This is a toaster. Something so banal that in our ordinary lives, we hardly notice or look at it. Actually this is a picture of a toaster, which is a remove from the real thing. But then, so is the word “toaster,” which is also not the real thing, but a remove from the reality.
For most of us, most of the time, seeing something — like the toaster — means being able to name it and move on to something more interesting or more immediately useful. The image in the picture functions as a pictogram, or a different “spelling” of the word. We read the image as if it were the word.
Pictogram to “read” as teapot; teapot image as “seen”
It is how we respond to most images that bombard our daily lives. We name the item seen. It has been categorized, filed and forgotten. Our lives are too busy to spend any time remarking that the toaster is yellow, or made of plastic, or has rounded corners. These details are of no particular use when fixing our morning bagel, and so, they might as well be invisible.
Of course, being able to recognize things quickly is a survival skill, and humans have survived these hundreds of thousands of years precisely because they could point quickly and yell, “Tiger!” So, I’m not pooh-poohing that ability categorically.
But life is about more than just survival. The things of this world are bursting with sense data that gets ignored by reading rather than seeing the visible world. The toaster was designed to have an esthetic impact; the yellow was chosen to be pleasing to the eye; the curves were worked in to make the shape more inviting than it would be if it were all pointy edges.
We are embedded in a universe of things — a material world — and all of those things have physical and sensuous properties. They have shape, color, heft, texture, volume, solidity or softness, shine or roughness. And all of these properties make up the elements of art, and one of the jobs art does is to remind us of these delights we normally pay no attention to. Art reminds us we are alive.
Any life can be enriched simply by paying attention. To notice the yellow, the curve, the size and shape. In fact, to those awake to the world, it is all art — and the emotional richness that the awareness brings.
It is one of the things artists were doing at the beginning of the last century when they began making abstract art: art about the color, shape, texture, without a nameable subject.
Of course, artists have always paid attention to these visual qualities. Just because a painting is of a still life, and we can name the objects, doesn’t mean that the artist wasn’t obsessed with the sensuous truth.
And so, it is a worthwhile exercise to occasionally attempt to forget what you know and see the things of your life freshly, as if you didn’t know the names, but saw only the qualities.
Humanity is varied in its ability to see beyond the names. It takes an imagination — a way of turning off your rational mind to see only the vital facts and not their meaning or use. Some people have the hardest time: I remember one woman who was asked to close her eyes and describe what she could see in her mind’s eye, and her answer was “With my eyes closed, I see only black.”
But attempting to see past the names of things is deeply rewarding. The pleasure of colors, shapes, designs, apprehended primally enriches our lives immeasurably.
Certainly the natural world invites us with color and beauty. But it isn’t just the flowers and trees, the birds and the clouds. Everyday items can be appreciated for their roundness, plumpness, hardness, color, shape, even the feel under your fingertips.
Many eons ago, when I was teaching photography at a two-year college, one of the assignments I gave my students was to photograph something in such a way I could not tell what it was. I made sure they understood that I didn’t mean just out-of-focus, or so badly lit it was murk. But to see something from a different angle, or to find a meaningful detail and separate it out.
The purpose was to help them see without depending on what they already knew things looked like. To see directly.
For example, here’s something most people see almost every day.
Did you spot what it is? It is a view of your driver’s side rear view mirror as you approach the door to open it. A great big globular shape.
One of my favorite images is one taken by Voyager II in 1983 as it passed the (then) planet Pluto and snapped this image of its moon, Charon. And compare with the more recent, and clearer image taken by NASA’s New Horizons space probe on its flyby in 2015.
Actually, that’s a lie. The image on the left is a doorknob.
And so, here’s a little quiz. These photographs were taken to illustrate the shapes, colors and textures of ordinary objects, but seen in fresh ways. But they are still recognizable, if you can spot them. Can you tell what they are? The answers are at the end of the column.
Even when you are not trying to be tricky, it is good to pay attention to the physical properties of the things of the world. Those shapes make images more memorable. And there are shapes all around.
A doorway turned into a check-mark
A paper tissue half out of a box
A kitchen strainer
We are alive on this planet for such a short time, and there is so much to take in. With our five senses we are privy to such delight and can never exhaust the riches around us. But we must be open to them, aware of them, awake to them.
Learning to see is a part of art education. To see a picture of a giraffe and point, like a first-grader, and say, “Giraffe,” is not seeing. But take up a pencil and attempt to capture what you see on paper will teach you what things really look like. Paying attention is the great secret of life.
Quiz answers: 1. Paper plates; 2. Work glove; 3. Windshield wiper; 4. Measuring spoons and ceramic duck head towel hook; 5. Old Oxford cloth shirt; 6. Toilet paper; 7. Plastic mixing bowls; 8. Pop-open gas-cap cover for Buick; 9. Ceiling fan lamp fixture; 10. Assorted shopping bags.
Click on any image to enlarge
Nice little lesson on “seeing,” Richard. You have hit on the core tenet of my own esthetic in my journey in photography. Though I am the son of two artists, one of whom was an art and English teacher in his first career and an architectural illustrator in his second, and who taught me to see in the manner you describe, it wasn’t until my required college photojournalism class that I started developing a real ability to see the “art” in the world around me. During that class I discovered it was everywhere, if you looked and saw in just the right way.
And your little exercise in cropped closeups is exactly what much of my body of photo work has become. I refer to it as abstract minimalism. My Instagram account is full of it, among other things! Some would say I’m full of it, but that’s a different discussion.