See Anything?


While walking to Photo East 2009, I noticed a small yellow bird sitting on the sidewalk. It had apparently flown into the building and was waiting for the bells to stop ringing as legions of camera-laden pedestrians marched by. I coaxed it onto my finger and lifted it to eye level. Now get this; I’m standing in mid-town Manhattan with a yellow bird on my finger… and nobody noticed. I mean nobody.

During a particularly slow train-ride into Manhattan recently I got into a conversation with someone with whom  I only nodded to each morning as we passed each other on the platform. We talked about the snowstorm raging outside our cozy rail coach, as well as what we did for a living. Sanjay let on he had a hunch I was a photographer. Aside from the fact I usually had a camera dangling from my shoulder, I asked him what gave me away. He said it was because I always seem to be looking at something; the branches of the trees that line the rail station, the overhead lines that power the trains, and other things that others never seem to notice. "You're always 'looking'". Sanjay had me pegged.

His response made me think back to the yellow bird incident, as well as the something I have long believed, which is most people don't really see. That is, they see, but they don't really see. And there's a big difference between seeing and seeing. Most of us go through our days 'seeing' the same things everyone else around us is 'seeing', at least on the surface. Some of us for some reason or another,seem to see more than others. It might be a small detail, a spot of color, or maybe the dancing of shadows on a wall, but we see it, and when we do we often stop to take pictures while others walk on by, often mumbling something derogatory as they step around us.

Crosswalk, Johnson Park, 2/28/10

I often wonder why I see things the way I do, while others never seem to get the knack of composing a visually balanced picture. And while I'm sure there are a plethora of scientific journals that address the subject, I'm not sure there's a clear answer to this question. As for my own reasons, I often joke about the fact I'm a lefty who was forced to write using my right hand,(or as I say, the wrong hand)  which resulted in a handwriting reminicsent of Neolithic stone etchings. I had to take up photography because before word processing, photography was my only legible means of non-verbal communication.

Another theory I have - and it might somehow be related to being left-handed - is that despite the fact I was never formally tested, a box of donuts says I - along with a significant portion of the population -  have a 'wiring' issue, a.k.a, a 'learning disability'.

At last count there are over 64 identifiable variations of what used to be called dyslexia, a word that had to be coined as a cruel prank for those who have it and have to spell it. Those who have variations of this condition often have issues with math, spelling, writing, eye-hand coordination, and depth perception. (If you're in good physical shape yet terrible at hitting, kicking, throwing, or catching a ball, take heed)

Regardless, my early school years were enormously frustrating. On the bright side, this 'wiring' issue is also what most likely made me a successful candidate for not one, but two art schools and everything else that has transpired ever since.

Now I'm not saying if you see yellow birds hopping around midtown Manhattan you're 'special' in any way, nor gifted, but if you do I'm willing to bet a second box of donuts you know how to compose a decent picture.

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I used to have a small parrot that went almost everywhere with me - shops, cafes, movies, etc. I'd often sit at a sidewalk cafe table with Birdlet on the table flapping his wings and trying to pick fights with sparrows, and often the ONLY people who saw him were children. Adults just walked on by...

Excellent!  I can relate.

FYI, maybe some missed words?

"forced to write (with) my right hand"

"my early school years (were) enourmously frustrating."

Whatever causes some to "see" what others ignore (or actually don't see) is a gift that I hope I have.  The quick glimpse of the cardinal, hearing and then seeing the sandhill cranes on their migratory way north, the splashes of light through the trees, the one lone sprig of grass poking through the crack of the sidewalk, and yes, the yellow bird sitting on a finger in the midst of a Manhattan unseeing crowd.  Where do children lose that ability to see?

What a wonderful and inspiring perspective.  I have often found myself seeing things that others completely miss...  long before I started with photography.  In addition, I have a dyslexic child (that i promptly sent this post) that I have often though the "disability" was more of a gift.

I always see the most after it rains. The puddles that form on the street corners of New York City often contain the most surprisingly beautiful images compared to what's right in front of you. So next time it has just finished raining, grab your camera and make sure to look down as your roam the streets of the city, because that is where you'll probably find your best shot!

Great article Allan.

I knew the answer to my question on where children lose it, and I was glad to see as many teachers mentioned as you did.  I taught third through sixth grade for 23 years and then at the university level for another 13.  I have been told I did a pretty good job of opening eyes to the world around or encouraging those who wanted to become teachers to grasp the opportunities this world afforded to them.  Often I used a camera (or the students did) to have them record something outside (or inside) they might not "see".  Hopefully, the next time a bird is on your finger or you are aware of the world around you with your camera, someone will stop and ask you about it.

Two really amazing books about "seeing" and place

Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience by Yi-Fu Tuan

See, watch and observe. Observe as noticing or perceiving (something) and register it as being significant.

"You can observe a lot just by watching."

Yogi Berra

Being a prof photographer and an old parent,that is with 4 grown-up kids,I can attest to the fact that most people "look without seeing" and "hear without listening."


I suggest we all get out our cameras, and after the Passover break, take little walks around Manhattan, finding the little things that your eye always seems to pick out. From all the work I have seen from you, the amazing pictures you coax out of any camera, from the $99 point and shoot, it would certainly be (no pun intended) eye opening to do a" behind the camera" walk with you.

(I was going to fit "eye of the beholder" in there too, but the train ran out of track) :)