Through a Lens Brightly


I have been taking photographs for most of my adult life. With no technical knowledge of f-stops, apertures, or how to work with light and shadow, I have still stumbled into taking some fine pictures. A nice camera, the right moment, and blind good luck. There have been enough successes for me to ignore the fact that most of what I shoot is all wrong (someone told me that for a single article in National Geographic, thirty thousand pictures are taken, so I have plenty of company), but one day it got to the point where I could no longer bear not understanding what I was doing right.

How does my favorite picture of my son, age two, sitting in a friend’s lap, work? Both are perfectly in focus-you can see Jenny’s earring swaying-while the background is all blurred and soft. How did I get that effect? Why does one view from our rooftop terrace look so flat and boring while the same scene shot from a different vantage point is evocative and mysterious? Why does the light falling at one angle cast a contemplative glow on the subject while at another it casts shadows so dark only the whites of the eyes show?

As so often happens in life, my need to learn the answers to these questions coincided with the arrival of a teacher. Edmund Cluett, a Renaissance man if ever there was one, has been a volunteer in our organization, along with his wife, Angie, since July. Among his many gifts, Edmund is the most talented photographer I have ever met. With characteristic generosity, he offered to teach me as much as I was capable of learning. After a few false starts, in which I was baffled by the illogic of apertures (the bigger the number the smaller the hole? Hello?), he arrived at the perfect method for me (shoot in the morning, analyze in the evening), and my life began to change.

For the first time since I owned a camera, I have begun to take conscious photos. I am asking questions before I click the button: What am I taking a picture of? Why? Is there a mood I am trying to capture? Do I want the result to be casual and fun or studied and formal? What is the subject? How do I know...?

I have learned about the “Rule of Thirds” and how beautifully a photograph can be composed with the subject off to one side and plenty of negative space beyond, about how having something in the foreground of a landscape adds complexity and interest to the scene, and about leading the viewer into the photo through the choice and placement of the subject. And I finally understand the concept of depth of field.

One could, I suppose, turn almost anything into a passion, but photography, by its very nature, cries out to become one. It is, first and foremost, about seeing. The camera, Edmund is fond of pointing out, is only a tool. It is the person who sees. My education in photography, then, has been in large part learning to look, to observe, to see the beauty in the everyday miracles that make up each of our lives.

My assignment each day is to carry my camera on my walk to work and take at least twelve pictures on the way. It’s only a quarter of a mile, a short walk that used to take me about three minutes. But now that I am studying the route with open eyes, it takes much longer. The cracks in the wall, the shadows on a house, the flowering vine spilling over the gate, the rusted coils beneath a bicycle seat-all suddenly seem beautiful and worthy of consideration. My walk has become an almost religious experience, and the connection I now feel to the people and objects I photograph is different and stirring. Having seen them from many different angles and noted their lines and shadows and the places where they grow and move, it is as if I belong to them and they to me.

It is no coincidence that my teacher was once a Buddhist monk. Edmund lived in a monastery for fourteen years. His every day was the same at one level-the same routine, the same duties, the same objects, the same clothes, the same food, the same colors and sights and sounds-and at another, full of variety, mystery, and charm. His gift, and his art, is the ability to see and to be present, to witness the moment which presents itself and to find the beauty it contains.

Edmund has spent many days at each of our centers, photographing the dis¬abled children with whom we work. One of the parents at our Early Intervention Center, where most of the children have very serious handicaps, including hydrocephaly, cerebral palsy, and Downs, went through the pictures in wonder and said, “None of the children look as if they have any problem at all! How does he do that?” The camera is only a tool. The art is in the seeing. (You can visit Edmund and Angie’s Web site at to see for yourself.)

Published in the 2007-03-23 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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