Learning to See. The beginning

ONE




On any Sunday I would find myself at my father's side, standing before a masterpiece in some gallery. There was a ritual to follow. Silence at first. I watched him from knee height, absorbed in his fascination for the image in the frame. A Constable, Manet or Titian, it mattered not. The stance was the same. Hands by his side, head tilted slightly upwards, a barely distinguishable smile that I had learnt to recognise and only a son could see. A tall. proud man, well dressed, creased and cuffed trousers, shiny brown shoes, a soft open necked shirt, hair well groomed and glimmering in the dimmed light of the gallery.


After the silence came the questions.
What do you see?
I would explain. Trees, people, a woman and a child, a man lighting a fire, leaves on the ground.
Tell me what they are doing.
Resting. Preparing lunch.
Then a bit more silence.
Now I want you to be the artist.
I can't paint.
You can see. See what time of day it is. See how close the woman is and how far away the man is. See the space between the trees, the colour of the leaves on the ground, the clothes they wear, the look on the faces. Here. Hold up your hand. Point to the child. Paint the eyes. I did as he suggested. Carefully I outlined the eye, then the other. I could see the sparkle. It blinked at me. There was always so much more to see.
Now smell the smoke from the fire. It's gum smoke and it bites at the back of your throat and makes your eyes water. Smell the dust from the ground and the mould from the leaves. Smell the richness of the air with the odours of the Bush.
Can you feel the leaves under your feet? The heat of the morning falling to the ground. No breeze. The weight of the child on the mother's lap. It's you. Now feel the weight of life on the father's shoulders. I never understood that bit for a long time.
What's for breakfast? Can you taste it? Some milk, perhaps, for the baby. Porridge on the fire, honey from a hive. Tea.
WeetBix and cold milk.
He laughed quietly and nudged me affectionately.
Yes. WeetBix.
Now listen. Carefully. A whip bird calling. Something moves in the trees. The clatter of sticks as the man builds the fire, crackling into life. Can you hear their heart beat. I could hear mine.
Silence. I could hear my father breathing. Other patrons pass by but don't stop. A woman stares at us as if we are lost. We are, in a wilderness of wonder.
Its like a window, Dad.
Its the artists window. He wants you to see what he sees. Every time you look through his window you will see something new, a little more of the artist and what his world looks like to him. That's a very special thing he does for you.
I wish I could paint.


Use your camera instead. Show people your world through your window. I can hear him say it now.
Will they see what I see?
You'll have to show them how.


TWO 



My memories of growing up are always accompanied by the heat of a Sydney summer; stifling and submissive, covered with suburban blue sky tainted with a tincture of dust and an odour of freshly mowed grass and rubbish bins left in the street too long. My view of this world of cobbled streets and clattering carts was framed by a small, lace curtained, sash window above my bed. What entered through this rectangular aperture each day was a passing parade of life as I new it. Friends, family and neighbours came and went through the squeaky gate, my sisters played hopscotch and chattered with boys along the verge, Snowy barked at the postman, Bob the Bookie made his regular visits to Dot and Wally's place across the road, providing them with the latest odds for Rose Hill races.  The camphor laurel tree shed it's leaves without ever becoming bare. The light through the rusty fly screen woke me in the morning and the street lights kept me awake at night. The sounds and sights of my childhood emanated from this orifice like a mysterious story told by The Oracle. Passing my days at that window was endless and effortless.
What are you looking at? my Old Man would ask.
Nothing really.
Are you going out to play?
No. I'll just sit here and ........ watch.
My Old Man would leave me to my watching.

I watched from my grandstand pretty much through my childhood and into my teens. Nothing changed, or so it seemed. Then an internal amendment was made to my homeland security. Mayhem reigned in our household. A baby arrived. I was fully aware, by the age of fifteen, how that happens and where they come from. Nevertheless, I was somewhat shocked and concerned that my parents still had it in them to do such a thing. After all, they were my parents. Even now I find the whole thing a bit distasteful.



Understanding that space was at a premium at Number 17 New York Street, a complete reshuffle of personal space was inevitable.
My old man placed his gnarled hand on my shoulder and looked me squarely in the eyes with that steel gray look that said volumes. His was the Rule of Law.
The baby will need the spot by the window.
I gave in reluctantly. After all, the Big Brother must do what he can to accommodate the cute and cuddly new sister. I think my life also depended on it.



Me, my bed and my meagre belongings were relegated to the back room while L'il Sister's bassinet was wheeled into place, fitting perfectly below the well worn sill. A cool breeze ruffled the curtains as if to greet her to my world. She would be happy here, I thought. I kind of liked the idea that I could share my vision with someone.
Each day I would sit with her and explain to her what she might see if she could reach. As she grew and begun pulling herself to the window we would share our excitement as the new day passed us by. Her view seemed limited somewhat to only those things she could realise with her immediate attention. When the old man from Number 9 passed by, she had no concept of his existence beforehand or afterward. It was as though he only existed in the time it took to pass her view. When it rained the drops came from nowhere. When Dad came home at the end of his day he would call to her and she would look puzzlingly before bubbling with excitement at his magical appearance.


I would share with her my experiences as a child as well. My first sight of a car. The flowering of the frangipani. The day they tarred the road. Oh, how I remember the smell and the noise. She giggled at my expression. The night of the fire. I let her feel the fear and comforted her as if she had been there. I was back there again and she was with me, with the frame of our window shielding us.


Eventually she began to tell her own stories in her own bumbling way. I would stare out the window with her as she described the days events and be there in among the passing crowd. I began to see what she saw. She delighted in the understanding of object permanence. The window was now our common perception and we revelled in it.
What are you two looking at? my Old Man would ask.
Nothing much.
Are you teaching her to see?
I guess I am.
After a long silence (my Old Man was filled with long silences) he would peer over my shoulder and stare through our window; the three of us like crows on a fence. How strange that must have seemed to passers-by.



How's the photography going?
OK
My Old Man always had the ability to add to a conversation, a question that left a void for me to fill. It was like reading a book with the last chapter missing and I would have to write it myself.
Many years later, when my father was no longer around to ask me pointed questions, I came across a photographer by the name of Jane Bown. She said she photographed so that others could see what she saw. I think she must have known my Old Man. At least she must have looked through the same window.
I still share that view through my window with my L'il Sister. I hope she sees what I see.



THREE





By the time I'd reached my late 30's I knew it all, at least I thought I did. I was secure in a good job, my photography was being well received and keeping me busy, I had a family, living in a comfortable cottage in the Australian Bush which I had built with my own bare hands (and a few of my friends' bare hands as well), and there was a future in sight, dim and clouded as it was.
The euphoria that accompanied this apparent  state of well being and contentment was also supplemented by a strange emptiness that filled my waking hours and a few of my sleeping ones as well. It was nothing I could put my finger on but it seemed I had a need to complete some unfinished business that was yet to be identified; maybe even commenced.


In an effort to resolve this inner struggle, I read. Anything from 'Zen  and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance to the Bible, all of which were ploys at explaining someone else's problems; certainly not mine. I didn't need a road trip or a God, I needed a simple answer. Two hundred pages of Buddhist ideology while standing on my head in some exotic yoga position wasn't giving it to me; just a head ache and a bad back.
While all this deep and meaningful stuff was transpiring, I had not seen my Old Man for some time so I called him up, and on the pretence of building something from wood which I knew he would be quite happy to interfere with, I asked him to come and stay awhile.
He turned up on the next train with his usual attire; dressed like he was going fishing and carrying only a small tartan bag from which the smell of week-old prawns emanated and the tip of a telescopic fishing rod protruded.
It's an Ugly Stik. You could tie a knot in it. I assumed he meant the rod.
 He travelled light, my Old Man, but not fast.


After he had inspected my craftsmanship on the cottage and the new project, a large barn adjacent to the house which would be my studio and workshop, he settled into a shady spot on the verandah where, I imagined, he would stay until I took him to the train to return him home at some undetermined point in the future. He would muster enough energy during this dormancy bordering on hibernation to assist with the technical aspects on the building site - and fish. Occasionally he would break into conversation when he was reminded of something in his past. An old joke (which I had usually heard before), a place or person he recalled (who was more likely dead or missing), a song that came to mind (often something obscure he had heard on his favourite radio station: Triple J).
Do you remember so-and-so? I wonder what he's doing now? Looking up from yesterday's paper.
I invariably couldn't help him in his eager search for knowledge. He would return to his paper and scratch his balding head as if to find the answer in among the newsprint, possibly the obituaries.
Not many of the blokes are left. He would mumble. He might add as a recourse for his own persistence.


Towards the end of his stay, although I still wasn't aware of any use-by date at that stage, I borrowed a small row boat so we could venture out into the river early in the morning to catch the changing tide and, hopefully, a few flathead for which the Macley River was famous. As we rattled around with the trailer in the pre-dawn darkness, he took note that I had loaded my camera.
You fishing with that thing? He asked.
Thought I might catch a few shots while we fish.
Not while I'm fishing, you won't.
I knew the directness of my Old Man was harmless but none-the-less to be heeded if I was not to be reminded in the future (possibly for the rest of my life) of my forthcoming transgressions if I ignored him. The camera, much to my vexation, was returned to the house. As far as I recall it was the first time in twenty years I had been without it on such an occasion. It just didn't seem right. It felt as unsettling as failing to wear jocks with woollen trousers.


When we hit the river it was still dark. The silence was only broken by the smooth running of the tide, the splash of an occasional tailor feeding on bate fish and the rattling of the trailer chain. We slid into the water with a swoosh and paddled out into the blue-green darkness. The sky overhead appeared like black satin, brilliant with an infinity of stars. Something black passed a shadow across the void; a bat on its way home most likely. The air was warm and humid. A light flickered on the water, then vanished. Neither of us spoke.
We found a place to anchor and strung our lines out into the tide to wait for it to turn. We waited in silence, still as a tombstone in a churchyard he sat, humped over slightly, arms pushed forward with the line in his hand, staring into the blackness. I could well have been alone.
First light appeared. A yellow streak pushed its way into the sky above us like a finger pointing at our past and the arm to which it was attached would drag our future into the new day. I automatically reached for my camera before I remembered that it didn't have a place on this boat.
Lost something? He said
I wish I had my camera with me.
He remained silent.


As the morning progressed and the light got stronger, the panorama of the river unfolded. This was by far one of the most picturesque places along the river, with its fleet of fishing vessels nestled into the shelter of a tight meander and the bridge dividing the sky from the water. In the background was the silhouette of Smokey Cape and Yarahapini and through the next thicket of mangroves the Pacific Ocean could be heard, roaring at the coastline before the yawning mouth of the Macley. I had photographed this place many times over the past years and it never failed to present a new, fresh and breathtaking vista. I itched for a viewfinder through which to look.
The Old Man pulled his line from the water. As I recall, it was the first time he had dried his line since we anchored.
I bet you wish you had your camera now. A wry smile sprung from his face and he winked slowly just to let me know who was in control.
Now all you can do is look at it. He added.


It always takes me a while to understand the implications of his veracity for briefness. Reading between the lines was something I grew up with in any conversation with my Old Man. He was the most understated overstatement I knew. It was like having a ten metre sign at the front door that simply said 'Enter' (in small print). It was like a driving test without the manual, a dictionary without all the letters, a play with the middle act missing, a song without a chorus, a 'Dear John' letter without the 'goodbye'.
Yet, in a single moment on that river, in the early hours of a November day, my Old Man provided me with all the answers I ever needed. Up to that point, I had viewed the world as if I was photographing it; recalling it later in a two dimensional flatness that I believed was everything. I had missed the point again. I had missed the real thing all along. My emptiness was beginning to fill. Once again I could begin to see why I was here on this river. Not to photograph it but to take it in, to enjoy it, to live it now, to sense it with everything I had. No distractions, no philosophies, no sales pitch for the customer, no display for the office wall. Just be here and take it all in. To share the experience as it happened.


And I did. We both did. Together we sat for an hour or so and watched. I don't remember everything I saw that day while sitting there in that small boat with my Old Man but I do know I was there, in every sense of the word, with every sense of my body, taking in what I could. Once again I was learning to see and it was so fulfilling it was almost painful. I don't remember if I had a tear in my eye but I should have.
Had enough? He interjected, after what seemed to be an eternity in an instant.
He dropped his line into the water once more.
You didn't bait up. I enquired
I'm fishing, not catching. As if one might interfere with the other.
Er, Dad. Thanks for that.
I don't talk when I fish. That controlled smirk returned briefly. He returned to his distant gaze at the scene before us. I don't believe I had ever seen the river in such a way before.
And I'm still learning to see it.



FOUR




In the seemingly never ending and ridiculously brisk pace of life it's often difficult to take the advise of others, especially when banal comments like 'Take time to smell the roses' or 'Take some time out for yourself' seem the only offer as the solution to what you might see as a train wreck about to happen or a nuclear holocaust already in progress. In a world where a strong work ethic is God and financial security is the panacea for all ills, time to watch the lawn grow or the paint dry on the walls of your newly renovated suburban castle has been replaced by more mundane pass times such as watching the mortgage grow and the competition's name dry on the office door next to yours. After all, photographers have to eat. Some days it seems as though your very own heart rate can't keep pace with the blood that flows through your clogged arteries.

Yet, for some inane reason that is completely beyond me, I have chosen a profession that requires just that: a pause, momentary as it is, to reflect on the present and the past, to spend some time pondering the life of another human being, to give life to their Truth, their Beauty, to render their purpose purposeful. My life is filled with imagery, photographs taken by myself and others that require a presence, an understanding, a vision to produce and an insight to read. Each one of these images requires of me to 'smell the roses', to give the value they deserve.


But why?
I don't have time for this! I'm a busy man. I have 'things' to do, 'places' to go, 'people' to meet, 'business' to deal with. When do I have time to look at my own images, let alone the myriad of visual stimulation thrown at me on a daily basis, all geared to influence my thinking. Buy this, sell that, the shock of the old and new, now for the news, a touch of beauty mingled with the torment of a nation, sickness and well-being all neatly parcelled in a box and plastered onto the screen or tabloid before me. Stop! Look at me! I'm the best. My photograph is the Truth. It holds the answers to all things. Emulate me and your dreams will come true. Envy me because what you see is unattainable. Dare to like what you see and I will stay with you forever. Hate me and I will have won.


This is a terrible dilemma for us all. We swim through the sea of sensory stimulation willingly, constantly tortured by the savagery of other people's skills. We are the baited fish dragged behind the boat, desperately dodging the snapping jaws of the frenzied school of sharks. Everyone wants their bit of flesh and all we want is to be dragged from the water screaming so we can drown in our own misgivings. Our dream changes from 'I can do that' to 'I wish I could do that'. We wait desperately for our Flickr graph to rise or the blog counter to tick over. When it doesn't we have failed, when it does, other's have failed. 'Nice colour' the comment reads. Is that it? Is that all they can see? 'What lens did you use?' Do they also chase the bait? Is it me they emulate, or it it my photograph they want to copy? I really do need to smell the roses. But where do I find them?


Each day I spend a few moments with the photographers and their work; just staring. I dream of places I have never been. I meet people I do not know, I look at cherished objects and battles fought and lost, a shed in a field, a car crash, a well worn path, a new born baby and a grieving wife at a funeral. I also look at my own images and remind myself of why I do this thing called photography. Above my favourite chair is a framed photograph of some flowers. It holds no special place except to exist for its own sake. It is the answer to all things, the god I seek, the tranquility I need, the space in the chaos, the dream, the 'rose' in my garden. As I look down at the book I am reading I am reminded of what its all about. Its not about the photograph or the winning or the ego that sometimes replaces my common sense, or lack of it. Its about the struggle, the lack of understanding, the inadequacy, the guilt, the search. That's what we do from the moment we eagerly take the first breathe to that fateful and inevitable time we gasp the last; photographers no less than others.



As T.S. Eliot pointed out to us all:

"... Each venture
Is the new beginning...
...what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate - but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again ......
For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business"

I still keep trying to see; for myself and for others.



In the process of learning to see, ordinary days and ordinary events can often take on a significance that is, to say the least, surprising, if not profound, but certainly extraordinary in their connection. Today is such an ordinary day.
The first event was a simple question posted on a blog.
" Where is your next big travel trip?"



Simple enough inquiry, but the implications in the particular context was that one needs to travel to photograph; to find new destinations, grandeous scenery, interesting people, places of beauty, the obligatory sunset or sunrise on a new and more exciting horizon, captivating architecture or the progression of interesting and dramatic lives and events other than those that fill our own seemingly mundane existence. We need the imagery of the imaginary, the visual spectacle of the spectacular; we need to see and record what we don't have or pay homage to the representation of what we do have: the landscape.


The travelling photographer is armed with a vision we envy. He brings us a world out of reach to many. Like The Grand Tour we plan our lives, in part, to fulfil the dream and return with the booty of other places, neatly parcelled in a digital slide show which will be presented to friends and family on our return.
"See where I have been," and we will sit in amazement at the splendor and beauty of it all.



The second event was as ordinary as the first.
Over the past few weeks I have been teaching my grand-daughter to drive. On the morning of her driving test I accompanied her to the testing station. We had a calming coffee in the local shopping centre beforehand, then she left me in the car park while she went for the test.



As always I had a camera with me. My thoughts went back to the question: "Where is your next big trip?" For me, this was it! Standing alone in a strange carpark in a 'foreign' land. My thoughts begun to shift from the ordinariness of the surrounding (after all, there is nothing unusual about a car park surrounded by offices and shop fronts) to the extra-ordinariness of the place in which I have found myself.



People going about their business, cars coming and going, conversations barely audible over the traffic, trade noises eminating from a shop front, machinery humming away in the background, distant sounds blending into city's white noise. I began to notice the shapes and forms occupying the space: colours blending, shadow and light interacting, textures and tones giving visual life to this inner space buried deep inside the city in which I had spent a good part of my adult life. And somehow I'd missed it.


I raised the camera to my eye and started framing and shooting. Each click of the shutter was, at that time, recording the truth, a beauty that can only be seen from where I stood, not only in locality but in time; my time.



My time to this point was filled with assumptions and stories, memories and recall, words, poetry, events, imagery of my past. I could here my father describing a Rembrant, my mother reading from a Bronte novel, my physics teacher describing the magnetic field of a dipole (whatever that is), my sister reciting a rhyme, Christine re-affirming her love for me. All this guided me to frame within the lanscape.





The present was where I found myself, standing in a carpark, waiting for my grand-dauhter, and the taking of photographs became a verification of who I am and what I can see. "I am here. See this picture. That's what I saw. I exist and the landscape exists at the same time" It seemed a strange place to be, as if I was a time traveller and I was recording this simple landscape to take into the future where I could once more travel back and revisit.


But unlike the painter who composes the lanscape from bits and pieces, my landscape was there in all its 'glory'. My task was to select those bits that play some significance in my view of life. Not what is beautiful but what is true - for me. Beauty would follow.




While standing in the middle of the road framing one of many shots I took that morning, drifting blissfully through my own world, a gentleman approached from the curb.
"What are you photographing?' he asked sincerely.
" The truth" I responded, only after the shutter hand been pressed and I was happy I had captured it as I saw it.
"I used to photograph rock art" he added, with some trepidation, moving back to the curb and seeking safety from the traffic and me.





Everyone has a vision of the truth. We can all find it and photograph it as we see it. When that is done, the beauty will be revealed. Finding your truth may be closer than you think.

>


FIVE



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