Sunday, June 29, 2008

Missing connections

These charming flowers live on a fence beside the Shaw Island General Store, and for some reason I find them incredibly appealing.

Part of their charm, of course, is their location. But the contrasts, both in light and in color, are delicious, and the quaint sign pretty much makes it. I tried photographing the image so that you could read the whole sign, but it threw the balance off, and I didn't like that version nearly as much.

Perhaps we NEED the sign to be incomplete; we need the thrill of being able to guess the rest of the context. Yesterday I read yet another intriguing Atul Gawande article in the New Yorker -- this one on itching -- and learned something I've been aware of at a subterranean level for some time now: that when we see something that is partially obscured -- say, by a fence, or a tree -- the brain automatically fills in the missing pieces.

"Tracking a dog as it runs behind a picket fence, all that your eyes receive is separated vertical images of the dog, with large slices missing. Yet somehow you perceive the mutt to be whole...The images in our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor -- a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture."

It turns out our receptors -- in this case, the eyes -- are not getting adequate information, but our PERceptive brain has enough information stored in it to fill in the blanks. I know this to be true because of the number of times I have passed something truly beautiful, stopped, backed up, and tried to photograph what I saw. About 30% of the time it's not possible: what I saw as a whole, complete, and lovely image was actually occluded by trees, a fence, a car, telephone poles... and I am always surprised... and frustrated, of course, because the camera -- which ONLY has receptors, no perceptive memory -- will not be able to capture what I saw.

These days that feels like the name of the game -- my camera never seems to be able to get it right any more. My old cameras, a Nikon D70 (and the N70 before I went digital) always seemed to get the colors and the light balance exactly as I saw them. Since my D70 died I've tried 4 other cameras, including the D80 (supposedly a new improved model) and none of them even begin to emulate the clarity and precision of light and color the D70 used to give me.

For the most part this has been okay; I've just beefed up my Photoshop skills to the point where I can get an end result that is roughly equivalent to what I saw when I shot the image.

But it's been discouraging. Because the camera, for me, has always been an instrument of mindfulness; a way to be totally in the moment. I could be fully attentive to what I was seeing, and the camera was almost like my brain; I could trust it to fill in the gaps between what I saw and what was actually there.

Now it's as if the synapses are failing, the connections are gone. It's almost like telling a joke where you have to explain the punchline: the thrill, the impact of the moment, is just lost. Atul Gawande talks about the phenomenon of the phantom limb, and I can almost see my dead camera -- and the photographic impulse it so consistently rewarded -- as a phantom limb, still itching, but with no way to give it a really good scratch. And I'm torn, because there are so many ways to interpret this ongoing failure.

Am I still supposed to be a photographer, or must I just accept that that part of my life has begun to subside? Is it really my fault, not the camera's? Is it okay to use Photoshop to compensate for what my camera and I can no longer seem to accomplish without it? And are those resulting images --heavily doctored as they are -- really fair to sell or display?

Should I buy a new camera? I've tried several Nikons now, always with mixed to poor results; will I have to give up all my wonderful Nikon lenses and try some other brand?

It's been over a year and a half now since my D70 died, and I am still grieving on Lao Tzu's river bank, waiting impatiently "till the mud settles and the water is clear... till the right action arises by itself." Until then I guess I'll just keep doing what back specialists call "working through the pain" -- continuing a careful manipulation of PERceptions, since my current REceptive device isn't functioning properly.

Life: such an interesting adventure!

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