You’ve been there, too: you’re at a concert or a play or a race or whatever, and you look around at the spectators and see not a sea of rapt faces, but a sea of camera phones pointed at the action, people’s faces obscured, their eyes focused not on what’s happening in front of them but what’s showing up on the tiny screen in their hands. I have come to believe—really believe—that hardly anyone experiences anything first hand any more. Instead, they collect experiences that they may or may not access later. I don’t know about anyone else, but I recently realized I had 25,000 photos in iPhoto and hadn’t even looked at most of them, ever. We take photos and video, thinking we’ll do something more with it than share it on Facebook, but often we don’t. We’ve got all these snippets cluttering up our hard drives, plus—and this is what I’m thinking about—we missed having the experience first hand because we were too busy trying to get the video.
Sometimes photos are important for artists. If you’re at the zoo, say, and you want to remember exactly what the flamingo looks like from all angles and maybe you haven’t been—ahem—keeping up your drawing skills like you swore you were going to, then, sure: you need some reference photos. But obsessively taking photos just because you can, because you’ve got this tiny little camera in your hand anyway, is doing more harm than it is good. That’s my argument, and here’s why I say that: when you take photos of something, you’re not seeing it with your own eyes; you’re seeing it through the lens of the camera. Even if you’ve got a larger screen, you’re still getting a cropped view and it’s still distorted to some degree, maybe a little, maybe rather a lot. You’re seeing the colors through the camera, and you’re seeing distorted sizes and altered lighting. The camera focuses, and what it focuses on may not be the most interesting bit. Think of all the stories of disasters, where people gave police their photos and video and these were used in trying to figure out exactly what happened. Even though the cameras were pointed in the same direction, what they picked up was different, sometimes because of intentional focus, but sometimes just because that’s what the camera picked up.
What I’m noticing is that a lot of people no longer even look at the world around them. They look, instead, at a tiny screen they hold in their hands, trusting it with their view and perceptions, their memories of events, their interpretation of the world. As an artist, part of your job is to show people what you see, and that’s the key: what *you* see, not what your camera sees. Try this: go somewhere important—a show, a nature reserve, an art fair—and leave your camera at home. (Or at least in your pocket, if you’re one of those people who can’t imagine going anywhere, even to the bathroom, without your phone.) Instead of the lens, see things with your eyes. How will things look to you without that filter? What will you notice that you wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t been seeing with your own eyes? Draw, take notes, just stand and look. See what it feels like to see things with your eyes, naked and unfiltered, nothing between you and the wide, wide world.
Instead of taking your camera, take your sketchbook and Sketchbook Confidential 2 so you really have to look at what’s happening!
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