In the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, by Daniel Kahneman, the author recounts a scientific experiment known as the Gorilla Study. Researchers recorded a video clip of two groups of basketball players – a team wearing all white and a team wearing all black – passing ball one ball each amongst their respective groups. Observers of the film are given a task: to count the number of times the ball is passed among the players in white, while ignoring the ball passing by the players in black. About halfway through the video and for about 9 seconds total, a person in a gorilla suit comes into the frame, thumps his chest, and walks away. Only about half of observers who view this video ever notice the striking visual of a gorilla appearing on the screen, and most would insist that no such gorilla ever appeared. Kahneman posits that this is due to two reasons: that we can be blind to the obvious, and blind to our blindness.
You may have noticed that the types of photography I focus on (no pun intended) include aerial, street, and cityscape photography. While each type requires a different way of seeing, there is a shared problem of “blindness” to be solved. With aerial photography, aside from the initial technical learning curve, the unique challenge is understanding how to compose in vertical space; looking downward onto a sometimes messy tableau and attempting to make sense out of all of the many shapes can a bit disorienting (especially if you choose to fly in FPV, which I don’t recommend). With street photography, the chaos largely occurs on a horizontal plane, and the “moving objects” (people, cars, etc.) are much closer and more difficult to arrange visually. The eye is tracing back and forth across the plane (hopefully through the viewfinder and not from the hip, lol), while horns may be honking, voices may be shouting and light may be glaring; for some, the temptation may be to opt for a quiet, minimalist composition – not for aesthetic reasons – but because it doesn’t make you feel like you’re going crazy. For others, the chaos IS the challenge, the chaos is the objective. Cityscape photography, with its’ stationary camera mounted on a tripod generally respecting plumb and level may well be the most practiced of the three, but the challenge of eliminating visual clutter, adjusting for the weather and time of day, and breaking the mold of traditional (read: cliche) compositions is no less prominent.
In each case, being blind to the obvious may mean initially missing some compelling element that would have been the hallmark of the image. On the other hand, being blind to our blindness may mean avoiding an insistence on looking for that single, compelling element in the first place – a personal realization that maybe I’m looking at the whole thing/scene all wrong. Thus, is the solution to the problem of creative “blindness”, then, learning to achieve singular focus amid visual chaos, or learning to take a step back and observe the bigger picture? Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and revisiting older images teaches some valuable lessons; lost opportunities of visual or emotional resonance in a singular moment – missing the gorilla – as well as times where I wasn’t thinking big enough, not seeing the forest for the trees. Experience is teaching me that perhaps the largest contributor to many of those failed moments of obstructed vision was the expectation of achieving a certain shot rather than simply being receptive to whatever the moment presents.