer you will consciously and subconsciously begin to look for subjects that are most conducive to the style you have in mind.  You will begin to reject subjects or compositional constructions that don't fall into the set of parameters that constitute a glide toward the post production appliques.  When you hit this behavior you resist or reject different ways of seeing subjects, or seeing light on subjects, or even different angles of approach to your subjects.  In essence, you reject any potential image that doesn't hew to your protocol driven, post capture parameters of skinning.

I think this is fundamentally limiting for an artist and also establishes a feedback loop that replaces truly creative seeing with a "sub-routine" that adds a comforting reference while stripping the act of photography of its essential representational power.  The mastery of the "enhancing" technique delivers the comfort of skill mastery in general and gives the impression of artful expression while supplanting the individual creative vision (which is powered by the act of subject selection and timing or interaction with the subject at the time of acquisition ) with a culturally "accredited" sack of techniques akin to religious rites of passage to an elevated priesthood.

In the image above I've imprinted my creative point of view thru selection of actual point of view, selection of capture tools and the gesture and timing of the subject.  It could be argued that just in taking these steps, coupled with the selection of one frame from a group of many, that I've made as many subjective adaptations to the image as anyone else along the wide spectrum of the creative endeavors, but I would make the point that, had I a post processing application in mind I might not have been able to see the image I took here because my mind would have negated the relevance of this frame while searching for frames with more pliable characteristics.  In effect, the above sample probably a poor one since the argument can be made that just in knowing that all the images in this project would be rendered in black and white I have already subconsciously rejected shots that use color as their primary attraction.....

While I've argued that adding gratuitous technique to already well seen images is mostly aesthetically destructive, and that trying to save marginal images through "filter boost" is a waste of time, I'm not really making a judgement here.  What I'm trying to say is that the mindful seeing should always come first.  Any other way of looking at and filtering subjects is a drag on the primary creative process that takes place in the unfettered mind.

If you must aggrandize an image to meet your subjective vision, so be it, but I would argue that while looking for images it's best to leave the mental impedimentia of post processing routines at the door and enter the house of exploration, selection and interpretation in as streamlined a way as possible.  I find that when I go looking for art it is elusive.  It's elusive because, at a certain level,  I've pre-defined the search coordinates and constraints and I reject, subconsciously, anything that doesn't fit that claustrophobic matrix.  If I go out with an open mind and no roadmap of conquest I am much more likely to be the beneficiary of chance or the grace of my muse.

If I do my best to capture the object and find that it can subsequently be improved in post processing I won't hesitate.  But I would wonder about the disconnection from what I search out, and the gap between the right seeing and the final altered realization if I have to routinely subject my images to the (un)tender mercies of PhotoShop.

So, I'm probably just rambling after spending long hours photographing a three day conference.  In a nutshell I'm basically admitting the we all do some post processing from time to time in the service of our images but I think it would be a good idea to go into each session with an open mind and a mindful attention to the nature of the objects we photograph instead of pre-defining that which we'd like to see as the end result.  Wow.   That was a long way to go for one little thought.....but I guess not every blog can be perfect and so sometimes you get to suffer along with me as I do that human thought process thing for a thousand or so people to see.

I don't have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions. - Garry Winogrand


John Krumm said...

So you don't like the art filters on your EPL1, is that it? : )

kirk tuck said...

Pretty much hit the nail on the head.

Patrick Snook said...

I often think of myself as quietly watching (roughly, "mindful looking"). I do it easily. But I also find myself often nervously stabbing at the shutter release, and bending and scrambling for a different viewpoint, during an event. I enjoy that too! I love being in the thick of things, and yet I try not to be noticed too. I'm 6' 2", and I frequently hear, after the wedding or Bar mitzvah, "Oh you were everywhere. Every time I looked up, you were taking pictures," and then in the next breath, or looking at another picture, "Oh, you got that! I had no idea you were there!". I'm noticed as a hard worker, but I also disappear. Huh? How does that work? Who knows. As in most things, I'd rather not spoil a good thing by looking too hard at it! I guess it requires a lucky alternation between stillness and vigor.

On another subject, apropos your podcast conversation, I would love to read and see more about Da Vinci and his lighting. I take great pleasure in museum walking and playing the geeky game of "Guess how he lit it!" with the so-called Grand Masters and their portraiture.

Thanks for all your energy, Kirk! It never ceases to prompt me to think. . . .

Nick said...

"I think it would be a good idea to go into each session with an open mind and a mindful attention to the nature of the objects we photograph instead of pre-defining that which we'd like to see as the end result."

The Saturday before Labor day, I was wandering through the carnival associated with my town's Labor Day Festival. In my head, I was already looking at everything in monochrome, chasing after shadows and textures and the like. I took what turned out to be a very nice shot of the shadow of a ferris wheel, then turned idly to look at the ferris wheel itself. I just about didn't lift my camera, thinking, "Eh. It's backlit and flat; it won't look like much in B&W." I took the shot anyway, because digital exposures are free and my shot discipline sucks. One look at the result in Lightroom, and I was in love. Total post-processing needed: A few points of "Recovery" to knock down the sun glare, and a few points of noise reduction. I was so busy looking for a good B&W shot of the sort I normally take that I very nearly didn't hit the shutter release on what is likely the most satisfying color photo I've ever taken.

I need to have that sentece I quoted at the beginning of this comment tatooed to the inside of my eyelids. The order of operations is: See something, take the picture, then think about post-processing options; I need to remind myself of that more often.

Nathan Black said...

As a zazen practitioner myself, I try and exist in that awareness every time I bring the camera to my eye. To exist in that moment and bring something true out of it.

That being said, I'm using equipment that I know well and I know how it is going to see the scene. Or pretty close, in any case.

I sometimes know what I want to get out of the shot, and will post process to match the image to my vision. I find I do that a lot more with my iPhone shots, because the post software is right on the device that took the picture. I can, in the moment, draw out what I see in the scene.

But it is always shoot first, adjust if necessary after. And it is adjust, not rebuild.

Also, to Patrick's comment about scrambling in an event. That is what being in the moment is about. Accepting the moment for what it is and taking it in. I shoot a fair amount at punk shows down town. I shoot from the pit, in the hustle and bustle of elbows and sweat. For me that is where I see shows from, so that is where I should shoot from.

So yeah, mindfulness. Be where you are and capture what you see.

kirk tuck said...

"That being said, I'm using equipment that I know well and I know how it is going to see the scene. Or pretty close, in any case."

Nathan, a quote you might want to consider from Garry Winogrand,

"Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed."

He also said, "I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed."

kirk tuck said...

But here's my favorite Garry Winogrand-ism,

"There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described I like to think of photographing as a two way act of respect. Respect for the medium, by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject, by describing it as it is. A photograph must be responsible to both. - Garry Winogrand

Raianerastha said...


I agree: learning mindful seeing MUST be the starting point of any truly successful image. To me, a successful image isn't one in which the photographer can merely point to certain technical metrics and declare it a success. Rather, the photograph must evoke some sort of narrative within the mind of the viewer that makes sense compared to the intent of the photographer.

I think more people need to come to understand the idea that is expressed by your Winogrand quotes. I think digital contributes to rushing into the mindset of having reached a level of expertise that the photographer hasn't truly reached.

This happens because immediate success as far as technical aspects of a photo are concerned are almost a given with today's cameras. Anyone who has been around long enough (such as you! LOL) well knows that when you have to focus and set exposure manually, and you're using a prime lenses so you have to physically move around to get the best framing, that during that time you also do a lot of mindful seeing. (Especially when you are on a budget and you realize that every frame you take is $$ you are spending).

Years ago, I read of a project given to a bunch of photography students in college. They had to take a Kodak Instamatic 126, with a single roll of 12 exposures, and "wow" the instructor with every shot. Many students failed at this, but all admitted that the effort to do so caused them to slow down and carefully consider the impact of the scene at hand beyond the technical considerations that usually filled their minds when shooting.

I think a lot of current photographers would do well to try the same approach. Go buy a disposable camera and set about making every frame they take with it a "keeper".