Although I don’t remember exactly when it was (it may have been when I was in Cairo in 1997), I vividly recall the sensation I had the first time I read Edward Said’s book Orientalism. It was a mind-blowing experience – the ways in which he addressed constructions of Otherness, how it became possible to rethink what it meant to write about anyone, anywhere, and anything, what doing that meant… and all these things continue to fascinate and intrigue me, impacting on my writing and research, and on how I live. I tend to re-read most of Orientalism once a year, and find more in it each time I read it. Of course, many scholars, reputable and less-reputable, have engaged with his work in more or less helpful ways, but there is no doubt that Said transformed numerous disciplines through his work, including visual arts. Each year now at the university where I work, I teach a course in which I introduce undergraduate students in some detail to Said’s thesis. I love watching them wrestle with the topic, seeing how for most of them, it unsettles them, realigns their thinking, and makes them work through their world-view, thereby challenging numerous preconceptions about themselves and the world as they have hitherto known it. This is one of the things I have been doing at work this last week.
And the connection to lenses? Yesterday my new ultra-wide-angle lens for my Nikon D90 arrived: the 10-24mm. I’ve owned and used a variety of lenses over the years, including what are generally regarded as wide-angle lenses (28mm in traditional 35mm format, 18mm in Nikon’s cropped frame format). I’m very aware that photographing at 28/18mm can do strange things to perspective, and it is very noticeably different to shooting at a standard 50/35mm. For my FM2 camera, I’ve recently acquired a lovely 28mm to complement the existing 50mm lens – that’s wide, but not crazy. This new lens takes wideness to a whole new level – photographing at 10mm (15mm in 35mm format) does really wacky things to what you see, and from playing with it yesterday afternoon and today, I feel as if I need to relearn how to see things with the camera, at least if I want to use this lens to its full advantage.
Although wide-angle lenses are popularly seen as being able to ‘get more in’, that is actually rather boring. Here are two such boring shots taken from the same spot a few seconds apart, at 19 and 10mm (the latter with my shadow in it – oops!):
The wider angle doesn’t really do much for the image, does it? The advantages of such a lens, it seems to me, lie in the possibilities offered by exploiting the distortions it creates, rather than seeking to ignore them, as these two beach shots show. So here are a couple of snapshot images that show precisely that kind of distortion being used, again at 19 and 10mm, both taken from exactly the same spot, immediately after one another:
In other words, this lens, more than anything else, is about re-imagining the world, thinking about it in a different way. Of course, as soon as we look through a camera’s viewfinder we are looking at the world differently: the artificial nature of the perspective offered, the reduction to two dimensions rather than three and the corresponding ‘flattening’ of multiple layers of three dimensional vision – all are a function of new perspectives on the world. But I think I have become used to the changing perspectives offered by ‘normal’ zoom lenses as they move from pretty wide (e.g. 28/18mm) to fairly strong telephoto positions (e.g. 300/200mm) – I usually know what I am going to see at different focal lengths and can ‘see’ my image accordingly, often before I lift the camera to my eye. With this new lens, I’m reminded of the transformative shift in world-view I gained by engaging with Said for the first time: the radical shift in perspective of my own position coupled with the excitement offered by his views, made for a fantastic journey of (self-)discovery. With this new lens, I feel I am starting to do the same kind of thing: as when I first read Said, I can guess at the road ahead, but the radical shifts in perspective offered by the weirdness of the lens’ abilities require re-seeing the world, re-imagining my place in it, and making it something I feel at home in again. This involves practice, both in the sense of learning and getting better, but also in the sense of usage and engagement, and that is what I am looking forward to with this fantastic new lens.