From his book, Letting Go Of The Camera, photographer Brooks Jensen shared the insight that we are predisposed to see the world from a certain viewpoint.


What is Your Natural Vision?
In my own photography, I’m drawn to small details seen from a close-up viewpoint as in this photo from last year.

I'm drawn to obscure details like this.

I’m drawn to obscure details like this.

I&O whistle post

Here’s another example.

There’s a point of view expressed in these photos via a visual language that I’m comfortable with. Exploring the landscape, camera in hand, I invariably find tiny details like this splice in a woven wire fence or a whistle post on the I&O branch. Shooting close-up throws the background into an abstract pattern of shapes that allows these foreground objects to stand out boldly. The rusted texture of the fence, enhanced by the heavy frost, and the metal post is also a strong related theme. All of these elements are part of the visual language I use to interpret the world. My photos from a mid-range or panoramic viewpoint, while competent, aren’t nearly so powerful.

Reflecting on this after reading Brooks’ essay, What Is Your Natural Vision?, from the book, I understood how this visual theme has run through my creative life in many ways. Consistently, I’ve found ways to get up close to things, to see and understand objects intimately, while ignoring the larger surroundings.

This way of seeing has held firm in how I express the hobby. In years past, I would embark on some grand layout design only to go stale after a short period. I would repeat a predictable pattern of zeroing in on a small and favored scene, bringing it to a high degree of finish, only to loose all interest in the rest.

At the time I didn’t understand this behavior, thinking myself lazy or an undisciplined dilettante who couldn’t stay with anything. Eventually I decided to reduce the width of my layouts from the standard two-foot depth to sixteen inches and felt a sense of relief because I didn’t have to deal with those eight inches of depth anymore. Once that epiphany occurred, my layout designs started getting progressively smaller and simpler. This reduction in size over the years provided more satisfaction because without understanding it consciously, I was bringing my natural way of seeing things to my modeling in a more deliberate manner.

Changing scales from HO to quarter-inch allowed me to visually move in closer, due to the increased size of the models and layout features. Rather than think of having less layout as a negative factor like the hobby mindset suggests, I found a sense of satisfaction, as I could not only model more intimate details, I could also see them from a viewpoint that seemed natural.

Sitting in the weeds

Moving up in scale strengthens a closer viewpoint.

How Do You See The World?
You have a natural way of seeing the world, whether you consider yourself creative or not. Mine is a close-up viewpoint that revels in small details, patterns and texture across many subjects. After forty years, I’ve learned how consistent these themes are in our lives and I also know how little awareness people have about such things.

Brooks’ essay suggests that understanding our preferred way of seeing the world provides a greater focus in our work. Understanding brings the power of clarity to our vision and, in time, we become a specialist in our own visual language. In all this, I see a parallel application to our craft.

The Implications Are Immense. 
The craft of railroad modeling is as creative as any other art form and the more we understand our predisposed way of seeing, the deeper and more satisfying our efforts will become.

As Brooks observed, it isn’t about the tools, categories or even subject matter. What’s important is how you see, what you see, and what you say when you see.

What if we stopped defining ourselves by our tools, subject matter or medium (I’m an O scaler, I’m a steam era guy, I’m a freight car modeler, I’m an operations guy) and instead, shared how our work reflects the way we see railroading. How would that starting point reshape our narrative about the craft? For example:

“I’m an observer of small details and textures in both objects and the landscape. Railroad modeling is a way for me to explore these details via close study and craftsmanship.”

While the familiar terms speak to us, there is a shallowness in what they communicate. I’m more than the tools, the subject matter or the modeling scale I choose to work with. When you learn that I’m an observer of small details, you have a context for understanding my modeling as a whole, and what I’m trying to say about these things.

From the discussion and the comments of my last post, how many people are building a layout they have no interest in because they’re following another’s vision rather than exploring their own? How many have fallen in love with an idea because convention says that’s how it’s supposed to be done?

Understanding that you are predisposed to see things in a certain way may or may not impact your decisions or subject matter, but it is important knowledge that can make your choices stronger.

Over time I worked my way past the hobby conventions and learned to specialize in my preferred way of seeing things. A smaller, simpler layout design in a large scale, provides a gratifying close-up focus to the work and I know when I’m wandering into areas less satisfying, or that might demand more thoughtful attention on my part. As with any creative endeavor, the tools matter far less than the vision we craft with them.

What about you? How do you see railroading? What do you see in it? What do you want to say about that?