Daniel Lewis Studios
Learning to See
In 1998 I set out to learn photography. I had seen some photographs that I liked, and all I remember is the thought, I want to learn how to do that. So I bought an entry-level Canon Rebel SLR (film, of course) and headed to New Orleans for a week. Every day I wandered the streets of the French Quarter snapping photos. When I’d filled a roll I dropped the film off at the hour photo lab in a Walgreens and headed out to take more pictures. In the evenings I read books on photographic composition and technique, trying to wrap my head around the bewildering world of f-stops, apertures, focal lengths, and the inverse square rule.
And I took hundreds of spectacularly awful photos. The joyous splashing fountain, the energy of the street buskers, the French- and Spanish-inspired architecture that captivated me, just did not come across in my photographs. Mostly they were just, well, boring.
Despite acquiring some technical knowledge, I had not yet really learned to see. I thought I was spending a week in New Orleans learning photography. In fact I was taking my first baby steps in learning to see in new ways.
I left New Orleans after a week with a half dozen competent but mediocre photographs, and one treasure. On impulse, unthinking, I had snapped a photo of a deserted second-floor balcony in the Quarter — glittering Mardi Gras beads adorning the railing, an abandoned yellow chair facing the street, a curtain blowing through an open window, an ominous blue shadow on the pink wall. There was something going on in this image beyond these details, something I couldn’t name at the time — and still can’t. There was a sense of the presence of something unnameable and its absence at the same time. I couldn’t put it into words, but I knew I’d caught something, and I wanted to see more . . . and see more deeply. That single photograph was an awakening of sorts . . . and it inspired me to keep going on a journey of learning to see anew.
Today I practice seeing anew by making portraits of people. As (also) a life coach my job is to reflect back the highest and best — the essence — of those whom I coach. I do much the same in my portraits. I endeavor to artistically reflect the highest and best in those whom I photograph. To deeply see the authentic you, and then to bring that you to the fore.
Setting aside the labels and concepts by which we narrow and manage our worlds, photography can awaken us anew to the experience of child-like wonder. The theologian and philosopher Abraham Heschel once said, “All religion begins in wonder.” So does photography. A good photograph re-enchants the world.
And a true portrait can set aside the masks we all wear and capture a moment of authentic engagement and perhaps even a soul.