Saturday, October 2, 2010

October Monthly Special: Seeing the invisible

In his well known text "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (well known in academic circles, that is), Walter Benjamin writes, "The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses."

Something about the camera's power to freeze time and to organize and limit the chaos of the world opens up new sense perception. Benjamin would have us consider, for example, an enlargement: "The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject."

Similarly, in The Photographer's Eye, John Szarkowski notes that the new medium led (even forced) the photographer to explore new vantage points: "From his photographs, he learned that the appearance of the world was richer and less simple than the mind would have guessed. He discovered that his pictures could reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things, and that these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful."

This month, I wanted to do a non-Photoshop theme (although I will do at least 2 Photoshop posts) and instead, focus on seeing "the invisible." A good ghostly theme for Halloween, right?

The inspiration for the theme comes from an unlikely source: a portable outhouse.

I was walking around a lovely neighborhood in Paris with streets named after famous French photographers, when I saw "voir l'invisible" (see the invisible) crudely painted on the side of one of those portable toilets used at construction sites. Exactly, I thought. Why was I wandering around early in the morning searching for things to photograph? It wasn't to remind myself or others that I'd been to Paris—the function of souvenir/tourist photography. I was hoping to notice something new, to see something through photography that would have been invisible to me otherwise.

Because of that, I noticed the rescued Winnie the Pooh characters clinging on to the street cleaner's broom for dear life.

Because of that, I noticed the little cushion of leaves that had sprouted beneath the feet of a graffiti kindred spirit since I last saw her.

The mundane took on an alternate life as graphic art.

I used photography to look at things rather than through them. It may sound odd, but sometimes the superficiality of photography is what helps increase our awareness and appreciation of the invisible. In the case of the yellow mailbox set against the green restaurant, the functional purpose of each becomes irrelevant as everything is reduced to shape and color. And yet, the simplification makes the overlooked worth noticing. In the case of the chalkboard menu, I no longer see through the surface as a mere reference to my lunch options. Instead, I look at the surface and appreciate it in a new context.

When you pause and think about how many things you see through each day, you start to realize that we are surrounded by ghosts. And so, "seeing the invisible" is the perfect October theme.

I encourage you to use photography to look at the overlooked this month. If you can, do your own post on your discoveries and share your link in a comment in any post during the month. I'm excited about the theme and I hope you'll take up the challenge.

Some people who posted on the challenge: