Ribbed Bivalve Shell


Linda and I have been visiting outdoor antique shows in the summer months for many years. While she looks for an occasional curiosity for the house or a gift, I look for objects to photograph. Although the above image was made in the studio—and neither object was obtained at a fair—it calls to mind an important observational lesson acquired by walking around and scanning items on display at these fairs.

In the early years, I used to wear myself out walking up and down the rows of vendors, looking for that rare situation where the quality of light illuminating an object peaked my aesthetic sensibility. Later on I noticed that there was a pattern to the places where I was more likely to find something to photograph. They were the booths that were less cluttered, and the objects on display were separated by some space. When the items were all clumped together in one case or on a table, none of them seemed important. Visually is was chaos. But when one object was singled out for display, isolated, my eye went right to it. Now, when I see a cluttered display I pass it by. If the vendor doesn’t care enough about his or her offerings, it’s not likely that I will either. Conversely, when I see objects separated out, displayed on a clean surface or cloth where the sunlight enhances its form, color or texture I have to investigate.

Our minds are visually impatient. When presented with a rose bush we look from one blossom to another. And when we’ve seen them all we move on. Whether it’s cars, food, furniture or shells on the beach, we want to see everything. That’s natural and appropriate. But by taking it all in—the wide perspective—we can miss the deeper experience that comes from focusing on just one object and staying with it for a time. We all know the greatest compliment we can pay an artist is to spend time with his or her creation.

Novelists use “particularity” to describe a character, setting or situation. Here’s the description of a scene: “Sam pounded the bar, insulted the bartender and threw his beer bottle on the floor.” We get the idea, but particularity makes it sparkle: “Sam’s eyes lit with rage. He pounded his black fist on the bar, grabbed his Budweiser by the throat and, cursing the bartender, threw the bottle to the floor. It shattered and people scattered as peanut shells rose and floated along on waves of dark liquid and foam.” In writer-speak, particularity amounts to “showing” rather than “telling” what happened. Since “God is in the details,” it behooves us to go in close and examine one item at a time.

An object surrounded by space creates a context of value. It’s why museums and gallaries give as much space as possible to their important holdings. And sometimes and artist will choose wide matting within a frame to surround a picture with blank space. Likewise, filmmakers hold on a shot so viewers have time to examine the elements within the frame. And to set them off, jewelers display their finer pieces with lots of space around them. The message of space surrounding an item or image is clear: “This is precious, worthy of your undivided and sustained attention.”

Out in nature our visual strategy is more often deductive—scanning the whole beach before looking for the particulars on the sand that appeal. The shell in this image is very common. Ordinary. But when it is displayed alone with care and lit to enhance its features, it becomes extraordinary. With our attention held on a particular shell—an inductive approach—we gracefully ease into appreciation and gratitude for all shells, and nature itself. I’ve noticed: while a forest can evoke a “Wow” in me, a single tree can speak more poignantly to me of “treeness,” of essence beyond but including magnitude.

In environments like antique, flower and car shows where there’s a lot to see, the mind wants to move on once we’ve recognized an object for what it is. But the soul is better served by focused attention, beyond recognition. So in these situations, I avoid the booths or areas where there is visual “noise,”  and gravitate to the displays where there’s evidence of order and caring in both subject and presentation. That’s when I’m more likely to find something worth photographing. Presentation matters.

 Always to see the general in the particular is the very foundation of genius.

Arthur Schopenhauer

About This Image

Title: Ribbed Bivalve in Wood Bowl

File #: 852

The above shell was found on the beach in Florida. I was in the studio playing with the light on a wooden bowl, trying to see what a highlight on the bottom would look like under diffuse and specular conditions. I liked that the diffusion created a cloud effect, so I looked around for an object that might be appropriate to put in the center of the bowl. I thought the shell was too big at first. But when I moved it above the center and looked at it on the ground glass it seemed to be floating above the “clouds.” The bowl sat on a light table, so the background was bright white. Finding this distracting, I used a voltage regulator and brought the brightness down to middle gray.


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