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?


Judging A Book By Its Cover — Buy Me!

Soft drinks on shelves in a Woolworths superma...
Image via Wikipedia

I’m finishing my second non-fiction book this month, probably next week. I’ve seen its cover, sent to me in a few iterations. Unless you’re A Very Big Name, you get — in your contract — cover consultation, but not cover approval. Covers matter!

Yet it’s authors who get all the attention, more rarely the designers whose interpretation of what it is we’re really saying, is meant to get you, our desired audience, to reach eagerly for our work. It’s a bitter irony that a book that can take an author many years to complete gets mere seconds to try to grab readers away from all those other books, or TV or radio or a movie or…

Like cans of soft drink on a grocery store shelf, every book cover is competing for buyers’ brief and distracted attention.

If you — like me — care about design, you might enjoy this post, from Elle magazine’s new blog LitLife interview with illustrator Michael Kirkham.

When you’re browsing the bookstore shelves, what kinds of covers do you gravitate to? I circle the illustrated ones. Being in a bookshop is just like being in an art gallery. There are so many different approaches to art, so many different ideas. I like quite blocky, maybe a bit retro book designs, but a good design could look like anything. And I won’t turn my nose at a good bit of photography.

What illustrators inspire you? I think that pictures can tell stories, so artists like David Hockney are a big inspiration. His etchings of Brothers Grimm fairytales really got me interested in illustration, because I saw that pictures could tell stories in a completely different way than words. That’s why book jackets have pictures on them—they tell a story and then the words inside continue telling that story.

Picture Of A Stump Sells For $3,510,000; Canada's Second-Highest Art Price Ever

That’s one hell of a stump — $3,510,000 worth, the second highest amount ever paid for a Canadian work of art. The Group of Seven were Canada’s equivalent of the Impressionists who painted scenes of Canada’s landscapes in the early 20th century. The stump sketch is an early version of  painting by Lawren Harris; the panting hangs in the National Gallery in Ottawa. Those who enjoy the Group of Seven (and I’m one of them) love the mythic quality of these paintings. If you ever visit Toronto, make time to visit the McMichael Collection, which groups many of these in a gorgeous setting on the outskirts of the city. The Art Gallery of Ontario also has some great Group of Seven works. One of favorites is J.E.H. Mcdonald’s Tangled Garden.

Why Success Is Like an Iceberg

Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA
Image via Wikipedia

I went to the Museum of Modern Art today. I live near New York City and, for my mental health, try to take a hooky day once a week to surgically detach from the computer so my brain doesn’t just feel like a cow at the milking machine. I don’t really love MOMA: I’m not wild about much modern art, there are always way too many tourists, and people race through the galleries rushing toward…the bathroom? the store? So many people don’t even look at the art.

But a show of theatrical drawings and paintings left a powerful impression — as so many of them were for productions that, de facto, were not productions because they were never produced. No one, other than those who commissioned them, saw them. The cynic may say, “So what? The artists got paid.” But the point of art, or creation, is to share it with an audience, isn’t it?

And what amazing talent was devoted to the backdrops and sets for these unsung, unseen plays and musicals and ballets: Marc Chagall, Ben Shahn, Georg Grosz, Robert Delaunay. I wonder if they went home fed up and worn out from being hired to work on things no one ever got the chance to appreciate. Or, as working artists, if it paid the rent or bought some new clothes, it was just one more bit of welcome income.

It made me see these legendary artists in a whole new light. They, too, (as I have and many of my friends and colleagues have, in various media) worked hard on some projects that died a premature death, only now brought to light thanks to a curator’s decision to share them with a wider public.

I think success, whatever the medium, is like an iceberg. We focus all our attention, our praise or scorn, only on the visible, gleaming final 10 percent — never the invisible 90 percent, the efforts that didn’t work, the ideas that didn’t sell, lying beneath it, as much as part of the mass as that which we do know about. We only see a tiny bit of what anyone really produces. It may not be their best, or most innovative work, just what sold at that moment.

I recently attended a conference where graphic designer Michael Bierut explained the development of signage for a children’s museum. He projected photos of his sketchbooks so we could watch the progression and refinement of his ideas. It was so lovely, and so unusual, to share the intimacy of process. Writer Anne Hull, a much admired feature writer at The Washington Post, once shared early drafts of a story with some of us attending the Nieman writers’ conference, a brave move. It was helpful and inspiring to see how many self-flagellating drafts she put her copy through. By the time most of us read it, who knew?

I always want to peer behind the curtain. I used to write a lot about ballet, and have sat in on class for the Royal Danish Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. I’ve seen, and appreciated seeing, the underlying sweat and effort, not just the spotlit perfection of opening night. I want to see and hear about the ideas that didn’t make it, and why not. Failure is relative, and success is impossible without it. Our failures are crucial to our success(es), no matter how quickly they come. No one never fails.

But we often keep our failures hidden, discussion of them taboo.