When someone is described as having an eye in photography, it’s a sign of talent. A sign of seeing and capturing the world in a unique way and there’s something wonderfully philosophical about that expression.
Being able to see is a vital skill in both photography and philosophy and a philosopher who comes to mind is Henry David Thoreau. Known for his close observation of nature and interest in the natural world, Thoreau earned a reputation for being able to see things the average person might think of as downright strange and weird.
And that is precisely what made Thoreau who he was, meaning photographers can take inspiration from the man on how to see the world. So, how do you become a Thoreauvian photographer?
Seeing like Thoreau
The first step is to understand how Thoreau used his senses to understand the world. According to Eric Weiner in the excellent Socrates Express:
“Thoreau’s vision was legendary. At a glance, he could estimate the height of a tree or the weight of a calf. He’d reach into a bushel of pencils and, by sight alone, grab exactly a dozen. He had a knack for finding buried Indian arrowheads. ‘There is one,’ he’d say, kicking it up with his foot.”
Weiner explains this ability to see stemmed from Thoreau’s identity as a Transcendentalist:
“Thoreau is considered a Transcendentalist, a member of a philosophical movement that can be summed up in four words: faith in things unseen. Thoreau, though, possessed an even stronger faith in things seen. He was less interested in the nature of reality than the reality of nature.
Was there more to the world than meets the eye? Probably, but what does meet the eye is plenty miraculous, so let’s start there. Thoreau valued vision even more than knowledge. Knowledge is always tentative, imperfect. Today’s certainty is tomorrow’s nonsense. ‘Who can say what is? He can only say how he sees.”
In other words, the philosopher could only truly see something if he felt something. An emotive response and an interactive response were two sides of the same coin for Thoreau. When he saw an object, he saw it looking back at him and it became a collaboration.
Based on this approach, here are some Thorevuian techniques to use in your photography.
1. Cultivate an innocence of eye
Thoreau believed in an “innocence of eye”, meaning he found it easy to view his environment like a young child. He never lost a sense of wonder, as summed up beautifully in a line from Walden: “reality is fabulous.”
For photographers, having a child’s sense of wonder means that you can always find beauty no matter where you look. It’s being awestruck by the simplest objects and finding creative ways to take a shot of the mundane and the everyday. It’s embracing the small details of nature and taking photos for the sheer joy of photography.
2. Don’t create meaning too quickly
The most straightforward way of seeing is to look at an object and believe our eyes are capturing images like a camera. For instance, you look at a dog and say to yourself ‘yep, that’s a dog.’ This is creating meaning on the spot and Thoreau advised against it.
He took his time examining everything he saw, reminding himself “we must look for a long time before we can see.” It’s driving home the point that seeing is subjective and so too is photography.
When picking up a camera, take your time to view your subject through the lens. Think about how it makes you feel and think. This can inform how you take a photo.
3. Start photographing in the morning
Thoreau was a morning person and during his time at Walden Pond in Concord, he liked to start his day by bathing in the pond.
I’m not saying you have to find a body of water to dive into to start the day. But getting your camera out and going for a morning stroll could be a productive way to indulge your creativity.
4. Alter your perspective and vantage point
When it came to seeing, it was all about the angles for Thoreau. He looked at Walden Pond from multiple vantage points and Weiner describes an extreme example of the man changing his perspective:
“Sometimes he took more drastic steps. He’d bend over and peer through his legs, marveling at the inverted world. (Thoreau was big on inverting; he even flipped his name, changing it from David Henry to Henry David). Turn the world upside down and you see it anew.”
In a photography context, taking shots from different angles can bring new meaning to your work. A higher vantage point might change the story. Looking up with your camera might unearth new details about the landscape.
5. Be superficial and saunter with your eye
Thoreau was a superficial man, not in a shallow sense, but in the way he looked at objects from the perspective of depth diffused. He had a habit of glancing at everything and called it a “sauntering of the eye.”
Glancing is the natural state of humans and with our eyes never being still it provides a lot of room for photographic creativity. Walk through a park, glance around and take quick shots with your camera. Compare the photos against each other and then snap some more.
6. Find your own Walden
For Thoreau, Walden Pond was many things: a source of inspiration, a home, a proving ground and a philosophical arena. To a tourist travelling through Concord it might simply be a patch of water with some ducks and insects buzzing around.
The point is to find your own version of Walden, places that spark your inspiration to take photos. To make you more thoughtful of your surroundings and see beauty that can be immortalised on camera.
Browse Stoic Athenaeum’s philosophy photo collections
I find photography to be therapeutic and it does encourage me to try and see the world through a Thoreuvian lens. Check out these photo collections that have been inspired by Stoicism: