I have never looked at anything as intensely as I have through the viewfinder of a camera. It may seem odd that my most intense experiences of reality have come through an artificial lens, but a camera is a close cousin to both a magnifying glass and a microscope. It is not only the ability to see things in more detail that commands our attention. It is something else, something about the art of photography that forces us to examine the world as we don’t normally do. Normally we don’t see things as they are. The familiar is forced into the background of our focus. Objects become ideas. Our couch is no longer a collection of darks and lights, patterns and textures; it is simply a couch. Have you ever found something unusual about something familiar that seems very out of place? For instance, if you find some mole or freckle on your body that you never noticed before, do you wonder if it was always there? How could I have never seen it, you may say to yourself. I look at my arm (hand, foot) every day. Here your assumptions have been challenged. The arm is no longer the arm that we imagined in our head, and it becomes disturbing. Our lives have become predictable in the sense that we see symbols instead of images, and only upon close examination do we find discrepancies between the two.
Walker Percy calls this the problem of symbolic complexes. In his article “The Loss of the Creature,” he describes the loss of such grand monuments as the Grand Canyon to these complexes. He states that it is almost impossible to experience the Grand Canyon as its discoverer did because people have already formed an idea in their heads, thanks to the myriad of tourist folders, postcards, and sightseers’ manuals that they have seen before the confrontation. Instead of coming upon this great thing and admiring it for what it is, sightseers come upon it and compare it to their already formulated expectations. The whole situation is made worse, Percy says, when the tourist has a...
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