I’m not a visual person. Statistics show that most of my gender are not, compared to sight and visual cues dominating the sensory experiences of the majority of men. I take everything in without too much focus on any one thing and process it as a total sensory experience – combined with the smells, the tastes, the feel, the soundtrack. I am more surface that way, like taking a helicopter view that gives me a dominant impression that I can quickly process and store or discard.
What am I sensing? Emotions, usually. The general mood. A sense of beauty or violence or energy, to name a few of the labels I use to sort it all. I retain all of the sensory details, with the visual cues in the background fading more often than not. My eye for detail is limited by my overall perception of the stimuli; I remember a couple of details vividly – those that support my label of the experience, and those that seem to most contradict it. Therefore, the more juxtaposition of elements there are in the sensory experience I am having, the more interesting it is to me and the more I need to spend time in it and figure it out. At the end of the day, almost everything is a giant jigsaw puzzle in my brain, and moving the pieces into place is my purpose. I liken it to my own personal predilection for math and science as the basis for a structure that makes sense to me in the world.
My husband, Michael, sees everything in vivid detail; he is a technicolor observer.He processes all visuals first; he has to be reminded to smell the air, hear the laughter, feel the rain on his skin. That is probably why he is a natural at photography; he would be an extraordinary cinematographer. He seems to have that elusive third eye where he can see what the lens will capture and what it will ignore. He also labels his impressions, though he would be loath to tell you the words he uses in his big brain. He doesn’t much like putting words to his visions or experiences; his photographs are the only clue to what he was thinking and feeling. In other words, where I see myself as a mathematician of the universe’s meaning, I see Michael as the artist that keeps posing more questions. When I recently told him that I see him as a seeker, he said he saw me as a finder.
My other senses are more acute than Michael’s. I grew up as a lovingly supported, creative kid with all manner of toys, paints, puzzles, pets, lessons, projects, scenery, travels, and experiences. All mundane and extraordinary stimuli were encouraged and discussed at length at our family dinner table. I read 472 books in 1st grade; I know because I got a gold star for each one. By second grade, the school librarian and I decided that I should just read every book in the card catalog; so, I did, from A-Z. There is no visual stimulation in most children’s books after you reach the third grade reading level. At that point, you have the colorful, illustrated paper jacket, but it is all text after you open the book. A love of reading may be the defining indicator of the potential for imagination and continued creative and sensate expression of an adult. The world is a reader’s oyster; there is nowhere – not even the minds of others – that is inaccessible to a person who reads. There is no question that can’t be posed, no situation that cannot be experienced.
Reading is no substitute for living, the non-reader always argues. But, that is an illogical response. What support is there for the assumption that an avid reader confines herself to second hand experience? It can be argued that the reader is more open and available to all of life’s experiences and, thus, develops extra-ordinary sensory powers that are wholly independent of what the world may or may not be actually showing her. In other words, I propose that frequent reading develops more acute sensory perceptions because most stimuli are accepted and dissected – not confronted with the muffled layer of something new, something threatening, or something difficult to process or define.
Michael grew up in a constant state of poverty: poverty of environment, poverty of sensory or new experiences, poverty of education, poverty of food and drink, of activities, toys, clothes, colors, affection. He also never read books. He had limited, narrow forms of stimulus in keeping with his parents’ strict socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious beliefs. His parents interpreted most stimulus as new and dangerous and confined Michael to television and video games. Thinking anybody that made a movie must be trying to create art and that video games were the modern version of that all American icon, G.I. Joe, Michael’s parents parked him in front of one toy – the television set – and left him to figure out the world as network and Nintendo executives saw it.
Television and video games are predominantly visual. Yes, there is sound, but taste, smell, and touch are automatically excluded. And, since sound consists of theme songs and canned laughter (TV) and assorted grunts and screams (Video Games), let’s agree that Michael was left with one form of stimuli: visual. Since his parents grew up with even less stimuli than Michael, let’s also assume that their main stimulus was also visual. And, since stimuli was confined to entertainment on the small screen of a television (while wildly unsupported with any understanding in real life experience) any attempt at a full sensory experience was usually overwhelming. Overwhelming usually means too expensive, threatening, uncomfortable, or sinful to the uninitiated; that was definitely the message passed on by Michael’s parents.
So, for Michael, every sensory experience is a warning. For me, most sensory experiences feel like being a puppy running through a big, sunny field of daisies. Once in a while, I will run into a bumblebee or a pile of poop, but that’s okay! For Michael, a sensory experience is like the scrawny weed that manages to pop up from a crack in the cement: a weird counterpoint in his apocalyptic inner landscape. He notices it but doesn’t ponder it. Unless he has his camera.
Michael’s photographs are teeming with sensory detail. They are beautiful and rich in color and texture and seasons and symphonies.
Even the sepia ones instantly evoke a sense of nostalgia and sweetness not present in modern life. His landscapes invite exploration and travel; they provoke inner meditations on the vastness of nature and the relative miniscule stature of people. His animal portraits reveal unique personalities more interesting and layered than their human counterparts. Every time I see one of his photos, my imagination starts writing a story, like a phantom operated Etch a Sketch of character, plot, and scenery all quickly building itself in my head.
His photos touch on long forgotten memories of mine, so much that I can feel a spray of salt water across my face, the sun baking me brown, the smooth coolness of a marlin my dad and I would catch and pull overboard on one of our deep sea fishing trips. And, all of a sudden I can see my dad’s face, finally relaxing for a second. I get all of that connection and experience from Michael’s sensory laden photographs. And, I know he is an artist.
As his wife, I can become annoyed that our holidays, our trips, our walks and our talks are not always remembered by my husband. He doesn’t see these in his mind’s eye any more than he can remember one detail about most of them. I could paint a picture with words that would evoke the very spirit of every one of those times. But, unless I write it down and somebody reads it, it only exists in our years together and, from that, the formation of a secret language, a smoothly choreographed handhold, and a thousand inside jokes – the shorthand and depth of experience that sweeten a relationship.
Michael rarely takes photos of any of that stuff between us to preserve it in a visual style. But, in this way, he builds the experiences and confidence to display even more facets of what he does elect to photograph and, in turn, invokes the collective conscience of a much wider audience. And I am content to enjoy him, by my side every day, drinking in every luxurious sense of our experience.