Seeing in the moment
Tim Davis on Bruegel, attention, and walking with earbuds
“My pictures speak for themselves.”
I can’t tell you many times I’ve heard photographers say that. I get that imagemakers don’t always like talking about their work. I struggle with it too. The truth is, it’s not easy. Most of the time, artists’ statements read like so much gibberish it’s impossible to understand what they mean. And in general, I think photographers can get too hung up on the formal nature of writing about their pictures.
When someone shows me an image, I want to know what inspired it. I have questions! Whereabouts was this? Why did you make it? And what were you thinking? Most of all, I like to hear photographers talk about what photographs mean. Reading about a picture is one thing, but hearing imagemakers explain what makes them tick is something else entirely. I wrote about this earlier this year.
I have wanted to experiment with audio here for months. My friendis an audio producer. He coached me in the early days of developing this newsletter and suggested something straightforward: hearing photographers talk about pictures would be intriguing. “Ask them to record a voice memo,” he told me. “It doesn’t need to be complicated.” I’ve always been intimidated by the production required to record a podcast, but Evan knows his stuff, and I knew he was on to something.
I still want to host a photography talk show. (Someday!) In the meantime, I’m going to start small and experiment with audio here on Substack. So I’m putting Evan’s idea to work and inviting photographers to tell me stories about their pictures. The goal is to add some dimension to the act of looking and to bring the maker's voice to the experience of seeing. Sound interesting? Drop me a line if you want to participate.
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My buddy Tim Davis generously agreed to kick things off with a story. I didn’t give him much guidance — I asked him to pick one of his pictures and riff on why he made it and where it came from. Most importantly, I wanted to know what the picture meant to him. Tim is a clever, creative, funny guy, and I knew he’d have something thoughtful to say. I think you’ll agree; there is more to this picture than meets the eye.
You can hear Tim’s story by touching the play button below. And feel free to expand the photo to fullscreen on your desktop. That way, you can immerse yourself in the details of the image and let Tim’s thoughts wash over you as you look. You might even put on your headphones to listen closely to the nuances in Tim’s recording.
Tim’s takeaway: Don’t wear earbuds!
I love taking long walks and making pictures along the way, so I appreciate the concept of a “photo expedition.” (Though, truthfully, I’m not usually searching for images on my walks — I’m just happy when one of them pops out of the world and shows itself to me.) Like Tim, I usually distract myself with podcasts when I walk, and I often fear I’m missing out on something by doing that.
I’ve been reading Christopher Ives’ book, Zen on the Trail, this spring, and Tim’s story reminded me of some of the ideas Ives explores in a section about mindfulness and walking in the woods:
By directing our attention to how we hike as opposed to where we're headed and taking as our goal sitting quietly in a beautiful spot rather than summiting a gnarly peak, we can begin to shift from ego-driven doing mode to spirit-filled being mode, from proving something in nature to exploring how we are in nature.
Ives continues in a chapter about beauty and aesthetics:
Maybe our minds need to be still, tranquil, open, receptive, and respectful for us to pay sustained attention to things, see them clearly, and by extension, appreciate their beauty. Maybe these mental states are the foundation of powerful experiences of beauty and, as such, constitute a bridge between spirituality and aesthetics.
I think that’s right. Tim is walking with a purpose — he’s hunting for pictures. But I’m sure that so many of his photographs work because he cultivates a state of mind focused on being present and aware. He takes his time and uses a camera to deepen his experience as he moves through the world. Wearing earbuds disconnects us from our surroundings, and it makes sense that tuning out the sounds of the places we photograph impacts how we experience and see them.
I like the idea of bringing Ives’ philosophy to a photo walk — to shift from a doing mode to a being mode. To keep our eyes and minds open as we move through the world, with or without a camera. Practicing attention can pay creative dividends.
Tim’s insights about composition are significant too. Robert Capa famously said, "If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” I know what he meant, but I frequently feel that closely cropped pictures lack the dramatic heft of an expansive view. And I think that's what Tim is after in his work. “Back up” is good advice and something we all should consider occasionally.
By the way, here’s that Bruegel painting Tim mentioned. It took me a while to find Icarus in the picture, which is, I guess, kind of the point. Indeed, Bruegel’s painting is a universe of visual activity, and it works so well because its composition, as Tim puts it, “makes the picture more interesting than the ostensible subject.”
This was fun. Tim’s story sent me down various rabbit holes of exploration and helped me make some connections to my own experience as a walker and photographer. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Please let me know what you think in the comments. Thanks for sharing, Tim! I appreciate it.
About the author
Tim Davis’ most recent book, Hallucinations, made in Sardinia, was released by Punctum Press in 2022. He is at work on two new books, Normaltown, to be published by Fall Line Press, about memory and its relationship to the photographic image, and Upstate Event Horizon, slated for publication by Aperture Foundation. He teaches photography at Bard College and lives in Tivoli, New York.
I want to hear your stories!
Submission is easy: Email me with an image and an MP3 voice recording about it. You can be low-fi with your recordings — a mobile phone voice memo will suffice.
Here’s a prompt: talk about the picture or what inspired it. You might riff on the people or places it depicts or what was going through your mind when you made it. Get personal and share your experience. And feel free to meander if it makes sense — no need to be formal or stuffy. Seriously, there are no rules here. Talk like you think.
Be creative and have fun with this. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!