The Photographer of Modern Life—Part III

In Part 1 we discussed the concept of the flâneur as he Photographer of Modern Life. In Part 2 we laid some groundwork for understanding the interaction of thoughts and action that a successful flâneur needs. We now turn our attention to a piece of literature which not only gives great examples of how our observational abilities change with our physical activity, but also gives insight into choices we can make to improve the creative outcomes we desire. With the biology firmly in hand, we can see it in action in Edgar Allan Poe's The Man of the Crowd.

We structure our look at the story using a simple framework which can be summarized as an arc with four parts: Observe; Orient; Decide; and Act.

A Lynchian moment near the Poe House in Philadelphia, where Poe lived for six years.

Take a Pew and Observe

The story begins with the protagonist sitting in a coffee shop watching people at the end of their day. That he is sitting in a coffee shop is significant. When we choose a place to rest, we have made a decision that we are in a safe place. This allows our minds and body to shift from a state of preparedness for action to a state of awareness. While the decrease in blood pressure and heart rate relaxes the muscles, it also triggers constriction of the eyes (providing sharper vision), more sensitive hearing, and more acute smell and taste. In this relaxed state, all of our senses are brought bear in helping us observe and make sense of the things going on around us.

As the body settles into a resting state, the brain's activity changes as well. In normal human engagement, the brain's electrical activity appears as beta waves. When relaxed, the brain's activity shifts to alpha waves. In our daily activities, we shift between these beta and alpha states depending on our level of engagement and concentration. 

Recent studies in neuroscience have established that creative solutions appear when there is a mix of beta and alpha wave activity. Accordingly,  periods of disengagement from active problem solving (often labeled in negative terms as "distraction" or "fidgeting") are necessary to finding creative solutions because it's in the transition between beta and alpha states that answers come to us. 

Specifically, alpha waves are associated with creative, intuitive, and visual thinking, and the recollection of memories. Alpha waves occur in the greatest amplitude in the parts of the brain associated with visual processing, most importantly the occipital lobe. But we also need the beta-level activity to make conscious sense of those feelings and concepts. It is this alpha-influenced state of mind which bridges the gap between the creative surrealist mind and conscious beta action: amorphous surrealist thoughts are transformed into visual representations in the occipital lobe and, quite literally, ideas become visual forms. 

Our protagonist goes through just this cycle:

With a cigar in my mouth and a newspaper in my lap, I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon, now poring over advertisements, now in observing promiscuous company in the room, and now peering through the smoky panes into the street.

At a state of rest, enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee, the protagonist is in a state of mind more conducive to vague pondering than focused thoughts. In this state of mind, the impressions which flit into consciousness are amorphous but subject to recognition and awareness. He is, accordingly, receptive to realizing when a surrealist idea is matched as he observes the passersby through the window.

Help your Orientation with Gestalt

As we observe, our attention eventually gravitates toward those things which interest us. As we become more excited, our awareness narrows and we being a process of putting our observation in a personal context: e.g., how does the thing which interests me fit into the context which I've observed. 

One way to speed this process is through the use of gestalt seeing. "Gestalt" is a German word that means "shape" or "form." Specifically, it is an approach to understanding how humans organize and group visual elements into wholes. In his classic text, Art and Visual Perception, Rudolph Arnheim elevated the concepts of gestalt to a method of interpreting and understanding the visual elements of art. As photographers, we are interested especially in the gestalt concept of figure-ground relationships, which help the spectator to perceive objects as patterns. 

Intriguingly, gestalt perception is innate, and incredibly sensitive. As explained by Professor Arnheim: "For any spatial relation between objects, there is a correct distance, established by the eye intuitively . . . . [N]o known method of calculation can replace the eye's intuitive sense of balance." Art and Visual Perception at 12, 19.

Gestalt is a fascinating topic, and we will be covering it in detail in a later article. What's particularly interesting about gestalt for our present purposes, however, is its dual nature: it's purely natural and extremely sensitive, but it's only activated in artificial ways. It's only when we have an object that has a comparator can we make a gestalt evaluation of balance. When we have those compartors, we can quickly orient to our interests.

And that's where the next element of the story comes in:

 . . . and now in peering through the smoky panes into the street.

By looking through the window of the coffee house, the protagonist activates his gestalt seeing, which allows him to more rapidly perceive the action outside the window and to evaluate it:

At first my observations took an abstract and generalizing turn. I looked at the passengers in masses, and thought of them in their aggregate relations. Soon, however, I descended to details, and regarded with minute interest the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance.

Our protagonist has shifted from Observation to Orientation, and is now processing the subjects of his interest in an active way. While for puproses of the story Poe makes these thoughts specific, our normal thought processes are less precise and more intuitive: the objects of our attention are felt more as strong feelings that articulated words.

The orientation phase is the most important part of the process. It's the part that takes our creative, surrealist ideas and puts them into a context with which our conscious minds and our bodies can engage. Once we know what it is that we're interested in, and have a sense of why it intrigues us, that's when we can decide to do something about it.


The moment of "deciding" is when our observations and orientations gel together into a meaningful specific: it's when we know what we want. 

Back to Poe, we find our protagonist right on the verge of decision:

With my brow to the glass, I was thus occupied in scrutinizing the mob, when suddenly there came into view a countenance . . . which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention . . . . As I endeavored, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed. . . I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated. . . .Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view—to know more of him.

In this passage, Poe describes the feeling when Observation and Orientation gel into Decision: upon recognizing a match to a surrealist idea, the protagonist is excited and moved to action. 

His impulse to action is the result of his mind holding a specific thought, which shifts him from his parasympathetic nervous system state into the sympathetic nervous system state: now having a target for his attention, his heart rate increases, his blood pressure rises, and his body is prepared to act. His concentration is focused, and his senses are targeted so that he can follow the subject of his interest.


And so he follows, with the immediacy of bodily action that can only result from the focus of the mind upon a particular subject of interest:

Hurriedly putting on all overcoat, and seizing my hat and cane, I made my way into the street, and pushed through the crowd in the direction which I had seen him take . . . . I at length came within sight of him, approached, and followed him closely . . . .

It's because the protagonist has gone through the process of categorizing the people in the crowd that he is able to keep track of what's important to him.** This is the mind's process of sorting based on associations relevant to our context of interest, and it's what enables us to make quick distinctions and evaluations of vast amounts of stimuli.

Accordingly, the protagonist is able to follow the man through the crowd, comparing his subject's actions to those of the people around his subject. The protagonist is able to perceive contrasts and draw conclusions because of his prior categorizations of the members of the crowd, despite changing weather, light conditions, and his own fatigue. When we make a decision to act, we become single-minded until our attention has been satisfied. And once it is satisfied, we return to our state of Observation and the cycle begins again.

Being a Photographer of the Crowd

Poe's story is a great example of how street photographers can work faster and better, getting more images that match their ideas. It's easy to try yourself, by becoming a Photographer of the Crowd.

The next time you happen upon a new place that interests you, put Poe into action: find a cafe, a park bench, or light up a cigarette and lean against a wall. Let your mind wander as you observe the scene. You can enhance this process by using gestalt principles—observe through windows, passageways, or between natural obstacles. This will also prime the state of mind necessary for evaluating figure-to-ground, establishing environmental elements to support your subject, and screening out distractions. 

As you become familiar with the environment, elements of interest will start to emerge and you will quickly orient yourself to them. Having primed your gestalt sense, you'll be ready to act quickly when you see a moment to capture.

For photographers, the "Decide" and "Act" portions are highly compressed, and at their best are not even conscious: you see a moment, raise the camera and snap as soon as you can make the minute adjustments that the framing of the camera imposes. Nevertheless, making yourself aware of these discrete mental processes and the bodily states which enhance them will not only make you faster in becoming aware of and capturing moments, but will also enrich the depth of your observations. 

Photographers have a unique challenge in the cycle: the process is faster for photographers because the ideas to which we are more sensitive are visual, so it's a more direct process for the surreal ideas to find visual triggers. But once we have captured an image, we need to start the cycle over again. Making images is a mentally exhausting process because it requires the photographer to alternate between the brain states of observation and execution. This is no easy task, but mindfully engaging in the "Poe process" will bring efficiency and stamina, contributing to your success as a Photographer of the Crowd. 

**The process of categorization links perception with decision making and action selection. Through categorization we mentally assign relevant characteristics to groups whose members are treated similarly. See Mendez JC, Perez O, Prado L, Merchant H (2014). Linking Perception, Cognition, and Action: Psychophysical Observations and Neural Network Modelling