What do you really see?

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Looked down from our bedroom window to see this…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

I think about this a lot.

For a writer, I’m a highly visual person. It informs how I live, how I think, how I write and how I connect to the world.

My father was an award-winning film director.

My husband is an award-winning photographer.

I sold my first images — three covers — to a Toronto magazine while still in high school and went on to sell my photos to Time, The New York Times, Washington Post and others.

I see beauty everywhere, all the time. I could spend all day photographing the world.

But I wonder how many people now — staring into their phones — even see the world around them. I shout “DON’T WALK INTO ME!” at anyone phone-staring while ambulating.

It’s disturbing how little we notice of the subtleties: the changing light season to season, how it gets low and yellow in fall; the specific bright green of spring vegetation, the minuscule worlds beneath our feet in any forest.

My daily joy is my Instagram feed, with spectacular images from around the world — Scotland, Finland, Italy, many by talented amateurs (check out Grant Kaspo’s stunning photos of Scottish mountains, in all seasons and hours) but also by legendary pro’s like fellow Canadian Gary Hershorn, who I met a long long time ago when we both worked in  Toronto and now live within an hour’s drive of one another near New York City.

Recently asked by an awestruck Insta follower, “How do you do it?” Gary replied “You just have to look.”

 

Are you looking?

 

A different point of view

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a long time — 23 years — since the death of my dog Petra, a small black and white terrier mix I inherited from my mother as she went off to travel. I loved seeing the world through Petra’s eyes and wondered what it was like to experience it all from a height of a foot, not my five feet, five inches.

 

We take so for granted the way we see the world, that everyone else does, too, which of course they don’t. Read any news source today and our political divisions are obvious.

 

It’s one of the reasons I love to travel, whether a few hours upstate in New York or abroad. People think differently. People see, literally, differently.

One of my favorite assignments of 2017 was meeting a Quebec farmer who took me into one of his fields and explained the function (!) of cornsilk. I’ll never see corn the same way again.

On a current project for The New York Times, I visited a Brooklyn classroom and watched tween girls in hijab confidently wielding power tools. Not at all what I’d expected!

A joy of journalism, for decades, for me, is how often it pushes us into wholly unfamiliar situations — physically, emotionally, spiritually. If you want to work in journalism and can’t imagine a thousand other ways of being in this world — run. It’s not the job for you!

In my work, I’ve met Queen Elizabeth, convicted felons, FBI firearms trainers, crime victims, Billy Joel, a female Admiral. I’ve witnessed the aftermath of a horrific head-on car crash and reviewed ballet.

A new book by Hallie Rubenhold is reframing the classic narrative around Jack the Ripper’s victims; here’s a Guardian story about it.

Using my cellphone camera is helping me see the world anew.

Some images:

 

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I love to sit at the bar and to eat alone there, two activities I know some women find intimidating and won’t do. This is from one of Manhattan’s best restaurants, Via Carota, and I loved the image in black and white better than in color. When you work in photography you stop seeing beauty per se and look for information — sometimes color is overwhelming and distracting.

As you look at the image, notice what you notice first and why: the drinks and their prices? The quality of the the light? I was most interested in the very rear, the people sitting at the table in bright sunlight. You can even see through the window across the street — to the hair salon where I get my hair done.

 

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Jose and I had just been to the ballet and were leaving the Koch Theater when I noticed this pattern of beaded metal curtains with the lights of a building behind. I liked the juxtaposition.

This was interesting; just as I noticed it, so did Jose. It’s easy to ignore something as basic as the curtains because they’re often functional as well as decorative. I liked the warm tones here as well.

 

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On our recent trip to Montreal, this amazing tiled serpent, coiled around a column, advertises a Mexican tourist agency. I just liked the color and detail without needing the entire image. Sometimes a fraction is much more compelling than the entirety.

Trying to capture the whole serpent would have been more difficult because of too much distracting stuff around it. I like how the shadow bisects the image, and had never seen tile of this shape before.

 

 

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I love shopping to see what sort of environments a decent designer can create — these were two enormous pillows in Brown’s, a Montreal shoe store. Loved the color, texture and wit.

Chartreuese is one of my favorite colors, anywhere. That graphic black and white, and its scale, are fantastic. I found the pillows more interesting than the shoes!

 

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Nothing special — the doors to the dining room of our Montreal hotel. But I love the texture and light and shadow.

There’s beauty everywhere. You just have to notice it.

 

 

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I’ve walked past this red wooden bench in our town hundreds of times, and have sat on it it a few times. But I loved it with some snowflakes.

The weathered cracks make this more interesting to me.

 

 

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Literally, out the bedroom window, looking straight down. This is one of my recent favorites.

 

This feels mysterious to me. When do we ever look down into or onto a tree?

 

Look up.

Look down.

Look at something you find ugly — why?

Look at something you’ve seen 1,000 times before and notice something new.

Listen to a podcast or radio show or TV show you’ve never heard.

Read an author or genre you’d normally avoid.

 

Has something ever radically changed your point of view?

On (really) seeing

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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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.

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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.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

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.)

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Are you making time to really see your world?

 

What do you see?

Here is a lovely blog post from a young British man who keeps a limp yellow balloon as a reminder of a lost young man who needed his help — and who gave it to him. When he looks at the balloon, on the surface nothing more than a piece of yellow rubber, he sees connection, kindness, a reminder of the things he’s grateful for in his own life.

I love his clarity of vision — both rare and precious.

And here’s a great post by a feminist blogger deconstructing one of the most iconic photos of a man and woman kissing. Turns out it’s not at all what we thought — or hoped.

And here’s a recent post by labor activist Sara Ziff, whose organization represents the rights of models, arguing that the use of teen girls on the runway is a poor choice.

Not to mention, two huge and shocking scandals that have recently rocked the United States — the conviction and sentencing of Jerry Sandusky, a football coach who abused children in his care and the late Jimmy Savile, a beloved BBC entertainer, now accused by 300 adults of abusing them when he was also a popular figure, like Sandusky — whose public facade was a deep devotion to the care and welfare of children.

We see what we want to see.

The other day, my husband came upstairs from the laundry room and burst into tears. A proud and private Hispanic man, he very rarely cries. Typically, he began apologizing for his emotional reaction to what he had just seen — one of our neighbors, a retired single woman fighting multiple cancers. Normally gruff and private, she was staggering along the hallway with a friend, clearly weak, in pain and scared.

Jose saw it all.

It’s one of the reasons I love him. He is a career photographer and photo editor, so his talent, and profession, is observation and analysis. But it’s much more than that. He sees the person inside the clothes, the fear inside the bravado, the doubt beneath the smile.

I live in a suburb of New York, in a small town that, to my eye, is bursting with beauty: a red brick concert hall built in 1885; wrought iron fences, cupolas, wisteria, a view straight up the Hudson River, one often shrouded by fog or mist or snow or rain. Every day that I live here, and that’s now more than 20 years, I am deeply grateful to live in a place with so much to delight my eye and lift my heart.

As I write this, a bouquet of crimson-tinged calla lilies, in a hand-made pot, sits on my desk. It’s curved, sensuous, lovely — and a reminder of my wedding day, because my bouquet contained those colors and those flowers. So in them I also see, and savor, a sweet moment from my past.

I’ve lived in Paris, London, Toronto, Montreal, Cuernavaca and a small town in New Hampshire. Each place had ugly bits and moments of deep, desperate unhappiness in my life.

But each also offered its own specific beauty, from the austere, gray elegance of Paris to Toronto’s enormous parks and ravines and the islands in its harbor to Lebanon’s white houses with dark green shutters. I have a photo I took on Green Street, there, of late afternoon sunlight gilding the telephone wires.

I was in the Times Square subway station recently and, for once, looked up at the stretch of round glass embedded in the ceiling that allows light in from the street above. It was a sunny day, and the shadows of those above created a moving, kinetic artwork, their bodies and their motion making a dancing, ever-changing light show — of glass and concrete. It was mesmerizing.

Beauty is everywhere.

So is need — for love, tenderness, warmth, compassion, connection.

We are, all of us, surrounded daily by loveliness, grace, wisdom, intelligence.

We are, all of us, surrounded daily by pain, fear, anger, depression, frustration.

We are, all of us, surrounded by tremendous material wealth — and grinding, terrifying poverty.

We are, all of us, living in a world tinged with mystery, magic, madness.

We are, all of us, surrounded by exquisite creation — the squirrel nibbling an acorn, the hawk circling overhead, the blue jay flashing through the pines, the mushroom clinging to a rotted log.

We are, all of us, sheltered nightly beneath a sky freckled by galaxies, mere pindots on the shoulder of the universe.

As you move through your world(s), what do you see?

Which eyes do you see with?

In 1988, I took a class on connoisseurship, to learn about antiques, at Historic Deerfield, in Massachusetts, led by its young, enthusiastic director. Five women showed up for the class and our first session showed us a battered, ugly, brown shell of a chair. And a bright blue, very pretty Bible stand.

Which one, he asked us, was authentic — i.e. of the period — and which was a reproduction?

Of course, the repro was the blue box. To our, then 20th century, gaze it was small, neat, tidy. And so pretty!

But not at all the right size or shape to be true to its time. Inevitably and until then unconsciously, we were seeing it through a contemporary lens, thinking how it fit into a 20th century home and life.

The hideous chair, of course, was the real thing, and terribly valuable.

That class taught us some indelible and powerful lessons:

not to make snap judgments

not to be beguiled by the externally soothing

not to be seduced by mere aesthetics

Whenever I see an early painting or building or use an early textile, (like this one, in the photo above, that covers my desk, sitting beneath my Mac, a 19th century woolen paisley shawl), I wonder about the people who made it and used it. They didn’t have electricity or television or computers or cars or effective anesthesia or antibiotics.

I know my love of old things is some powerful desire to time-travel, to place myself, even safely and temporarily, inside the lives and minds of those long gone. I often start my mornings, if I wake up before sunrise, by lighting several candles. The illumination is gentle and makes me ponder how the world appeared when that was the only source of light.

Imagine how different everything looked!

Having studied interior design, I’m passionate about interior (and exterior) beauty, whether in materials, colors, use of space. I live in suburban New York, but I often buy and read design magazines from France, England and my native Canada to see how differently their homes are created. I find them inspiring and often much more adventurous than the looks offered by American publications. The light is different, the use of historical allusion easier and colors often much richer and more muddled.

Not to mention I live and work in a one-bedroom apartment. The bathrooms and kitchens featured in American magazine are sometimes bigger than my living room! Europeans are more accustomed to designing well and intelligently for much small(er) spaces.

I love that elegant European homes often mix very modern and very old objects, as our does ours; a Tizio lamp and 18th century engravings of a South Seas voyage, to name two. For inspiration, check out Elle Decoration, Marie-Claire Maison, every version of Cote Sud/Ouest. etc.; my absolute favorite is British magazine,  The World of Interiors.

Having lived in Canada, England, France and Mexico — each of which has distinct aesthetic styles that also vary by region, in materials, colors, scale, proportion — I see design with an eye that adores the brilliant pinks and blues of Mexico, the deep black-green of Canadian forests, the gentle tones of a William Morris print, the impossible elegance of a Parisian maison particulier.

This afternoon I walked the cobble-stoned streets of old Philadelphia, looking at homes built in 1752. How did those streets appear then to the first residents?

On Saturday we visited a show of van Gogh’s paintings and I was most moved by one image, of a field in a downpour, the view through his hospital window. If you click that link above, the painting I love is in it!

How did his physical and mental state affect how he saw?

How do you see things?

What has influenced your eye?

The Joy Of Failure — Learning To See Is Tougher Than It Looks

A stainless steel tea infuser.
Prettier than this one...Image via Wikipedia

I only have one more drawing class before this four-week session ends. This morning the teacher set up a still life so utterly daunting I sat there paralyzed while I tried — like some medieval warrior staring up at a very large castle — to figure out my point of entry.

It doesn’t sound like much: a 1940s floral print linen tablecloth, and on it a pale yellow Fiestaware teapot, a red tea tin, a dark blue mug with a spoon on top and a sterling tea-ball. Perspective! Scale! Color! All those highlights (reflections) on the glossy surfaces of the pot and mug and spoon.

The exercise was to work in primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Easy, right? Not when the yellow ceramic is soft, pale shade — and my pencils are all strong colors. I managed to get the teapot and the mug done in two hours, when the teacher finally came by to take a look.

The great thing with drawing is it’s immediately obvious when it’s lousy. The problem is — how to fix it. The pot was too small, the mug too large. There was no fixing it.

I started again. Do-over!

This time I focused only on the teapot and spent 60 minutes just on it. It was certainly recognizable as a teapot. It was just lopsided.

As the teacher helped me figure out how to do it better next time, she packed away the items, including the tea-strainer that I’d just spent three hours looking at — focused on it only as something I had to capture and portray realistically, as a problem to solve.

I hadn’t even noticed that this tiny elegant object was itself in the form of a teapot, sort of a sterling silver fractal.

“Sometimes you have to step away to see things clearly,” she said. Indeed.

The pleasure of my drawing class is that, for three hours out of my week, I get to make a big fat mess in my sketchbooks as I (re)-learn how to see and how to translate what I see into something that makes visual sense and might even be attractive. I have two stories due to The New York Times today; no “mistakes” welcome there.

Unlike much of the rest of my life, class offers me a safe place to “fail” — to try something new, to do it poorly, to take gentle and helpful instruction, to go away and think hard about why I couldn’t even see clearly that which was before my eyes for so long. My fellow students are planning to show their work soon, but I’m in no rush to join them. I don’t need or want that validation — or that pressure to do it right or well or good enough.

My lousy drawings, my “failures”, are giving me great joy. That’s plenty for now.