On (really) seeing

By Caitlin Kelly



Some of you are photographers and film-makers, professional observers.

Some of you are writers and visual artists.

We look for a living — noticing and making or recording the beauty of what we find.


I enjoyed this recent post by frequent commenter Cynthia Guenther Richardson about the value of really seeing where you are:

I have become more of a human being since taking photographs daily. More satisfied, centered in the moment, less opinionated of what and whom I experience. Photography offers an intense personal experience while also requiring objectivity, a distancing. It asks me to abandon restrictive thinking and give myself over to a finer sense of things, the gravitational pull of life around me. Order can be created even if there seems to be little–or exposed and highlighted. And it takes discipline, which is something I enjoy…

Walking into the world with camera in hand unlocks secrets to which I would not otherwise be so privy. I closely observe the way shadow changes rhododendron blossoms. I watch how a couple leans toward one another in the spring light, then the man turns sharply away. I see a child poke a muddy puddle and talk to himself about frogs and other beings unnamed. Over there is a house with an extravagance of foliage and two empty chairs. Who steps out in the dusk to sit there with the quieting birds? Photography uses a different part of the brain than language; it enlarges my reservoir of skills and ideas, stimulates possibilities.

And these images, from SearchingtoSee, are lovely. Emily Hughes is a British primary school teacher who’s also passionate about photography. Here is some of her “about” page:’

It is easy to become consumed by a kind of fervour for capturing images, and I wonder if for him [her father] it was as much about escaping from the chaos of everyday family life as it was about recording it. I know for me it certainly is. I carry a camera with me often, and when I am off taking pictures I feel so liberated and so focussed at the same time,  that I often find it hard to be ‘present’ in my other roles: mum, sister, daughter, wife, friend… but there are times when I feel like I need to record, and there are times also when I realise that I need to put down the camera and just be, enjoy, experience, think. But I understand and share the collective need we have as humans to use photography as a tool of memory, to seize and hold forever those moments of magic because they are so fleeting and because if we didn’t then we might forget that they existed at all.

But so many of us now live — if you can call it that! — in a rushed, tech-tethered world.

As I walk through Manhattan or Grand Central Station, I often have to side-step people , yelling “Don’t bump into me!”, people  striding head-down while reading or texting.

It’s rude and aggressive — and sad.

photo: Jose R. Lopez
photo: Jose R. Lopez

They’re missing a lot.

I’ve lived in the same apartment for 25 years, which is odd and unsettling for me, someone who lives for adventure and new experiences. But it also means I’ve grown to know and love the rhythms of my town, and the trees and woods and water nearby.

I know when the magnolia is about to bloom and mourn the day the red Japanese maple sheds its final bright mementos for the season. I look for the fragrant shoots of wild onion and the changing position of the sun as it hits our balcony, proof that the earth really does move through the seasons.


The other day I went for my reservoir walk, not as usual, at the end of the day at 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., but at 10:00 a.m; the same old familiar place felt very different, as brilliant sunlight backlit the tiny, brilliant green buds of the trees. The woods became a pointilist painting!

My father, still healthy and curious at 85, was a documentary film-maker and a visual artist working in a variety of media: silver, etching, engraving, oils, lithography. I began drawing and painting and taking photographs as a child.

(It’s interesting that Cynthia, Emily and I were all inspired by our fathers.)

My husband Jose is an award-winning New York Times photo editor and former photographer, (now also shooting weddings), so I’ve spent my life around people who see, notice, observe — and act on their art-making impulses.

Jose recently did a 30-day series of daily blog posts with images from his 30 years at the Times, many of them from his days in the White House Press Corps; check it out here.

You might also enjoy The New York Times Lens blog, which interviews photographers and offers interesting backstories to the images you see in their pages and on-line.

(All photos here are mine.)






Details and sign-up here.

Are you making time to really see your world?


32 thoughts on “On (really) seeing

  1. I am so pleased you found my post worthy of mention, Caitlin. I enjoyed what you shared today and look forward to seeing Emily’s and Jorge’s photos. I do know what you mean about staying in the same place–I have been in our apt. for 18 yrs. now–and have become happily intimate with our neighborhood as oyu have, yours. Many of my photos are from my neighborhood walks.I have shared this post on FB as your writing is informative, entertaining and good-hearted. Thanks!

  2. Hi Caitlin,
    It is interesting how the mere taking of a picture opens ones eyes. I find that it is almost a matter of accommodation. We become so familiar with things that we no longer see then for what they are. When you capture something in a picture you discover a lot of things that are missed.

      1. I find I have to do all sorts of tricks to become more accurate in drawing. I often turn the subject upside-down I use a mirror to see the work too. I find the senses do a lot of adaptation.

      2. Our senses are always trying to correct for us. It goes to show you that our perception isn’t very accurate. That goes for almost all the senses too.

  3. i also find the act of taking a photo to be a brain expanding experience. sometimes the final photo reveals even more than you originally intended and that is a whole other wonderful surprise. )

  4. This is a lovely post. It reminds me of how one of the things that elevated running from mere fitness pursuit to spiritual practice has been the way I make an effort to observe everything around me when I go for a run. It can be easy to zone out and let everything pass by in a blur, but it’s not nearly as satisfying.

    And also, now I really want a camera. A real camera, not the junk embedded in my phone.

    1. Thanks! Always great to her from you again…:-)

      It’s one of the great pleasures of my local reservoir walk, noticing the subtle changes in every season.

      I admit, I’m taking many more images now with my cellphone than before, and it’s sharpening my vision again. I like how quickly I can share them on FB or Twitter (I don’t use Pinterest or Instagram.) I also like how unobtrusive a cellphone snap can be — while a camera is clearly a camera!

      1. That’s a good point about the unobtrusiveness. I think it would also help if my cell phone’s camera didn’t suck. I guess I was thinking more about how a camera can allow you to play with focus, light, etc. I took a photojournalism class in college and I really enjoyed learning to use a manual SLR and photo composition and the use of negative space and all that. It was surprising because I’m definitely a words person, but it was nice to learn how to think about the world in a different way.

      2. I agree — a very good camera (with interchangeable lenses) is a fantastic thing. Jose and I grew up shooting Canon and Nikon SLRs, so I love that flexibility. Living with a photographer (who is always taking pix of me!) is fun and we can get quite competitive when we travel to see whose take is better!

        I think every journalist needs to be super-visual and one of the great uses of a cellphone (for me) is to snap details quickly I can later add to my story that I might otherwise forget to include or not even write in my notebook. I like stories that really immerse me in the place, whenever possible.

        I’m writing an essay for rewireme.com about how my choreo class is now teaching me to think very differently — non-verbally. It’s a very good thing to learn other ways of seeing/thinking/making art.

  5. Oh, you pegged it. Because it’s things like knowing when the magnolia will bloom or how to keep that old faucet from squeaking that makes a living space a home. Thanks for a beautiful post.

    1. Thanks!

      I like knowing a physical place as well as I know the people I love. Rushing around distracted is not a great way to connect with our world. There’s so much beauty just begging to be noticed and appreciated — when we look up!

  6. Thanks for the feature, Caitlin 🙂 it’s been a while since I read those words back. I tend to go back to the same places over again to photograph and it really does hone your awareness and tune you into your environment. I also think that most ‘creative’ people have a different way of seeing the world in a way that is quite similar whether they may be a writer, photographer or painter, for example. They just choose (or are forced to choose) different mediums of expression. Perhaps it’s down to an inherent sensitivity to our surroundings; perhaps it’s all part of the role we assume of ‘observer’ (outsider?) / commentator on society; or perhaps we just notice more stuff… or take the time to!

    1. I think creative people DO see differently — in that we see at all. I fear for people who spend their lives glued to a TV or Ipad or some simulacrum of the “real world” — and miss a lot of it. I’m not anti-tech and I watch TV and play on an Ipad. But I try to spend a lot of my time looking off-screen, and thinking about what I see.

      1. yup I hear you on that. I also use technology for what I do and rely on the internet, social media. I rarely watch TV (mainly time!) but I see the value in it all, just not when it becomes a substitute for real life as you say. I think lots of people go through their lives with blinkers on, looking but not seeing. And we don’t give ourselves enough time to think or reflect anymore… everything is provided in ‘accessible’ bite size pieces, snapshots or sound bites it’s bam, then quick onto the next thing and our appetite for newness is insatiable (this is one thing I hate about the effect of social media). Even teaching has become like that. The children have no time to absorb, to think, to daydream… (oh god I sound like my mother!!)

      2. But it’s crucial to slooooooooooow down and really be present. Do you know Carl Honore’s great book In Praise of Slowness? You might enjoy it.

  7. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail

  8. scotsabroad

    Broadside, love the stream of thought. Like the blog. Don’t know if I agree. I certainly don’t want to disrespect any photographers out there. As I get older and technology allows us to take great photographs – I find myself taking less and less, or I just forget. I think what you remember about a moment, a place, or a person can never be captured in a photograph. It is triggered by something else, a smell, a taste, a certain kind of light… music… I now use a crappy little Cannon Ixus when I remember, or are told, to use it – usually after a jaw-dropping moment. Maybe it is because I’m pushing 50 and loved the whole developing stage of photography, the anticipation… did I get it right? – I don’t know… my memories are mine, true or false, real or imagined, so different from the next persons. Maybe I’m running out of time and don’t worry too much about getting a cool photograph – just relishing the moment. Moving or staying put can be memorable – seeing and feeling things that others do not is much more important. You don’t need a camera… but I do love a great photograph!

    1. I am not arguing — and thanks for such a thoughtful comment! — ONLY in favor of taking or making photos everywhere we go. Quite the opposite.

      My argument (poorly made?) was that we all need to slow the hell down and be present; i.e. make and enjoy the sort of sensual memories you describe here. Most of my best moments had no camera handy to record them — speeding to Corte, Corsica on a moped at dawn or riding in a dugout canoe in Nicaragua — but I will remember them, I hope, for the rest of my life.

      I grew up the same time as you, and my husband is pro photographer, so we grew up making images on film and working in darkrooms.

  9. “Are you making time to really see your world?”

    Yes. It’s not photography that makes me do this though, it’s writing.

    Photography, for me, is about going out there and getting something. “Creating the situation” as Antoine D’agata, a Magnum photographer I workshopped with, would say.

    Writing, for me, is about taking a back seat to the process of creating, and letting the situation unfold without influencing it.

    But much as I enjoy writing, I am a photographer first and foremost. I am driven to make images and that is how I approach my craft, and it shows.

  10. M. Hazel at Play (http://mhatzel.wordpress.com/) forwarded the link to this post to me, thinking that I might find your musings valuable. I’m glad, for indeed I do. I’m afraid I will have to disagree with Randy, above, however. My images are, for me at least, quite capable of acting as portals to my past. Sure we all rely, to greater or lesser degrees, on smell, taste, sight, and sound … but photos help in transporting me to those times and places that I wish (or don’t wish) to remember. Photos act as place holders in the complex world which is the neurology of our brain. Retracing the neural pathways to a particular memory can sometimes be hard. A photo takes us to just the right place so that memories tied to the senses can the do their thing and bring us close to the moment. I too appreciated how you expressed your real need to capture photos. When I’m out with the camera, shooting RAW images, I know that I’m simply bringing home several billion bits of encoded, digital, information. That information however can be translated to represent a thing of beauty which, when processed by our eyes and our emotions, can bring a fleeting moment of joy. That’s why I enjoy taking photographs. I will close by apologizing for waxing poetic about the simple act of photography. But, as I hope to practice it, it is my art .. and art is sustenance for the soul … right? D

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Great to hear a new commenter — and from someone who also values image-making and keeping.

      One of my favorite activities is reviewing the many images I’ve taken over the years — Mexico, Paris, Nicaragua, London — then choosing whether to use them in color, black and white or sepia, then framing them and enjoying the image and the memories. I bought two white frames today on sale and am looking forward to the next trip into those memories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s