Back when I was in grade school, any time a teacher asked the class to close their eyes and imagine a given thing, I always thought that was some sort of… metaphor. Or that maybe it was a form of intense mental exercise, because it always wore me out trying to make anything stand out in the blackness that I see.
I’ve always shied away from authors who tend to drag on and on with physical descriptions of characters or scenes – it was all just undecipherable noise to me. I love to read, but it can be draining if the author is depending on my ability as a reader to see the story along with them.
Any time I’ve been in a yoga or tai-chi class and the instructor asks us to visualize something like a big orb of energy between our hands, or our “happy place”, I panic a little and eventually drop out emotionally due to exhaustion and boredom. I mean, what the hell is a happy place? A thick evergreen forest with moss and ferns sounds damn right lovely but I can’t get there when I’m sitting here in yoga class, on a hardwood floor. That’s just silly.
One of my professors in college began to tell us about how he had a condition called aphantasia, how he couldn’t imagine things. He can’t see anything in his mind’s eye. I sorta figured that was just what being a person was – and it took me until I was 20 to realize I was kinda missing out on a pretty common human experience.
I’m not blind, but my mind’s eye is.
And yet, I’ve always felt a strong pull, like the tides, to the visual arts. I have always loved to draw and paint and take photos. I love films, books with pictures, and art galleries. I love color, form, symmetry, pattern, I love it all. I could swim in it.
Probably because I don’t get any of that in my own head.
I was watching a video recently – you know, one of those super-satisfying hyperlapse videos of someone drawing. They were drawing some sort of hound, with a singular black pen, and I was wondering how they were able to construct something like that without a reference. Of course, I didn’t see if there was a photo they were drawing from right outside the frame of the video – but I realized they are probably seeing that image in their head BEFORE it’s on the page.
Which is baffling to me. I wonder to myself, gee, if I could do that, imagine the artist I’d be today.
I love to paint, but I nearly always work from a reference – usually a photo or another drawing that I’m basically just emulating. I couldn’t remember how a complex pattern like a mandala would look after I glance away from it, but I think I could draw one from scratch, making it up as I go along and depending on the existing pattern once it’s laid out. (Hmm… maybe I should just draw more weird abstract art.)
I have a hard time piecing together anything concrete, complex, and three-dimensional with a lot of moving parts like a car engine or a sailboat rigging – there’s way too much going on for me to memorize. It would be wildly inaccurate, and probably cartoon-like. Kinda like this article about an artist who asks people to draw a bicycle from memory (seriously check it out, it’s hilarious).
I don’t want this to sound like I have no thoughts or imagination. No – my mind is full of words, ideas, and concepts. I definitely have an imagination, and I love to create. It’s really really hard to explain, but when I imagine things, I imagine them as the ideas of what they are. I think about the features of things, and their constituent parts. The visuals are slim to none, but I know what things look like.
I know what my mother looks like. I know she has blonde hair, freckles all over her face and shoulders, brown eyes. I can get around my bedroom in the darkness because I do know where things are, and I could likely draw a half-decent sketch of it if you asked me too – though my spatial awareness is pretty garbage. I know what a lizard looks like before I see an image of one, and I recognize people’s faces when I see them.
When I think, I imagine ideas, concepts, and words. I also “see” words in my head as I think, and as others speak, kind of like a ticker tape, or subtitles to a movie.
To put another unusual wrench in everything, I also have grapheme-color synesthesia. Synesthesia is the blending of senses in the mind – neurons are connected in places they aren’t usually, and grapheme-color means each letter and number has its own distinct color. I can’t tell you how the hell this works considering I don’t actually “see” them. But 4 is purple, Z is like a tangy orange, and O is white. I’ve memorized 52 digits of pi because of this, and all of my debit and credit card numbers – which makes online shopping way too easy. And the ticker tape thing like I mentioned above is a form of synesthesia as well, called, well, ticker-tape synesthesia – seeing words as they’re spoken.
Maybe it’s my mind adding color in where it has no other place to – since I can’t see objects, it paints my words and numbers for me.
Maybe it’s how my mind has figured out how to filled the void where images aren’t.
Maybe it’s why I love to tell stories, whether through language or photographs.
When you take a paintbrush to canvas, it is an additive art. You begin with nothing and you create something. Your mind supplies the subject.
With photography, I’m cropping things out. It’s a subtractive art – I begin with something and slim it down to the best bits. My environment supplies the subject – which is great for me. It’s my ideal art form, and one of the reasons I didn’t pursue painting or graphic design or some other art form. With photography, I have materials to work with, instead of a menacing blank canvas.
However… I was reading an article a few months ago about a tool all the “great” photographers use: pre-visualization. Visualization. They’re the same thing, one of them just sounds a little fancier – basically, it’s imagining what a photo looks like before taking it, so it’s carefully composed and constructed. It’s coming up with the idea before you’re even out on location. It’s seeing the photo in your head before you take it.
That kinda hit me hard.
I… I don’t know if I can do that.
I do have pretty general ideas of some of the photos I take when I’m on a shoot, either with subjects or without. With the photo above, I did have a general idea that I wanted a couple running across the crest of a hill so they were contrasted against the sky. I had been wanting to get a photo something like this for a long time now, and it finally worked out. Is that what pre-visualization is? I can’t say. I’ve talked to others about how in-depth their visualizations can be, and I’ve been amazed at some of the visualization abilities of others – because if you were to ask me to draw this “image” (rather, this idea) out beforehand I would probably have drawn a line and two stick figures.
When I’m out taking photos, I come up with ideas on the spot based on the available light, the environment, and the character and willingness of my couples. I blend the rules of composition and color with different poses or stances I know, and I’m often really inspired by what I can create while I’m out. I’m inspired BY the environment, rather than the other way around. I love the spontaneity of being out on a shoot, and I love seeing what we can all come up with – I see it as a challenge.
I’ve also done work for other people who come to me with a very specific idea in mind, and it’s always a fun challenge trying to make someone else’s vision come to life – like an album cover I did recently. It was interesting having to imagine what my client was seeing in HIS head – I felt a little bit like an artistic messenger or conduit, in a good way.
But I can’t possibly imagine seeing something that looks like a photo in my mind. Just trying to imagine a rubix cube in my head is enough to tire me out and give me a headache. It’s something I’m working on – whether it’s me planning out my photo shoots a little bit more in-depth, or just through constant practice, or through meditation and attempts at clearing my head to allow for the possibility of images to take shape. I don’t even know if it’s possible for me, but I don’t think it can hurt.
But for now, this sort of spontaneous environment-reactive way of creating without any pre-visualization is how I’ve taken all of the photographs I’ve taken in my life.
I hate to think it makes me a lesser photographer.