We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor’s gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much we can’t see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubble space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.
I posted a blog post on Faster Than 20 today where I shared what I’ve learned so far from seven years of collaboration muscle-building experiments. I was trying to figure out what photo I could share with that post, and my sister suggested that I find a good photo of ants. It turns out I made a good photo of ants in Santa Fe in 2015, so I decided to use that.
Seeing that photo reminded me of the exercise that preceded it. I was in Santa Fe for a five-day National Geographic photography workshop in Santa Fe led by the amazing Lynn Johnson. That day, when we arrived at Ghost Ranch for a day of shooting, Lynn assigned each of us a 12-foot-by-12-foot plot, and said that we could take as many photos we wanted of whatever we wanted for the next hour, but that we had to stay within our squares.
We were surrounded by gorgeous landscapes, which turned out to distract more than help. You can only take so many landscape photos in a 12-by-12 square before exhausting all the possibilities. The real goldmine was right in front of all of us, but in order to see it, we had to slow down and pay attention to what was right in front of us.
It took me about 20 minutes before I realized there were several cow patties in my plot. Paying attention is hard, even when you’re trying!
I think about that exercise all the time. (I think about that workshop and the wonderful people I met there all the time. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.) I haven’t done it since. Maybe I should.