John Morrison is a writer and photographer who lives in Cumbria.
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera” (Dorothea Lange).
I used to go bird-watching on the north Norfolk coast. There were miles of sandy beaches and dunes, but I preferred the shingle beaches – and the scrunching noise my every footstep made on the rounded, sea-washed pebbles. I particularly remember the first time: laying down on the shingle at the point where the gradient was steepest. With a bit of shuffling I created a comfortable, ‘me-shaped’ hollow, cradled by pebbles, with my rucksack for a pillow. My knees, raised and pressed together, made a steady support for the old telescope my dad had given to me; I became my own tripod.
My first scan of the sea, sweeping across the grey waves like the beam of a lighthouse, was unrewarding. There wasn’t a bird in sight. I’d come all this way – to this Mecca of bird-watching – for nothing! I wiped the lens of the telescope, took a deep breath and tried again – scanning the foreshortened scene, at 20x magnification, wave stacked upon wave. Still nothing. But I kept trying, becoming more attuned with each pass, and, one by one, the birds started to appear.
A manx shearwater showed first black, then white – like two different birds – as it twisted and turned through the trough of a wave. Gannets appeared – just white specks in the distance, but unmistakably gannets as they plunged headlong into the sea. There were other birds too. Gulls and terns, no doubt, but that’s not what I remember. What stays with me is the fact that these seabirds hadn’t just appeared. They were there all the time; I just couldn’t see them. It was a moment of quiet epiphany for a young lad.
Richard Dawkins writes about “the anaesthetic of familiarity”: the way we seem to sleepwalk through life, seeing little more than what we want, or expect, to see. We may rouse ourselves for a special sight – the Grand Canyon at dawn, or, closer to home (well, my home), a red ball of a sun going down over Lake Windermere. For everyday life, however, we construct a simpler version of our immediate surroundings – as a kind of visual shorthand – which stands in for the real thing … precisely so we don’t have to look more closely. It’s a time-saving ploy. But do we want to have our expectations met, and our prejudices confirmed, or do we want to look afresh?
If we look at something – a solitary tree, for example – we immediately start an internal dialogue. Our first response, likely as not, will be to name the tree, and congratulate ourselves on knowing it. The moment we give the tree a name – oak, ash, elm – we may stop looking altogether, as though a task we’d set ourselves had been completed. Or perhaps we don’t know the name, but wished we did. Either way, the name can be a distraction. The word is not the tree.
There are plenty of other distractions. Memory: the tree reminds us of other trees we’ve seen, other occasions, other associations. There are endless comparisons: how does this tree compare to other trees we’ve seen? Is it bigger, smaller, more beautiful? We might register the tree as “beautiful”, or, with chainsaw in hand, we might visualise a pile of logs, a source of income. How does the experience of seeing the tree compare? Our view may be proprietorial: it’s my tree. Or aspirational, as we imagine how pleasurable it might be to have a tree like this in our own garden. We analyse, interpret, contextualise – one thought sparking off another. Even to call this process an ‘internal dialogue‘ creates a wrong impression: in truth, we’re just chattering to ourselves.
With each subsequent thought we create more barriers to seeing clearly. The chatter takes over. As a photographer I think of them like the filters which some photographers use, stacked up in front of the lens – to create ‘mist’, change colours, darken skies and soften the focus. While they can be useful, the addition of another filter, and another, soon begins to degrade the image. We’re putting a greater distance between ourselves and what’s ‘out there’; we’re putting obstacles in the way.
Instead of adding more filters, or thoughts, what if we were to take them away? Or, rather, let them fall away … with the pull of gravity. Plans, memories, responsibilities, recognition, analysis, regrets and fantasies … let them go. The hard bit is the first bit: realising that what we generally see is a reflection of our own selves – our thoughts and beliefs – rather than what’s ‘out there’. We have to be able to see that we’re not seeing clearly, and that’s quite a mental leap in itself!
Seeing the tree, without barriers or impediments, won’t create a multi-coloured hallucination peopled with elves and unicorns. And we won’t become the tree. But we can contract the distance between the seer and the seen, like the view through a telescope. With the letting go of every filter we’re able to focus our attention on one thing at a time (single-tasking, for a change, instead of the dubious benefits of multi-tasking!) and maintain our concentration for longer than we’re accustomed to. We’re alive, awake and aware; we’re in the moment. We’re seeing the tree with new eyes, which, for me, is the real adventure. And once we understand that letting go requires no effort – no effort at all – perhaps we can let go of some of our ingrained habits and entrenched opinions as well.
I’ve absorbed this ‘less is more’ approach into my landscape photography, and, like Robert Frost choosing the ‘road less travelled’ through the woods, it has made all the difference. In the past I would rush about, from one location to another, chasing the light, pushing myself, trying to shoehorn as many picture-taking opportunities as possible into the time available. I responded to a work ethic, assuming that the harder I worked, and the more miles I covered, the better my pictures would be. By the end of a long working day I would be exhausted.
These days I venture out with fewer expectations. Instead of rushing I’m more likely to stay in one place, put the camera on the tripod, lock onto a chosen composition… and just see what happens next, within that rectangle of landscape. I watch light chasing shadows, shadows chasing light, across Lakeland fells. The light can change quickly … so quickly that if I have to prize off the lens cap I may miss the moment altogether.
Where the work ethic used to be is now a quiet stoicism. Not quite apathy … but not too far away either. I don’t put any pressure on myself to take good photographs. And, with the lifting of that burden, I’m free to look. Not ‘look and analyse’, not ‘look and remember’, not ‘look and anticipate’. Just look … as intently as I can.
Some days it doesn’t work out, and my camera stays in my rucksack, but I don’t beat myself up about it. Unproductive days are the rent I pay for the good fortune to be out on the fells when the light is magical. I’m still exhausted at the end of a working day, but it’s a better, more creative kind of tiredness. And by expending less effort, the photographs turn out better. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but demonstrably true.
I’ve swapped my dad’s old telescope for a basic 8×30 monocular, which I always have with me. My ability to seeing clearly, and maintain concentration, seems to be a good indicator of mental equilibrium and general well-being. When I’m feeling grounded, I find it easier to hold my gaze, minute after minute, as a buzzard finds a thermal, rising in lazy circles over Cumbrian hills, until it finally disappears. Conversely, when I’m ill at ease, I find it hard to concentrate, to give my full attention to the task in hand. Unhappiness can cloud the view – making me feel ‘absent’ – separating me from what’s ‘out there’. The landscape can be a distant frieze of topographical features, but for those unresponsive minutes, they have little or nothing to do with me.
Thanks to the internet, and Twitter and texting, and all the other distractions of modern life, our spans of concentration are notoriously short. But I’m happy to report that the condition is reversible (and that you can teach an old dog new tricks …). The time spent has not been time wasted, though it’s ironic that it’s probably taken me 25 years to learn to do something that happens instantaneously and without any apparent effort!
Many people will recognise this quality of mind, this clarity of seeing, as a form of meditation. I avoid the word, but merely because it carries a lot of ‘baggage’; for some people it’s a ‘turn-off’. The ability is not something I can rely upon; it can disappear as quickly as it came. In fact, demanding that it’s always available to me is the most effective way of chasing it away altogether. Nevertheless, in a quiet, undemonstrative way, it’s changed … everything. It’s the difference between being asleep and being awake …