Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Gregory Bateson and "Seeing" with the Mind's Eye

Some of the most important basic lessons of learning to see in photography do not come directly from the masters of photography (though they obviously impart quite a bit of wisdom;-) For example, consider a deep lesson that is taught by anthropologist, Gregory Bateson...

Bateson was one of the last century’s most original thinkers. Trained as an anthropologist, Bateson made deep and lasting contributions to biology, cybernetics, and systems theory. He was also a gifted teacher. One of Bateson’s central ideas is that of the “Pattern that Connects,” or metapattern, which means, literally, a pattern of patterns.

This idea was first introduced in Bateson’s masterwork — Mind and Nature — in a story about how he sometimes pulled out a freshly cooked crab out of a bag and asked his students (who were typically nonscientists) to argue that the object represents the remains of a living being. The object of the Socratic exercise was to force his students to ponder the question, “What is the difference between the living and nonliving?” To answer this question, the students had to learn such concepts as relationship, symmetry and topology as they apply both within an organism (or object) and outside an organism (on higher levels). The deeper lesson was taking their first step toward appreciating the need for “discarding of magnitudes in favor of shapes, patterns, and relations.”

What does this have to do with photography and seeing? Well, one can begin by drawing a lesson from Bateson’s concept of metapatterns. A uniquely personal aesthetic grammar may be developed by following these three steps: (1) recognize that all conventional distinctions between objects are essentially arbitrary (i.e. learn to see the world as shape, pattern and relation rather than purely form), (2) draw your conscious attention to the visible boundaries between conventional forms that make up a photographic scene, and then (3) use your unconscious intuition to guide the camera, as a compositonal tool, to recompose the scene as if it were made up of visual elements of your own choosing. In short, decompose the world into its basic building blocks, then build it back up the way you really see it.

Another great book by Bateson (coauthored with his daughter Catherine Bateson, is Angels Fear: Towards An Epistemology Of The Sacred.

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