‘What One Cannot Or Will Not See, Says Something About You’

From Rachel Cohen‘s A Chance Meeting:

There was something of the mystic about [Beauford] Delaney. His friends regarded him as a kind of minor deity, and his stories and observations often had the quality of parables. [James] Baldwin told the story again and again of standing on Broadway and being told by Delaney to look down. Delaney asked him what he saw and Baldwin said a puddle. Delaney said, ‘Look again,’ and then Baldwin saw the reflections of the buildings, distorted and radiant in the oil in the puddle. He taught me to see, Baldwin said, and that ‘what one cannot or will not see, says something about you.’ [links added]

Many years ago, I spent a day traipsing through Central Delhi with a photographer friend of mine. He had chosen to forego college to concentrate on his aspirations for a career in photography; I was already in awe of the work he produced. Paid work was hard to come by but at that point in time, he was undeterred, producing one dazzling portfolio after another of peoples, places and objects. On that hot summer day, we planned to walk through the center of the city, each of us carrying a camera, and to shoot photos of whatever caught our fancy.

With a twist: whatever I decided to take a photo of would be captured by my friend too, and vice-versa. Our equipment was almost identical in its technical specifications: I was using a spare camera of his, one loaned to me for the day’s exercise.  There was a lesson brewing in the comparison between our work that would ensue when our prints were developed, but I did not know what it would be. I hoped it wouldn’t be a simple exercise in humiliation. The similarity of the cameras had, of course, dispensed with any reliance on the quality of the camera as a crutch.

We both shot a roll of black and white film that day. There was little conversation between us as we did our work; the idea was to shoot first and compare later.  When the day’s work was finally developed and printed, I was stunned. We had taken photos of the ‘same things’ but our work was radically dissimilar. It was as if we had not even been present in the same place at the same time.

Some of this dissimilarity was quickly attributed to the technical parameters chosen for each exposure but overwhelmingly, the reason why our work stood apart so distinctly was that we saw different things when we looked through the lens. We framed and cropped differently; the central object in our frames varied sharply. What was chosen for inclusion was important; what was chosen for exclusion even more so. The skill of photography was more developed in one of us but even then, our minds brought with them their own distinct imperatives and priorities, attenuating the selection of those elements of the world that were to make it into our compositions. The world was ordered and ranked and classified differently by us.

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