Ribbed Bivalve Shell

A strategy for making the ordinary look special

In the early years, I used to spend a lot of time walking up and down the many rows of vendors at outdoor antique fairs 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. These were the booths that were less cluttered. The objects on display were separated by some space; the more the better. When the items were all clumped together in one case or on a table, none of them seemed important. Visually, the experience was chaos, and that reflected upon the vendors, how much or little they cared about their offerings.

When one object was singled out for display, isolated, my eye went right to it. If someone doesn’t care enough about their goods, 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’m drawn to it.

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, seashells or paintings in a museum we want to see everything. That’s natural and appropriate. But by taking it all in—the wide view—we can miss the deeper experience that comes from focusing on just one thing and staying with it for a time. I’m reminded that the greatest compliment we can pay an artist is to spend time with his or her creation.

Novelists use the word “particularity” to describe a character, setting or situation to make them special. High value. 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 and grabbed his Budweiser by the throat. Cursing, the bartender hurled it the floor where thick shards of glass, beer and foam scattered the peanut shells.”

In writer-speak, particularity amounts to “showing” rather than “telling” what happened. Since “God is in the details,” whenever there’s a multiple of anything, appreciation is heightened by going in close, examining one detail at a time. We don’t buy a Toyota; we buy a particular Toyota.

Particularity is well known strategy among jewelers. Diamond rings and necklaces surrounded by greater space suggests greater value. It’s why museums and galleries give as much space as possible to their important holdings. Artists use this technique to choose a wide mat within a frame to surround their painting with blank space. Writers know the value of including lots of white space on a page or screen. Likewise, filmmakers hold on a shot, so viewers have time to examine the elements within the frame. 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 spot that appeals. The shell in the above image is very common. Ordinary. But when it’s displayed alone with care and lit to enhance its features, it becomes exceptional. With our attention held on a particular shell—the inductive approach—we gracefully ease into appreciation and gratitude for all shells, and nature itself. When photographing, I’ve noticed that a forest can evoke a “Wow” in me, but a single tree can speak more poignantly to me of “treeness,” of essence beyond and 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. Having learned this, I walk past areas where there’s visual “noise” or chaos and stop where there’s evidence of order and caring in both subject and presentation. That’s where I’m more likely to find something worth photographing. (I mute the sound on television commercials and look away for the same reason).


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

Arthur Schopenhauer



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