Scale in Photography: Space

This is part one of a two part discussion of scale in photography, starting with Space.

First, let’s define scale. For this discussion, scale refers to the relative size of things and the perception of detail. A pencil is a small scale object while a car is a relatively larger scale object and a tree on a larger scale still, etc. As with a map, small scale refers to a greater perception of detail (the stamens and pistils within a flower) while large scale refers to wider coverage and less detail (many flowers within a patch in a meadow).

When Space is mentioned and we’re talking about photography, we usually think of how elements are arranged relative to each other in a composition, and how that arrangement creates the illusion of depth. We might also consider negative and positive space. But space is more than what appears in our photograph and the methods we use to manipulate it in a two-dimensional image. Space encompasses us, our movements, our perceptions, our actions, and influences our photography. In this newsletter, I’m going to describe space in terms of our body and our senses.

We generally live within a small space (our individual body, our house, neighborhood, city) relative to all possible spaces (our state, country, continent, planet, solar system.). The activities of our lives are also contained within a certain space, with more specific activities (more influence) occurring at the smaller scale (body, family, home) and becoming more general and less specific (less influence) at larger scales (city, state, country, world). It’s easier to contemplate a smaller space because there are fewer and more familiar elements and interactions to consider. Though, think about some specialists, like physicists, architects, and astronomers who look at and understand their (our) world differently from most people because of their familiarity, knowledge, and experience with spatial scales very different from everyday life. These specialists even view the world differently from other specialists, based on the space occupied by their subject of interest; physicists with subjects measured in billionths of an inch, architects in hundreds or thousands of linear, square, or cubic feet, astronomers in millions and trillions of miles. Our understanding and perception of our personal relationship to the space around us, often called our environment, helps influence how we create our photography.

Two types of spatial perception are proprioception and exteroception, terms defined in 1909 by Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, a Nobel laureate neurophysiologist, histologist, bacteriologist, and pathologist. Proprioception, which means “one’s own individual perception”, is the small scale awareness of our body movement from the actions of muscles, tendons, and joints, the sense of the relative position of the various parts of our body, and their position/orientation in space; whether your body is moving or still, which body parts are moving or still, where your body parts are in relation to one another, and the strength of effort necessary to move or be still. Our brain constantly monitors our muscles consciously and unconsciously (mostly unconsciously and automatically), adjusting their position, tone, and motion to maintain balance, grip, support, and movement. One example of proprioception, or body awareness, is learning to drive a manual transmission car. At first, we are very conscious of our body position – feet, legs, hands, ears, eyes, arms, head – as we try to coordinate the movements of clutch, gas, gear shift, with our ears listening to the engine and/or eyes looking at the speedometer or tachometer, while maintaining awareness of the road ahead. At first, the operation is clumsy and we wonder how we’ll ever be proficient. But, after practice we eventually perform the relatively complex movements automatically. Our body is aware of its position and the actions needed to perform the task. We reach for and move the gear shift without looking at it, and our feet find the right position on the gas and clutch pedals and know how to operate them in sequence, often even in cars we’ve never driven before.

Exteroception, meaning external perception, is the large scale awareness and perception of the outside world through stimuli originating outside the body. Exteroception is accomplished through our primary receptive senses such as sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Through these senses we gain awareness, understanding, and experience of the environment around us – the temperature of the air, the texture of the ground, the smell of a marketplace, the colors of fabric, the metallic taste of ozone in the air during a thunderstorm.

An example of proprioception and exteroception working together, using the car example, is how we’re able to know where the boundaries of our car are, even when we can’t see them. We instinctively know where the front bumper or rear bumper are relative to our position in the driver’s seat, how long our car is and how wide, even its maneuverability. We visualize the space it occupies on the road and can judge fairly accurately whether it will fit between two lines or two objects or not. We’re able to manipulate the controls of the car easily without thinking of hand and foot positions, and maneuver the car through sensing it’s position in space. This type of awareness is sometimes referred to as body thinking.

How does this apply to your photography? Increasing your awareness beyond your immediate surroundings, beyond just what you’re looking at, beyond the elements you’ve selected to compose into a photograph, you stop simply viewing and begin experiencing. You begin purposefully monitoring where you are in space, in your environment, instead of cruising through on autopilot. As with the car example, your body awareness and external awareness merge, you know how to manipulate the camera controls instinctively, you’re aware of your surroundings, you stop being a photographer documenting a scene separate from what is occurring and become part of the composition itself. Photographer Sebastio Salgado describes it as “There comes a moment when it is no longer you who takes the photograph, but receives the way to do it quite naturally and fully.” Zen and Taoist practice calls this a part of Great Understanding, which is different from, but related to, other “modes” I’ve covered such as Flow and Being in the Zone.

It all comes down to being more than a spectator, more than simply an observer or recorder of things we find in front of us, more than the knowledge of aperture and shutter speed, depth of field and perfect exposure. It’s the combination of all these things not in a confined bubble closely surrounding our body, but in a limitless space in which we move and think freely and are aware of our environment. When I’m standing in the forest looking for a subject to photograph, I sense the ground under my feet, the air moving across my skin, the light entering my eyes, the sounds coming from near and far, the movement of trees, grass, shrubs, the texture of mountains and clouds, the sound of water in a stream or river. I imagine how the trees and rocks are rooted into the ground. I sense the distance between myself and my car, other people I’m with, the nearest town or city, and road. I may not see anything interesting right away, but I might hear something interesting in the nearby stream or river, the rushing of rapids or banging of rocks, and go investigate.

Everything exists in space. We continually expand and contract our awareness of what exists in the space around us, sometimes contracting space to the point of becoming completely unaware. Through practice, you will arrive at a comfortable awareness space you can maintain all the time, and expand or contract it at will. I’m pretty certain when you become more body and world aware, you’ll experience more enjoyment in your photography (even if you aren’t “successful” in getting that great shot) and get better shots. Try it.

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