Anton uses two lenses to shoot his photos: a 17mm and a 45mm. You might say that where perspective is concerned, he works in extremes. It was an observation he made the other day that sparked the idea for today’s post.
“You know,” he said, after reviewing a day’s worth of photos in scenic Cusco, “sometimes I’m shooting with the 45mm and it doesn’t feel right. The photos aren’t coming out the way I want, and I’m not inspired by what I see. Then, I’ll switch my lens and everything will just fall into place.”
A wandering eye
Now, I’m no expert on photography. But as Anton explained it to me, these two lenses have very different functions. The 17mm, or wide angle lens, enables the photographer to fit more in the frame. The payoff is that it distorts the perspective of nearby objects, broadening them in the foreground. Meanwhile the 45mm or portrait lens works within a narrow depth of field, blurring out the background and foreground to focus sharply on a single subject.
Each lens has its purpose and special characteristics. And each comes with its own distortion. If you want to fit the big pictures into the frame, you’re going to have to mess with the overall perspective. But if you want to fully focus on one aspect of an image, it’s at the expense of everything else becoming hazy. In Anton’s case, being limited to just two posed an interesting analogy to the way we can observe the same scene so differently. By looking at the world, at our lives or ourselves, with any one particular lens, we so often fail to appreciate the distortions we’re placing on our view of things.
As far as the I can see
Clearly, the same scene can be completely transformed by the alchemy of the lens. It’s not surprising that the metaphor of photographic apparatus lends itself so easily to the human experience. And yet, it’s also a comparison that it’s easy to misconstrue. When translating the camera’s mechanism to the our bodies, it might seem that the lens would be analogous to the eyes.
Quite to the contrary, our eyes are only the passive observers of a scene. It’s the lens of our minds that distorts and contracts experience into the confines of a thought, mood or feeling. In the same way, a camera captures just one moment, ripping it from its context in a moving, evolving world.
The great street photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, understood this. “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.”
Mind the blindspot
People often consider photography to record a real or true, version of events. It doesn’t. The lens shapes and fixes a moment in a simulacrum of truth. How could it ever do more? In the same way, it’s easy to assume that we all see the same thing when we witness the same place or event. We don’t. Each person’s own lens – their heart and mind – is shaping their perceptions of the significance of the moment with every passing second.
“A good photograph is knowing where to stand”, observed Ansel Adams, with a simplicity that belies the perfect construction of his epic black and white landscapes. Even so, a multitude of perspectives might still be captured from a single vantage point. Rather, as Susan Sontag observed, “It is not the position, but the disposition.”
A good photograph fuses together the act of seeing and feeling, framing a moment through the lens of emotion. For the photographer, a change of lens is a simple, mechanical affair. But in the human experience, the lens is never fixed for long.
We might not be able to perform a quick switch, but we can still change our perspective. With effort and persistence, we can focus our lens, or pan out to see the bigger picture. And through constant awareness of which kind of lens our mind is using to view the world, we can become more and more astute at seeing any of its accompanying limitations.