From the category archives:

Places and Contexts

Cameras Are Spotlights

by Matt Blair on October 28, 2009

in Perception,Places and Contexts,Senses,Tools

People seem to be tilting their heads a little higher on the streets lately.

(No, not just because of the latest gushing story about Portland in the national press.)

Our trees — the moody ones that change their wardrobe with the seasons, not the stalwart evergreens — are baring themselves for winter, and Portlanders, often with cameras or camera phones in hand, are gathering evidence of autumn before it all falls away and leaves us with short days and drizzle.

This season brings all sorts of sensations: the first time in months when you feel cold even with two jackets on, the pumpkin lattes, the smell of roasting squash, the constant uncertainty over whether it is or isn’t actually raining, the seemingly endless variety of fresh apples, the piles of leaves that the kid in me wants to stomp through, and the intuition to look up a little more frequently than usual.

Life doesn’t stop, of course, and all the things that preoccupied us two weeks ago, and will preoccupy us two weeks from now, are still there, weighing on our minds enough to even our gaze, or turn it back down to the ground.

Looking down: Not such a bad view, either...

Looking down: Not such a bad view, either...

Whether absorbed in conversation, mentally re-prioritizing my reading list (again) or simply walking around mulling over nascent thoughts, whenever I see someone fussing with a camera, it acts as a silent, subtle alarm: something interesting must be happening here.

Hmm, a building — must be working for a real estate agent.

Or we see a toddler stumbling down the sidewalk towards the parent, who is documenting another step towards confidence.

Then there are those rare — and to me, beautiful — moments when a quick scan reveals no cause for photography at all. We can find no explanation for why someone has stopped to capture some part of this scene.  And we are left to wonder:  How often am I missing something among all that seems ordinary?

A camera is an attention-directing device as well as an image capture device. To point a camera is to convey to all those around us: I find this worth remembering.

When passing a woman carefully framing a shot causes us to pause, and wonder what she’s looking at, she has done us a great favor by making us more attentive to our surroundings.

Even just seeing a photo later, out of its original context, on Flickr or a postcard or an email, can have a similar effect. We think:

“I saw something like that last week, and I didn’t stop to notice the details.  Maybe I should.”

And with that in mind, I’m going for another walk, before all the leaves are on the ground.


An unlearned constellation?

An unlearned constellation?

Whose permission do we need to express ourselves?


How have you found poetic license in your own work — and life?

What do you do to encourage those around you to express themselves?

Are are you inviting others into the conversation?

Please share your thoughts by adding a comment below.


  • Clay Shirky on Weekend Edition Saturday
  • Poetry Foundation: e.e. cummings
  • In Just- by e.e. cummings — the kind of poem my 7th-grade English teacher would not have enjoyed


Outro music: “Kinoko Otaku” by AFS.  (An improv project by surdus and Tony Grund, now performing in Echostream.) Recorded live in January, 2001.


A few days ago, I happened across an old episode of the Guardian Books Podcast which featured authors choosing and contemplating “a key word that opened up the literary territories” they’ve explored in their work.

I particularly enjoyed the delightful obstinancy of Olivia Rosenthal’s exploration of “no” and Anne Weber’s “Attend Attentive” which I quoted on the scrapbook blog yesterday.

And then there was the opening volley of Arthur Japin’s piece about the unreal:

“Reality already exists. What’s the point of describing it one more time? The common place is all around. Why would you want to imitate it? What kind of challenge is truth? It is already there!”

I bristled at that initially — until I understood where he was headed.

Truth and reality would only be boring if we could perceive and understand them in their entirety. And we can’t.

What makes this scribbled-on rock so special?

What makes this scribbled-on rock so special?

Imagine a dozen people whose only experience of the world is wandering through the British Museum. After ten minutes, each in different rooms, they meet out front to compare notes. One person starts enthusiastically describing the Rosetta Stone, another asks “Who are the Egyptians?” and yet another mutters: “Greeks? Never heard of them…”

Common Place

Here’s a less contrived example: Imagine a group of people in the same room for a few minutes. How many details do they each notice? Five? Maybe ten?

Let’s be optimistic and say ten. Do they all notice the same things? Unlikely. And that’s what we have to share with each other.

Reality and truth exist in some physical sense. (I’ll leave philosophical debates about the details for another time.)

But they don’t exist in a way that is always present and complete and comprehensible in our minds. None of us individually can perceive and understand everything.

Ideas emerge from the gaps in our common perceptions, and those ideas become the ingredients of the stories we tell, the art we make and the perspectives we share.

Imagine someone that lives two thousand kilometers (or miles) in any direction from you. Is their daily life so much like your own, do you have so much in common in every thought and action, that they would learn nothing from you, and you nothing from them?

There is no such thing as commonplace, at least not one that we can perceive in any depth or detail.

To the extent that we do perceive a commonplace, it is something we construct by telling each other what we notice about our lives and our work, whether we do that through blogs or tweets or dancing or sculpture or music.

The actual content of the writing on the Rosetta Stone couldn’t be more mundane: an announcement of the specifics of a tax amnesty. That’s right: it’s an Egyptian IRS memo that just happens to be in three languages we find interesting more than 2000 years later.

We learn its significance not from our own direct experience of reality and truth, but by assembling ideas from teachers, historians, archaeologists, and writers.

Abstraction and Truth

I don’t mean any of this to be a criticism of Arthur Japin. Despite my initial reaction, I suspected there wasn’t all that much distance between my own thinking and his.

When I enter a museum or gallery, I usually walk straight past all the figurative work towards the abstract and conceptual, the absurd and surreal.  While my verbal brain defends capital-R Reality and capital-T Truth, my feet follow orders from my deeper aesthetic instincts.

Japin has an explanation for what makes the mysterious so compelling:

“The further characters are from me personally, the more I want to know about them. The less clear they are, the more I strive to fathom them.”

He then imagines stopping a man on a street, showing him a “vague, smudged, coffee-stained daub” and asking: “Is this you?”

Japin describes the effect on the man:

“Before he can seek a likeness, he has to think about himself. And if he eventually decides that he can’t recognize any of his features in the portrait you have shown him, he will still walk on with a different image of himself than the one he had when you stopped him.”

But doesn’t a realistic portrayal of Iranian women’s lives, or a documentary about a devastating hurricane, or even a series of films about growing up do the same thing? Or more?

When we encounter an artist whose exploration of Truth and Reality implicitly asks us the same question — “Is this you?” — and our reaction is similar to what Japin describes,  we haven’t just changed our image of ourselves. We’ve changed our image of the world.

An idea or piece of art that prompts us to perceive our own likeness in unfamiliar pockets of reality and human experience can have a much more important outcome than self-reflection: empathy.

So when Japin demands: “What kind of challenge is truth?”

I respond: The most important kind.

And, from my perspective, it’s far more elusive and illuminating than the unreal.


For many modern-day visitors to Egypt, Abu Simbel is an out-of-the-way excursion, an option at the end of the itinerary. Down near the border with Sudan, and much smaller than most of the high-traffic historical sites in Egypt, it is an afterthought.

Just another postcard:

Egypt: Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel Postcard

But what if it is approached from the south, as humans have approached it for millennia? Or as part of a 14,000 km walk across the continent?

“Alexandre and Sonia Poussin undertake to walk the length of Africa entirely on foot, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sea of Galilee. In a three-year trek along the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, their goal is to symbolically retrace the passage of early Man, from Australopithecus to Modern Man.”

After spending three weeks making their way through the deserts of northern Sudan towards Egypt, Alexandre said Abu Simbel seemed “huge and egoistic”, like an announcement that you’ve reached the beginning of civilization.

Egypt: Abu Simbel

Clambering up a fallen facade

So which is it? Just another set of statues at the end of the postcard deck?

Or a still-standing Ozymandias?

The order of our experiences, the precise sequence of where we’ve been and what we’ve observed, profoundly shapes our perceptions of our surroundings in the present moment.

When I heard Alexandre describe Abu Simbel that way last fall, it reminded me of a walk I had taken through the woods in Virginia several years earlier.

I was visiting Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home outside Charlottesville. After buying a ticket next to the parking lot, visitors have a choice: take a bus up to the house, or walk up a gently sloping path. I took one look at the crowded line for the bus, and headed for the forest.

As I walked, I looked at the trees, the trail, the changing October leaves, and wondered how it all might have changed since Jefferson — or Sally Hemings, for that matter — walked nearby two centuries ago.

More poignantly, when approaching Monticello from the forest you pass the graveyard first, well before the house is in sight. Jefferson’s gravestone provides a concise outline of how he viewed the accomplishments of his own life:

Gravestone of Thomas Jefferson

Gravestone of Thomas Jefferson (Sorry for the bad photo...)

I continued walking past the main lawn and the gardens, and rounded the front of the house to join the line for the tour. I listened to the chatter of those who had taken the bus to the top as they debated how long Jefferson had been president, and when, or which denominations of money featured his face.

Within the house at Monticello, the tour guides focused on Jefferson’s massive library, his incessant architectural tinkering, the specimens  Lewis And Clark sent him from their expedition, his prodigious correspondence, his wine collection, his agricultural experimentation, his massive debts, and, of course, his eight years as president.

I listened and absorbed all the historical details with my usual level of curiosity, but also through a more reflective frame: Before starting the tour, I had already seen how it ended, from Jefferson’s perspective.


Have you had the chance to approach an historic site or a work of art from multiple directions?  How was each approach different?

Do particular pieces of art imply a certain approach?  How is the work strengthened or weakened by arriving from another direction?

Think about the way paths are constructed in museums.  What can you glimpse from the outside? From the lobby?  From one gallery to the next?

Where does the ‘art experience’ start? How have the museum’s designers managed the transition from street to art? How does the sound environment change? The temperature? The lighting?

How would it be different if you came up an elevator from a parking garage instead of through the front entrance?


Find a place or work of art that can be approached by multiple paths, and take each.

Experience the same place or idea coming from these distinct perspectives, and make note of the differences.

A path could be a physical approach — the way you move towards something.

Or it could be a contextual approach: go to a gallery or a museum exhibit that you don’t know anything about. Note the experience. Then go study the historical and cultural context, and return.

Or it could be imagining a new path to a place you’ve already visited: Did the existing path enhance or detract from your experience of that place? If you were asked to redesign the approach, how would you do so?  What elements would you preserve and what would you change? What mindset would you try to create for visitors?


In the northern hemisphere, the summer travel season is upon us. In addition to thinking about sight-seeing and noshing over the next few months, I want to encourage you to go here-hearing, place-touching and site-smelling.

That may sound a bit glib and silly, not only because of the wordplay and alliteration, but because it isn’t how we typically think of travel.

When people return from a voyage, they talk about the places they went, the people they met and the conversations they had. In terms of making sense memories, they may have lots of photos and videos, and tales of food and drink, from the fantastic to the horrific and everything in between.

Sound, touch and smell are often minor characters in the story. Maybe they took note of the smell of a particular flower, or the roar of a waterfall.

But did they touch anything they couldn’t have touched locally?  Did they hear anything they’d never heard of before? Was there a smell they hadn’t encountered anywhere else?

Like a Small, Insistent Earthquake

About ten years ago, I booked a ferry from Stockholm to Turku, Finland. I was expecting a modest little boat for the overnight journey, and was astonished to arrive at the port and see what was essentially a cruise ship looming a dozen stories above the water.

As we boarded, I noticed many of my fellow passengers with folded-up carts and large empty bags were all rushing in the same direction. Curious, I followed the clamor, careful not to get trampled. So much for Scandinavian reserve.

After several twists and turns, I rounded a corner, and ran into a store teeming with activity: Ah. Booze. Now it made sense.

I remembered reading somewhere that the ferries were popular day-trips or night-trips for those buying duty-free alcohol, because the taxes on both sides of the Baltic were so high.

As I turned to leave, the engines engaged, pushing the ferry away from the dock. The massive ship shuddered at the force required to overcome its inertia, and all the bottles began to clink softly against each other.

I entered the store and tiptoed as quietly as I could through the aisles, listening to the highs and lows of the bottles delicately tinkling amid the din of alcohol purchases. Imagine being in a wine shop or liquor store during a mild but continuous earthquake, with thousands of glass bottles barely touching one another.

It lasted several minutes, and it remains one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard.

Nose and Skin

To retrieve scent memories, I have to think a little more deeply. Here are two examples:

  • The aroma of olive oil extraction that fills the countryside in Andalucía, Spain in mid-winter.
  • The incense-infused wood in the Todaiji temple in Nara. I went there at least a dozen times while living in Japan, and every time, in every season, I was captivated as soon as I stepped over the threshold.

I really had to scratch my head to come up with a touch memory — I guess I need to pay closer attention to storing tactile sensations in the future! Here’s one:

I used to climb the hill behind the apartment building where I lived on the edge of the sprawl surrounding Osaka, Japan. The hill faced the west, and much of the trail was in the sun, but there was one little pocket about halfway to the top that didn’t seem to get any sun at any time of day. There was nothing visually distinct about this part of the trail, but the quality of the air was entirely different: fresh and dramatically cooler.

I always looked forward to that spot, especially in the heat of July and August. Better than any air-conditioning!


Before your next trip, get a pocket notebook. Divide it into three sections, however you like: Sound, Smell and Touch.

Even if you don’t have any travel plans, try doing this exercise on walks around your neighborhood or even the clothing aisles of a local mall. Seek remarkable sensations all around you, even in seemingly unremarkable places.

Every time you take a photo, sip a drink or munch a snack, make a point of entering something in each of these sense categories in your notebook.

Try to get in the habit of reaching for this notebook when you smell something or touch something interesting, in the same habitual way you might reach for your camera.

Describe the sensations in anyway you like: just tune in and capture it in some way.

(I’m a big fan of traveling with audio recorders, but for the purposes of this exercise, I want to encourage you to be in the moment, so please listen with your ears, not your microphone!)

And when you return, give your memories of these sensations top billing in the stories you tell: “You won’t believe what I touched this summer…”



Color Your Thinking

by Matt Blair on February 6, 2009

in Places and Contexts,Process and Workflow

NPR’s Morning Edition reported this morning on new research about how color affects the way we work:

Scientists at the University of British Columbia studied more than 600 people as they performed various tasks, usually on a computer. Sometimes the screen’s background color was red, sometimes it was blue.

The experiments showed that with the red background, people did as much as 31 percent better at tasks like proofreading or solving anagrams, which require attention to detail. But for creative tasks, like designing a child’s toy, a blue background improved performance.

According to Ravi Mehta, the author of the study, red induces “avoidance motivation” that causes people to be detail-oriented and wary of mistakes, while blue creates an “approach motivation” in which people are more open and relaxed. Maybe that’s why Bono wears those tinted shades?

When I heard the story, I was intrigued because it reflects not only my own color preferences in life (blue, and a little green, rather than warm colors) but also my creative disposition. I seem to always have a steady flow of new ideas and connections running through my head, but my biggest challenge is what I call “editor’s block” — selecting the right pieces, fixing all the details in place and solving all the little puzzles required to achieve a final form. I can get myself into a detail-oriented or risk-avoidance frame of mind, but it always feels a little uncomfortable. To put it in terms of this study, I think blue, not red.

A tangent, indulged: My parents gave me a new teapot for Christmas, though with some hesitation, because the only one left when they bought it was red.

The results of this research are a reminder of the complex role our physical environment plays in our mental posture:

The study explains why previous research has produced conflicting results about how red and blue affect thinking, Mehta says. Either color can provide an advantage, he says, but only if it’s matched to the right kind of task.

And that’s the broader point: Pick a physical environment that is conducive to the mental approach that you need at a given moment. If you aren’t in the right mindset, alter the environment.

I notice significant differences from simple changes like walking while I’m proofreading, or writing at the kitchen table in front of the window when I’m first brainstorming, then sitting at a desk facing the wall while editing.  If I get stuck on deciding the best sequence for two ideas or whether to indulge a tangent, I might stand in front of the computer. I just did, in fact, without even thinking about it. Physical movement seems to allow more mental latitude.

Like any scientific study, I’m sure that future research will add nuance to or maybe even contradict this understanding of how color affects our work. But you don’t have to study how 600 people work under different conditions, or worry about some general theory. Make adjustments in color and position and lighting and temperature in your own environment. Take cues from research like this, and study yourself.

Well, I better leave it there. That red teapot is whistling at me.

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