Interviewsand Articles


On Seeing

by Paul Van Slambrouck, May 5, 2015



     As a relatively new photographer I laid out a series of black and white prints for a fellow artist whose opinion I valued. “Ah. Look what you see,” she said.
     It was one of the most encouraging yet non-judgmental critiques I’ve ever had and it has stuck with me through the years as a sort of ultimate reaction to someone’s else’s art. It transcends labels of good and bad, and like or dislike. It simply acknowledges a sort of basic truth that what the artist is conveying is something he or she honestly sees.
     Honestly seeing can be the hard part.
It took me a year or so to see what was outside my window.
     I had gone to teach at a small Midwestern college and moved into a small second-story apartment on the campus. Being upstairs had its advantages, I surmised. No one would walk across my ceiling, for one. And given that I was at the far end of the building with only one walkway at ground level in front, I could leave the blinds wide open with no concerns for privacy. No one could see in from ground level and I could enjoy the light.
     The bonus was that the windows faced hilly forestland that was raw and undeveloped. On the small balcony outside my window, bright red cardinals flitted from the railing to a bird feeder a neighbor had hung. Ingenious squirrels had figured out how to leap from the balcony railing onto the feeder, make withdrawals and time their dismounts from the swinging platform so as to land safely back on the railing.
     I had positioned a comfortable chair facing the window where I could work at any time of day or night.
     Birds, light, privacy.

     A lifetime making photographic images has engrained in me the habit of squinting at the world. It is my way of answering the question: Is this scene worth a picture? Squinting allows me to see the most contrasting components of the image, so detail drains away leaving only the overall composition. By slowly opening my eyes again the full range of tones fills in and I can add flesh to the bones and get a good idea of how the scene might translate into a fixed image.
     My window happened to neatly frame a composition of trees. This is not a manicured park but a sloping forestland that ends on granite bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Left untrimmed, the trees have achieved a kind of Darwinian symmetry that allows them to withstand winter storms and parched summers. The weak ones have broken down. Old and enormous, the survivors are nothing short of majestic.
     Most of what was beyond my window crept up on me slowly. For more than a year, I happily went about my life inside, head down, buried in preoccupations large and small. It took a full year of seasonal changes before I finally woke up one morning to the world going on just outside my personal bubble. It wasn’t a blinding insight. In fact, it was a peculiarly foggy morning, deep within a Mid-western winter that had left the ground frozen and the trees stripped naked. Emerging from the bedroom I stood and stared at the scene. Dead silence, limbs like black veins laced through a mist that rose from the ground. Finally, I felt aware of why I had moved up to the second floor and wanted a large uncovered window to the world.  
     How could I have missed this?
     From that day on I have spent the first 30 seconds of every morning gazing out this window. What began as a series of dramatic morning snapshots – deeply satisfying in themselves -- has become a kind of ongoing show. I am more conscious of the change going on, not just from one weather condition or season to the next, but of the continuum of change. I set up a camera on a tripod in my living room and for a year carted it outside to the balcony. I started doing this to capture the BIG changes – one season to another. But as I did it, I saw subtle modifications that are particularly arresting from one day to the next precisely because of their subtlety. The mixture of all the elements of light, atmosphere, and vegetation is unique to each nanosecond. No two days reveal anything even vaguely similar.

I am struck by both the peculiarity and the ridiculousness of photography. Perhaps this extends to art in general. Through it we have the ability to extract a fragment of the world and freeze it like a taxidermist. The world is frozen in time, though that of course never happens. It is an interesting lie.
     I conclude that noticing the show outside my window was a collision of internal and external forces. The external one was the rising mist, which for some reason caught my attention and then never let go, even as the mist gave way to snow, rain, heat, exploding leaves and dying colors. But that would not have happened, I feel certain, unless the seasons found me at some inflection point of inner change. My sensibility to the world around me was awakened to just the right degree so as to intersect with the outer world. My fog lifted just as the outer fog crept up on the trees outside my window.



About the Author

Paul Van Slambrouck is a contributing editor for works & conversations and former chief editor at the Christian Science Monitor


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