Thursday, March 31, 2011

Through the Lens

These days it seems like everybody takes photos—snapping them with everything from their phones to their ultra-high-tech digital SLR with telephoto lens and tripod support. That may not always be such a great thing; in fact, there’s an excellent post by Lynda of Mainly Mongoose about why to not take pictures. And yet, for me, photography has been an interest that has enriched, rather than reduced, my perception of the world.

I don’t deny that some of my enjoyment in the activity is really a passion for collection—a passion I think many scientists share, from the 19th-century naturalists with their glass-covered cabinets of specimens to the 21st-century ecologists with their sea tables swimming with experimental subjects, or the molecular biologists with their tissue-culture plates. I’ve often suspected that many biologists on the ecology, evolution, and behavior (or EEB) end of things really got drawn to science because it let them bring home (er, to the lab) all those plants and animals they wanted to pick up and put in jars/buckets/their bedrooms as kids. –But even if there is, as I admit, a possessive spirit to the act of photography, it’s still a vast improvement over other kinds of wildlife collection. For one thing, I don’t actually remove or kill anything. For another, photos take up a lot less space. As someone with a bit of a beachcombing problem (acknowledging it is the first step towards recovery), I appreciate the advantages of bringing home photos rather than shells from the sea. (Although I still bring home a few shells—what, am I made of stone?)

It’s not just the possessive element, though, that inspires me; there’s also the part of taking pictures that involves art—or at least skill—and it’s through that that the photographer benefits most. I feel I notice more now, even when I don’t have a camera handy: I see the light striking the rippling, surface of a building’s windows so that they swim with color; I notice the line of salt-cellars mirrored across tables in a restaurant; I spot the single rosehip glowing like a banked coal among dry stems and leaves. I notices backgrounds and foregrounds, I notice forms and angles. I’m not saying I can take photographs that do justice to these visions, but thanks to the camera, even a myopic like me can see better.

I also see more; and this is why I think cameras are useful props, if you will, for all sorts of observers in many disciplines. My desire to get good photos of wild- and zoo-life usually means that I don’t just want any old photo—I want a striking portrait, a funny pose, an unusual behavior—and to see, and then capture that, I have to spend a great deal of time watching animals—from grackles perching on fences to otters diving for clam shells. Because I’m waiting with a purpose, I can wait—the lens gives me the license to stay in one spot, and it also gives me the patience to do so. If I just stopped by each animal, took one look—or a single photo—and moved on, I would never observe most of the interesting behaviors I’ve been lucky enough to witness. And the longer I wait the more things I become aware of.

Of course it’s terrific to simply see things—to get a glimpse of a flock of wild turkeys in a field off the highway, to pass by a panda and smile at its blissful expression as it chomps on bamboo. But when you stay for a while, or return again and again to an exhibit or park or beach, you have the opportunity to see so much more.

If you can do that without a camera, more power to you. I myself take great pleasure in the combined delight of witnessing something and knowing I got a decent image of it; that’s worth all of those moments of frustration when I know I took the picture too late or when the camera batteries die just as a hawk lands in front of me.

So there you have it: my paean to the lens. I hope it’s at least half as convincing as my defense of pigeons.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

1 comment:

Anca said...

You've convinced me.

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