Focus is an important topic in photography. The camera allows to either reduce focus, the zone of sharpness, to a pinprick or to extend it through most of a photograph. Lenses are often discussed based on the quality of the out-of-focus areas they are able to produce (the so-called “bokeh”) and reviewers can get quite lyrical about creamy or buttery bokeh. Many portrait photographers use this bokeh to highlight their subject by a steep falloff of sharpness from the subject to the background.
In contrast, the f/64 group of photographers, to which Ansel Adams belonged, chose their name from the smallest aperture a lens could produce, an aperture that would bring about no background blur, only relative sharpness throughout the picture. For them this was an expression of a radical realism in opposition to the intended softness advocated by pictorialism.
Our eyes, indeed, can’t do what most photographic lenses can do. In the center of our field of view the sharpness falloff is (with normal 20/20 vision) rather modest. Scenes seem to have always deep focus and we aren’t able to blend out the background like a lens with a large aperture could. What we, however, can do is to focus our mind. We can completely concentrate on, let’s say, a single flower and everything else seems fading away. I have from time to time recommended doing this so that we actually again perceive and observe what is outside of our mind. In addition, most serious endeavors in life need a lot of mind-focus to succeed.
But focus, it seems to me, is something in photography and life that also needs to be balanced. Sometimes it is good to completely de-focus, otherwise we might miss something. I was recently reminded of this. It was a balmy, sunny morning and a light wind was rustling the leaves. I was sitting on the veranda and looking out into the forest listening to the bird sounds coming from all directions. And while I was silently sitting there, all these elements, the leaves, the wind, the birds and the sun merged into one and vague memories floated through the mind. Memories, maybe from forgotten happy experiences during my childhood, from the time when my inner bond with nature was forged. This emotional well to draw from, I think, is the ultimate source for creative work. All skills and intellectual intentions are just tools that can support, but never replace, this source of creativity.
The music of the Beat-revolution of the 1960’s was so successful not because it was so skillful. It was successful because of its emotional impact. It has been said about the late, great Amy Winehouse that she could completely uninhibited expose her inner feelings and turn them into music. And indeed, a truly great song like Back to Black gives an almost voyeuristic insight into the inner life of a young woman. At the same time, we all at one or another time of our life might have been at a similar place as the singer; what makes art work is that it also touches on shared, common experiences. To “open up” like Amy Winehouse could do is very hard. Most of us have, healthy I’d say, inhibitions to share all our inner experiences with a wider audience. But without some of those deeper feelings showing through, our work will be an uninspiring academic exercise.
Has my tale lost focus here? (Sorry, that was an intended but awkward pun.) The point I am trying to make is that in order to tap our source of inspiration, we at times have to completely de-focus and melt into our surroundings, memories and emotions. Even though it is an overused quote (and not the least by me), it is only with the heart one truly sees well. That means also, I think, that sometimes we have to close our eyes to see at all.