Camera Seeing, or Why Nature Photography is Impossible

I just saw this hilarious plant today. It was so articulate, so alive, gibbering brilliant aphorisms to me.
So, like an idiot, I took a picture of it. This picture is inevitably boring because you can't hear what it said to me.
Cameras don't see as we see; they see as they see.

So I'm hiking through the Sedona desert and everywhere I look, every moment, is ineffably incredible. Look at those rocks! That red! That green! And those rocks there! That blooming agave!  That lizard! Of course, I have my camera-phone thing with me and it is tempting to whip that damn thing out at every turn to capture the exquisite things I see. But what I see and what the camera sees is not the same thing. 

A camera is indeed a kind of seeing. But it's not human seeing. That would be absurd — cool, perhaps, but very strange. Think about it for a second. When I see something, that image is processed by the elaborate mechanics that I am — my history, my metabolism, my ideas, my moods, notions,  and inclinations, my desires, dreams, and drugs. I see those rocks — those ridiculously radiant rocks — and I think I am going to slip out of my skin, blow out of my skin, elevate and rise to dimensions I didn't know possible but always had an inkling were there.  That's how I, Daniel Coffeen, see those rocks.

But a camera? A camera doesn't see like that. Like me, it processes the light and data. But its processor has limited history and desires, limited drugs and dreams. It parses pixels, chooses which to eliminate and which to keep. Despite what we call its storage, that camera has no memory.

So to take a picture with a camera to capture what I see is, well, necessarily to fail. Sure, this is a function of a camera: to be an indifferent witness to my life. But it is this very indifference that renders a capture of what I see ridiculous.

And, in the same breath, it is this indifference that opens up a world of possibilities. To take a picture with a camera is to see as a camera sees. The camera, then, is not as much an extension of my visual capacity as it is the introduction of a new sense — one that borrows from vision but is certainly not just an extension of my eyes. The camera introduces a whole new sensory ability — camera-eyes, machine-eye, kino-eyes. 

Just as my vision has its strengths and limitations, camera-vision has its. For instance, I can't really share with you what I see when I look at those rocks. I can write poems, try to entwine my words with these sublime sensations; I can gesticulate, curse, jump up and down. Oh my freakin' god! Holy fucking shit! But, well, you still can't see what I see. If I take a picture of what I see and show it to you, it still doesn't suffice for reasons I just discussed — that's what the camera sees, not me. Two different softwares, two different processing technologies at work.

Cameras, however, share their vision readily. One click and, boom, it's shared with anyone and everyone who cares to glance at my Instagram account (which I don't have, alas).  Camera vision is plastic; it can be shaped, turned, tweaked, cropped. You can add hundreds of different filters, turn it black and white, overexpose it. That's not doctoring the picture. On the contrary, that's what makes a picture a picture — that it's plastic, malleable, transformable.

Cameras tend to have much smaller frames. Me, I see quite a bit at the same time. A camera can see a lot — it depends on the lens — but it has this very nifty feature of the ready frame. It slices up life so quickly and cleanly, without recourse to the categories of knowledge and cultural frames of reference. Cameras, after all, are stupid, ignorant; they just frame as they frame. And so can juxtapose radically discrepant elements. Or not know where a tree begins and ends. Or that a beach is a beach. With its lens and frame, a camera can transform a coastline into a Diebenkorn.

This is what makes so-called nature photography impossible. I see — I experience — those mountains and flowers and cliffs. I can't ask a camera that doesn't know about alternate dimensions to see that. But the camera is itself a way to see and experience alternate dimensions, a way to see the world anew — and distinctly not as yourself.

Here, Michael Chichi takes a picture with camera seeing (see more >). We see ocean, beach, houses.
The camera sees shapes, colors, forms, intensities of light and presents them to us as such.
Cameras literally transform our vision.


dustygravel said...

Do you think you can put your heart into a picture? Do think its possible to put memories and feelings, spirit into a picture? I can get to know some one by looking at there pictures. Often when people want to include others into their family, they show them the family photo album. If there were no heart in the photo then what would these people be hoping to share? Some times a photo really does tell you more then if you were actually there.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I do think so; I think that's what great image makers do. But it's not by trying to capture what they see; it's by using the camera to create and produce affect.

That said, I do know what you mean: I look at pictures, shitty pictures of people, and I can feel emotions. But I think that has more to do with my knowing that those pics are people I know or could know. I lend myself to the photographer's perspective. Or I put myself in the scene, drink up the pathos of the act of viewing photos. That's not to belittle that experience; it's an incredible experience, no doubt. But the pictures themselves aren't great.

But now imagine looking at pictures of flowers and mountains and birds. That is boring because you don't have that empathy. If that makes sense.