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The Traveling Photographer: Seeing Things

Before leaving on a photography trip I always read a photography book that gets my creative juices flowing and my eyes and mind ready for new and exciting challenges. Joel Meyerowitz’s book “Seeing Things” is such a book.

The book is labeled “A Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs”. I guess I am still a kid then, because it sure opened my eyes a bit bigger. For those who are not familiar with Joel Meyerowitz, he is an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in over 350 exhibitions in galleries and museums around the world. He is known for his street photography as well as landscape and portraits. I have always been a fan.

Waking Up

Mr. Meyerowitz begins the book by noting that he has chosen the photographs in the book with the hope that the things discovered in them will encourage the reader to open his or her eyes and mind and see the world in a new way. He notes that any moment of any ordinary day has the potential to activate your mind with a sudden flash of insight. That moment of seeing, of really being aware, is like waking up. What you notice, he continues, will reflect the way the world speaks to you, and only to you.

The book contains a series of photographs with a photo on one side and explanatory text and insights on the other. Some photographs were made by famous photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, and some by lesser-known photographers. Important points are bolded and enlarged in the text, so if you aren’t a “reader” you can still quickly find the main point on the page.

The photographs have been carefully chosen to illustrate the kinds of “intangible” tools photographers use, the “tactics” to reveal beauty and meaning that would otherwise be hidden. Mr. Meyerowitz explains that these things are part of how you naturally see, but you have to be aware of them if you’re really going to see.

30 images were chosen for the book. The subjects are diverse such as Timing, The Blue Hour, Beautiful Chaos, and Dreamscapes. The book isn’t about elements of composition or what shutter speed you should use, as you would normally find in a “how to” photography book. It is about seeing and revealing.

Intangible Tools

Mr. Meyerowitz talks about the “in-between” places, the space before and after things happen, like taking the bus or walking over to a friend’s house. Life is just going on, but there are small incidents—the way the light slants, or the breeze catches someone’s clothes. By noticing these kinds of details and how they play against each other, the photographer can become wide-awake in these in-between places and find pictures to be made.

Describing the strange juxtapositions encountered while just waiting and watching on a street corner or park bench, Mr Meyerowitz talks about observing the grace of ordinary gestures, the beauty and rhythm in how bodies turn toward and twist away from each other, or everyday objects transformed by light and air. A commonplace afternoon can become alive with mystery and wonder, and vantage points found that change the way we look at a place. A picture doesn’t have to tell a full story. It can even form a question or be ambiguous, keeping the viewer wondering and interested.

Why Read The Book

Noting that no two people in the same place at the same time ever see the same thing, Mr. Meyerowitz explains that what you notice reflects the way the world speaks to you. It is an important point to keep in mind as you are off to travel to far-off places or down the block from your home. Even if you are visiting a well-photographed location such as Paris or New York, or a place you have photographed many, many times, there are always photographs to be made that reveal something new— a decisive moment, a hidden beauty, or the grace of ordinary gestures. “Seeing Things, A Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs” might just help you open your eyes a bit wider and brighter and find such photographs.

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