A camera’s viewfinder shapes the way you see and, in turn, the pictures you make. Beyond photography, your memories and identities create the viewfinder through which you experience your life. This viewfinder shapes the stories you weave and the memories you make.
The SLR viewfinder is seductive — your focal point is sharp and swims in a sea of blur. It’s all dreamy and beautiful. But if it makes everything looks great, how can you spot a good picture? Like a siren, it can tempt you onto the rocks of mediocrity. Likewise, one can’t help but be seduced by the play of light across the ground glass of a large format camera. You hide under a darkcloth, in the gloom of the confessional and try to make sense of a world that has been flipped upside down and back to front. Even amidst the clamour of a shoot, the peace and solitude is delicious; almost meditative. This disconnection from your subject gives you an emotional sobriety and attention to detail that is hard to find when you’re working a chaotic scene, camera in hand. However, if you faff too long in the dark, your pictures won’t show pictorial rigour, but rigor mortis.
By contrast, rangefinders offer a view so straightforward that unless you point the camera at something interesting, the world is a bore. You aren’t looking through the lens, so there’s no optic to doll up what you see. It’s just a window with a rectangle in the centre. You put the good stuff in the box, leave the dull stuff out, then press the button. It’s fitting that some of the best rangefinder photography was shot in France — if you look through a Leica, any subject short of the Rapture merits that Parisian shrug, ‘C’est pas mal’.
The viewfinder is a component that is literally transparent to the user. It’s hard to understand how it affects our vision because its character is almost invisible in use. This is true in life, too — we think we view the world with the clarity of a sage because we can’t see how where we stand affects how we see. We see the truth with the ease with which we see the rocky bottom of a clear mountain pool, while everyone else looks at a dull reflection on the surface of a muddy puddle. He’s biased, she’s problematic, and they’re brainwashed; but me, I know the score. I can try to step outside myself but it’s hard to intuit how personal experience, character and cultural influence shape my sense of fairness and unfairness, desire and disgust, right and wrong. How can you notice the frame that shapes your world view, when you see everything through that same frame?
I’d like to think that meditation and a constant effort to be aware of passing thoughts and emotions helps me to better see the frames I use to make sense of the world. This feels true, but it’s delusional. So much of my reasoning happens below the level of awareness that the few items that arrive in consciousness are essentially just press releases from my brain’s PR department. Any reason my brain puts forward to explain my actions — whether major or mundane — exists solely to justify my behaviour and will paint me in the most flattering light.
We create the world that we live in. This doesn’t mean we manifest our fantasies into physical reality by force of desire alone, rather that our brains construct our entire experience. Our brains are locked in a dark box with no connection to the outside world beyond electrical signals from the body. We don’t need to wait for a dystopian future — we already go about our lives as brains in a vat. Our senses deliver more information than it’s possible to process and if we don’t trash most of it, it’s impossible to function. Everything that we see, hear, feel, taste and smell is a result of the brain’s decisions about what is signal and what is noise. Brains act like a camera viewfinder. Everything within a certain narrow view is available to you in detail, and nothing else exists.
We interpret the world in order to interact with it. We live in the same physical reality and are subject to the same physical laws, but our experience differs radically based on how we direct our attention and the narratives we attach to the information we receive. This can be beneficial: if we see ourselves as open-minded and kind, we will find plenty of opportunities to update our opinions or to help people. If we see the world as a hostile place, full of unscrupulous people who are out to fleece us, we’ll find what we are looking for. A bias towards negativity explains a central tenet of Reddit wisdom — if you have a run-in with someone difficult, that’s a quirk of fate; but if you feel that you’re surrounded by morons, traitors, and psychos, take care my friend — you may be the arsehole.
Paul Graham, in his essay of the same name, counsels us, ‘keep your identity small’. Failure to do so can cause us to prioritise coherence with our identity or tribe over civility or the search for truth. This is important both in our own thinking and in our interactions with others. If we judge people on a case-by-case basis, rather than as members of the group we’ve assigned them to, we can better understand their actions and motivations in all their nuance and messiness. Similarly, the ability to adopt other people’s perspectives leads to more compassion and better understanding of those actions or opinions that seem inscrutable or immoral from your position. You may still strongly disagree with their conclusions but it’s easier to treat them with respect when you understand where they are coming from. Strongly tribal people find this approach challenging and perhaps traitorous. Why look for the reasons behind your enemy’s actions? Why humanise them? It is precisely because this approach is so effective that it feels so dangerous. To use another French expression, “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” To understand all is to forgive all.
Is your viewfinder serving your goals in life or photography? How is it framing your experience and influencing your actions? Is it helping you create the change you want to see?
Choose carefully — it matters.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
A brilliant collection of science fiction short stories. Like many Borges shorts, each story is both a narrative and an exploration of an idea or philosophical questions. The stories range from the distant past to far future; touching on time travel, parenting AIs in virtual worlds, operating on your own brain, free will and parallel universes
99 Additional Bits of Unsolicited Advice by Kevin Kelly
99 wise nuggets, some tried and true, some idiosyncratic, written by Kevin Kelly on his 69th birthday. His list from his 68th birthday is great too.
Your Move: The Maze of Free Will by Galen Strawson
Strawson on free will and moral responsibility
Wild and weird street photography in riotous colour
Quiet and tender documentary work, pervaded by a sense of foreboding behind the tranquility
Birds and Other Angels — Barbara Bosworth
Soulful portraits of people with beautiful birds. Lovely light and mood
Golden Gate Bridge
Classic black and white photography documenting the construction of Golden Gate Bridge
Hi This Is Flume (Mixtape) by Flume
Heavy, messy and vibey.
Graz by Nils Frahm
Frahm gets back to the basics with an album of solo piano works. Focussed and beautiful
Galaxies Like Grains of Sand Hampshire and Foat
Spacey, pretty and jazzy.
Kevin Kelly Interview
Kevin Kelly on his new photography tome Vanishing Asia, his article 1000 True Fans (a catalyst for the creator economy), blockchain and crypto, protopias and other visions of the future.
As always you can find the above recommendations and music from previous issues in the Art + Attention playlist
I’ve been using this web app to spring clean my Twitter and it’s been great to create a timeline free from the cruft accumulated over the years. It takes you through all of the accounts you follow from oldest to newest and lets you keep, unfollow or add them to a list.
All images shot in Porto in September 2018