I generally find museums to be exhausting – not the least the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which houses one of the finest private collections of Impressionist and early modernist paintings in the world. The collector was Albert C. Barnes, a chemist who made his fortune with a drug to combat gonorrhea in the era before penicillin. Due to a stipulation in Barnes’ will, the collection must be displayed according to strict arrangements called “wall ensembles” that feature row upon row of paintings, sometimes extending right up to the ceiling – as many on a single wall as you might normally find in an entire gallery at another museum. The effect can be overwhelming; at least it was for me. Since my wife and I don’t get to Philadelphia that often, we made the mistake of thinking we had to see everything at a single go, and it was just too much of a good thing.
Normally we worry about paying too little attention to things rather than too much. And yet our brains have evolved sensory-inhibiting mechanisms so we can function in a world that would otherwise be too much with us, like the wall ensembles at the Barnes. These mechanisms enable us to focus on the task at hand, whatever that may be, rather than to be incapacitated by sensory overload. In fact, our brains are wired so that we can really only attend to one thing at a time, however much we tell ourselves that we can multi-task, which is just another name for being distracted.
From the very beginning, psychologists have concerned themselves with how we pay attention. William James, a pioneer in the trade, devoted an entire chapter to the subject in his landmark Principles of Psychology, published in 1890. According to James, attention enables us to carve a coherent understanding of the world from the “aboriginal sensible muchness” that greets the newborn. Long before neuroscientists could get under the hood to see how the brain worked, James laid the groundwork for the so-called “spotlight” model of attention that, with some refinements, remains the starting point for any discussion of the subject today. Our field of consciousness is narrowed down and concentrated by a mechanism that has a high-resolution focus, a lower-resolution margin and a fringe, or border area. A later refinement, called the “zoom lens” model, allows for adjustments in size to the area of concentration.
You don’t have to be a photographer to realize these models are based on the workings of a camera. Until recently, of course, a camera could not focus itself, much less know where to point. It is the photographer who must pay attention if the camera is to do its job. A camera can help you do this by narrowing down your field of vision through the viewfinder. But still, something must catch your eye so you know where to point the camera. As Susan Sontag once said, it’s all about paying attention. William James believed that what set geniuses apart from the common breed of humanity is their “power of sustained attention.” It is certainly what distinguishes a first-rate photographer from most of those posting on Facebook.
One of my pet theories is that every photograph is a self portrait, although not a likeness in the usual sense. Each image shows you some aspect of the photographer’s eye, what he uniquely has chosen to carve out of the sensible muchness of the world and how he sees it. This is an act of collaboration with the world as he finds it, not just what he sees but also what he has been shown. I think of Moses tending his father-in-law’s flocks on the slopes of Mt. Horeb in the Sinai wilderness when he saw “a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.” It was only when Moses turned aside to see that God spoke to him. This is what photographers do. They are always turning aside to see and discovering that the whole world is aflame.