Seeing And Interpreting


In a previous blog I noted that it’s the brain that sees, not the eyes which send data via electrical impulses to the brain where they are interpreted to make seeing instantaneously possible. The image above, taken with a zoom lens, reveals something about perception—beyond merely seeing. In an instant the eye/brain/nervous system have us look closely, as on a word, and then shift our sight to a wide view, for instance of a computer screen and wall, even the clouds and houses in the neighborhood seen through a window. It’s so natural that we sighted people take it for granted. More broadly and perhaps less appreciated is the phenomenon of shifting our focus by zooming in and out to gather data in relationships, society, politics, religion and science—all the domaines of our experience—in order to construct meaning and direct our lives. What we see and how we interpret the data collected is determined by three key factors: position, lens and filters.


Position is where we stand—physically and mentally—in relation to the object, person or event being observed. When my car door gets badly dinged, I care. When a stranger’s car gets dinged I care less. I may not even notice. From the standpoint of a watchdog journalist, the world is filled with corruption and abuses. Another journalist—CBS’s Steve Hartman comes to mind—looks for and finds a world filled with love, accomplishment and consideration for others. The position we take relative to everyday perception depends on where we are, “where we’re coming from.” It may be dynamic, changeable, but it’s our point of view.

We take positions on everything physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Politics is a hot topic right now. One that sees the world composed of black vs white, good vs evil, haves vs have-nots and us vs them which tends to pull in and favor measures that protect, defeat or punish in order to maintain or manage the separation. In such a world we are each the author of our own destiny, and government should interfere as little as possible.

On the other hand, a politic that sees a society’s members as constituting a whole greater than the sum of its parts—and is aware of gray areas in its field of view—tends to favor initiatives that improve, empower, expand and unite. Because we are “all in it together” and “We can do so much more together than we could ever do apart.” Government should facilitate the general well being—in addition to insuring security. Both positions have  costs and benefits. It’s why the American system has checks and balances. And why, over time, the pendulum swings both ways.


The purpose of a lens is to gather light and organize it into a comprehensive, well-focused image.  A zoom lens gives a photographer the ability to quickly—or slowly—change from a wide to a closeup view, to see more or less of what’s in front of the camera without changing her position. In the realm of perception, lenses amount to personal preferences relating to what we want to see. Extending the metaphor, some of us prefer zoom lenses because it allows us to get both a wide and closeup view while maintaining our position. Others prefer “prime” lenses, they are more flexible, willing to shift positions in order to get better definition of “resolving power”—a clearer picture. And of course, there are those who, like professional photographers, shift back and forth depending upon the circumstances.

We come into the world fully zoomed in. As our eyes adapt, we see mother, then father. In time the view widens out to include other people and the environment. And with age perception widens further to include more of the world physically, and then psychologically and socially, politically and spiritually. Our point of view—and along with it awareness—expands imperceptibly, as does the widening of our perspectives relative to relationships, play, work, interests, values and beliefs. And one of our clear perceptions as we age is that other people and institutions have different preferences—are seeing the world through different lenses.

Socially this difference can be illustrated by television. The public’s preference is to see it as a source for information and entertainment. It wants fewer commercials and more programming. On the other hand, television executives see it through the lens of business. Their preference is to have more commercials and less programming. We see the world through lenses that frame and color our experience. They determine our set-point, our likes and dislikes, preferences and prejudices. Some folks, and at times all of us, prefer to view the world as if through the narrow focal length of a zoom lens—close up. It keeps things simple. But with experience and education a widening occurs naturally. As perception expands, so do preferences that requires a shift in our position or point of view, which can be wonderful or uncomfortable, even tragic.


Filters modify, shape or color light as it comes into a camera—or mind.  Through one filter a rocking-chair approach to retirement can be viewed as a waste of time. Viewed through the filter of Buddhism, a mindful approach to sitting can lead to enlightenment. A Christian filter might urge us to get out of the chair and help those less fortunate. The Republican filter encourages us to question the cost of everything and who’s going to pay for it—in order to minimize the influence of government. The Democratic filter encourages us to engage and uplift every segment of society by investing in initiatives that improve the quality of life for all citizens, which grows the influence of government.

From where I sit, considering the limited focal length of my lens and filters, I have reached the conclusion that every position, lens and filter is valid, perfectly suited to the perceiver given the times and their circumstances, with the notable exception of those who are intent upon or benefitting from violence. While perceptions differ widely and in opposition can result in personal and social tragedies, I suspect conflict is life’s way of refining the perception of self and others in order to bring individuals and nations into right relationship with each other and the planet. In the image of the tree above I notice that zooming-out produces more light and richer color. I think the same is true of perception. The wider our view, the more we can encompass, accept, appreciate and love, the greater our illumination.


Power rests in the conjunction of what the individual perceives of his own internal being, what he perceives in the world about him, and how he relates these perceptions to establish his relations with other human beings.

Richard Adams


Title: Radiating Tree

File#: DC8423

The technique used here involved zooming the lens throughout the duration of the exposure, which amounted to a half-second. In Photoshop I boosted the saturation a bit to make the greens pop. And I lightened the highlights around the tree to create the halo effect.

Up until recently my work has been representational, in the “modernist” tradition of Ansel Adams, Minor White and Paul Caponigro. Its defining characteristics include sharp images with exquisite light, high contrast and long tonal gradation, not necessarily in the same photograph. The intent of the masters in this tradition was generally to make exquisite images through the choice of subject matter, lighting and printmaking craftsmanship. I’m still working at it. But I’ve also been challenging myself, expanding my perspective, by experimenting with a variety of techniques in color, and in a more impressionistic, less representational style. It’s a new “lens” for me. The above image is one of my first attempts in this direction. Underway is a portfolio web site where more of both kinds of imagery will be presented. When the site goes live I will provide a link to it.




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