Sunday, October 12, 2008

On Seeing

The other night I came across this passage in The Education of a Photographer, edited by Charles H. Traub, Steven Heller, and Adam B. Bell:
There are two phases of seeing in the making of a picture. The first takes place when the photograph is actually shot. This is when the instinctive decision is made which results in the picture being recorded on the film. The second seeing comes in examining the contact prints of the pictures. It is important to be able to recognize the pictures which express your viewpoint and also how these pictures can be printed and cropped to bring out that view. It is also important to be able to recognize the lucky accidents which can often result in good pictures. When a photographer takes a picture, he does it because something has interested and excited him. He must become expert at studying his contact sheets to discover what caused that excitement.
The passage is an excerpt from an essay by Alexey Brodovitch, who, as art director for Harper’s Bazaar, worked with some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century.

If we take a closer look at Brodovitch’s thoughts, I think we may find his way of viewing the phases of making a picture can help us as writers, as well.

The first stage of seeing, he suggests, occurs “when the instinctive decision is made which results in the picture being recorded on the film.”

Now, writers don’t record pictures on film. Instead, we use words to capture the images that our imaginations offer us.

These images are pre-verbal and often serve as the source for our stories, although we often lose sight of the original images, as well as the source of the images, because we’re so deeply immersed in words.

But if we step back from the page for a moment and remind ourselves that our stories flow through our imagination as pictures, we may be able to strengthen our stories and our connection to those stories.

Why not take a moment to reconnect with these original, pre-verbal images?

Put down your pen, close your notebook, shut off your computer, and simply close your eyes.

Let your mind wander into the setting of your story.

Can you “see” the images of your story–where it’s set, or the characters who might inhabit it, or what's happening on the "screen" of your imagination?

Before you pick up your pen and begin writing again, let the scenes and images of your story flow freely in your imagination.

Take pleasure in the simple act of seeing your story.

If you watch without writing, you’ll come upon an image or scene eventually that will trigger your “instinctive decision,” as Brodovitch calls it, to record the scene or image on paper.

That’s the writing process equivalent, I think, of Brodovitch’s first phase of "seeing" a photograph.

Try not to worry about that “instinctive decision.”

As Brodovitch says: “When a photographer takes a picture, he does it because something has interested and excited him.”

All you have to do is to note as you visualize the story when something interests or excites you.

Once you're aware of that stimulus, you can follow your instinct and write it down.

The second phase, which follows the instinctive decision to write it down, involves “studying his contact sheets to discover what caused that excitement.”

Once you’ve put the words on paper, you need to review the scenes (and the words that you’ve used to describe the scenes) in order to understand why the scenes are important to your story.

How do the scenes, as Brodovitch puts it, express your viewpoint? Or the viewpoint of your narrator? Or your main character?

This ongoing search for a viewpoint is one of the most challenging parts of the writing process. Often, it involves writing draft after draft to figure out why a scene is necessary (or unnecessary) and how each scene is linked together to reveal that viewpoint.

This process of searching for a viewpoint requires a constant shifting back-and-forth between these different phases of seeing.

As you envision your story, you need to monitor your own level of excitement as you let the images flow through your imagination.

And once you’ve gotten the images down on paper and begin examining them more closely, you may find it helpful to return to the original images to note what caused you to feel that initial excitement.

And then, of course, you'll need to find the words to capture that excitement for your reader to feel, too.

For more information on The Education of a Photographer, visit:

And for more on writing and seeing, take a look at these sites:


Jack said...

I like those ideas, Bruce. Worth considering while working to shape a scene.

Bruce Black said...

Hey, Jack,
It's interesting, isn't it, how exploring the process of different creative endeavors can shed light across artistic lines?
Thanks for stopping by, as always.