Seeing, Not Thinking

By Stephen Johnson Back to


Photography is a language of light, not words. Its vocabulary is light, its form is light (and absence of light), its poetry is the pattern and design that light reveals.

People often struggle with this, not because it doesn’t make sense, but because the language of light is, for most of us, only a source for language, and is rarely-used as a primary means of communication. Our brains typically (and instantly) convert sensory input into language−words, to be exact. Yet that process, so deeply engrained into the way we think, filters out volumes of input that words can’t express.

Words are abstractions. They’re effective at giving us a first take on reality, and very effective at reducing the world to a handful of nouns. As photographers, the problem arises when we fall into the trap of merely photographing our description of reality, rather than photographing our experience of reality.

Standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, full of notions of its cliffs, immensity and history, we might make a photograph of it. But in our quest to include the requisite nouns in the frame, it’s all too easy to ignore the actual visual reality that the verbs and adjectives might try and fail to explain, the sight that made that moment a meaningful experience−made it something worth raising the camera to our eye.

And so later, sharing the resulting photograph, we’re left to explain that the crisp air and dizzying height, the sound of an eagle’s wings pulling through the air, and in short its sheer stupefying grandeur, somehow all got lost in the translation. The words we tried to photograph were not recorded, and the visual response lost.

We make art from a deep need to express ourselves non-verbally. Photographically we attempt to hold those remarkable moments we see, and share that wonder with other humans. We try to fix those expressive impulses into tangible form, writing music, drawing, painting, photographing, trying to describe and reveal the world we see and realities we sense beyond sight. As we seek an understanding of the world around us, we bring many processes to bear, meditation, religion, science. But we often carry with us an internal sense that there is more, more than we can easily take in, more than we can quite ascertain, more than we can easily express. We are constantly trying to synthesize disparate, sometimes contradictory notions and suspicions into some concrete form. The creative process often feeds from those impulses.

Making art, we often take the seemingly intangible that we sense and create something physically real. We seek expressive release, constructing a kind of order and design out of complexity and chaos. We are uneasy dealing with logical contradictions of impulse and rationality in our mind, knowing full-well those irrationalities are nonetheless part of our heart’s longing. Art has to embrace such contradictions because it tries to express aspects of who we are that are not about logic or rationality—it is at once about sincerity and deception, storytelling and deeply felt truths, about reaching toward summations of who we are.

Photography has unique power in this realm. It is both about real visual experience that can be rationally described, but also at its best, can encode human experience that defies words. I believe that is one of its core strengths, to suggest with literal, tangible light recording tools, aspects of the human experience that are simply unaddressable by other means.

With art, we try to express aspects of being human from a different vantage point than language with its many limitations, and that is precisely why art is so powerful. The visual arts address our complex mental/emotional state with visual expression, rather than the vastly more familiar form of words, language and logic. The visual arts rely on sight, arguably the most powerful of our senses.

Seeing: When I ask people to photograph what they see, not what they can name, it sounds easier than it is. I am suggesting we try to maintain the most primal visual connection possible, leaving words aside.

Intent & Ambiguity: Our impulse to bring our camera to our eye is a reaction to something we see. Holding that scene with clarity of intent, narrows viewer’s interpretations to a point. But the image will still be filtered through their own experiences. That gives us a critical opportunity to draw our audience into the photograph by intrigue, perhaps by ambiguity. It is important how much freedom you allow for that to happen, and how much you can manage to engage the viewer’s own imagination. Suggestion and allusion can work better than insistence. I try to show what I mean, but leave a little room for my audience to get lost in mysteries as well.

Precision: I believe it matters that we be as precise as possible in our execution of the photograph. For me, there really is no room for sloppiness and casual concern for inclusion/exclusion if I am sure of my intent. I recently told my students I wanted them to be “ruthless about exactness.” Care in execution matters. Wondrous serendipity happens, but intensely seen, well-crafted images communicate with power far more often.

Simplicity: On composition, I try to emphasize simplicity, design, sensuality and abstraction. I look for movement, grace and eloquence, a kind of dance across the page. With our prints we are creating a small, formal, visual universe that attempts to find significance, simplicity out of complexity, order out of chaos, refuge out of a state of being overwhelmed. Of course, sometimes chaos is the point and disturbance is a needed response creating its own uncomfortable beauty.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson
For more than 20 years, Stephen Johnson has played an influential role in the development of the photographic tools used today. Steve has been photographing since 1973, teaching since 1978 and has been honored with an NEA grant, inducted into the Photoshop Hall of Fame and honored as a Canon Explorer of Light. His books include At Mono Lake, the award winning and critically acclaimed The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland, Making a Digital Book and Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography. Stephen is well known for his passionate lectures and deep love for the traditions of fine photography. His photography studios, galleries and education center are located in Pacifica, California.