Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The hedgehog, the fox and every modern man's pox

Apologies to Stephen Jay Gould for snicking the title of his excellent book

This day was wonderful for so many reasons, can I have it back please?
Some of you know that I am a graduate student right? I work in the field of animal behaviour now, but my training has been much broader than that and I've studied and done work in several other unrelated fields in biology. I'm not a polymath, but I do have a passing familiarity with a fair bit of biology.

I sat to down to tea with a friend today at the mess and I found a paper lying next to the window. Here's the title of the paper 'A simple reference state makes a significant improvement in near-native selections from structurally refined docking decoys.'

Mallika Sarabai
I had a WTF moment, then V pointed out the name of the journal, it was 'Proteins'. We made a game of it and tried to piece together what the paper might be about, based just on the title. The best we could make of it was a very very hazy idea. To think I've even worked in computational protein biology, albeit a long time ago. Worlds move on, jargon grows, knowledge becomes extremely specialized and inaccessible even to people just outside your sub-specialty. In Frazer's view the evolution of human societies went from magic to religion to science and it seems sometimes to have come full circle again and back to magic. Much of todays science is so technical and narrow that its much beyond the reach of so many, it might as well be magic.

Throwball player
What does this have to do with photography? A bit, I will come to it soon, I promise. Before that let me tell you about the hedgehog and the fox. Many of you might have heard of the adage, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing". When hunted, foxes apparently try many different tactics to get away from their pursuers. All hedgehogs everywhere, off course, do one single thing, they curl up into a spiny inaccessible ball.

Isaiah Berlin and then others have used the fox and hedgehog analogy to divide writers, scientists, thinkers, etc into these two categories. Those who are fox-like and have multiple approaches, or do many different kinds of things, in whose life multiplicity is key. And those who are hedgehog-like, who dig deep into a single thing or idea and thoroughly study its every aspect. You're either a hedgehog, singular and focused; or a fox, multiple and hence, by implication, superficial. Depth or variety, those seem to be the choices offered.

Here is the modern man's pox. That it has come to this, a choice.

If you want to make the top of the game, given the way it's set up, usually the foxy choice is hard to make. In any field. To reach the top of the game, I might add, not your game. It's also true of photography. Nearly everyone at the very top of the field has a sub-specialisation, they inhabit a very special niche. Portrait photographers, children's portrait photographers, wedding photographers, bird photographers, industrial photographers, foundry parts photographer, automotive parts photographer what have you. Sometimes its not even a reaching the top affair, its a survival affair. I have occasionally felt the desire to go pro. The narrowness sits uneasily with me however. I can't see too many ways around it however.

When I think about where I come to photography from, something in me rebels against this. I am, as it stands, a scientist. I have a little creative instinct somewhere in me, it likes to express itself this way. I have things other than science that I enjoy, that I am passionate about. The reason I shoot is to make myself multiple, multi-dimensional.

The truth be told I am a pretty narrow photographer already. Look at my portfolio. I'm a nature photographer, in fact there are some who think of me as a macro photographer (how I squirm). Thats my hedgehog nature. And its what makes me good (sometimes, even if I say it myself). Nonetheless, every time I find myself stuck, hitting plateaus, in the way I see or shoot, I do one of the following two things. I pack my bag with a single wide lens; a wide right now, because that is what I shoot least. Or I shoot people, something I've always been uneasy with.

Looking at people looking at the image not the thing
Shooting people teaches me a lot about the theater within an image. Shooting wide teaches me a lot about the construction and configuration of elements within images. Both of these types of shooting are unforgiving in their own way, images fail easily. To make them well, I must learn certain basic things, about patience, form, position, timing, etc; these I can apply everywhere. I find growth in any direction, even away from my primary direction, is very satisfying. There's a part of me that knows it will pay off eventually. Every foxy thing I do, I can bring to bear on my hedgehog concerns. I think the Wiki version of the hedgehog and the fox idea codes it a bit wrongly. It's not so much to see the world through a single lens, but to make many lenses bear on the same world.

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