In the spring of 1965, my father entrusted me with his Kodak Brownie camera to take along on our sixth-grade field trip to the Salado Indian cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument. Photography has been my passion through the ensuing fifty-plus years. Because today’s Advent word, focus, is such an important principle for those who follow my avocation, I have discovered a wealth of object lessons in the complex process by which light converges on a film plane or digital sensor.
Depth of field determines how much of a photograph is in focus and can be manipulated by choice of lens, lens aperture (f-stop), and distance from the object being photographed. It might seem to the novice that the best option is to have everything in focus. However, usually that decision results in a photograph with no point of interest; we call it busy and hit the “delete” key. Therefore, my first lesson comes with no images. In his 2014 book The Power of Noticing, Max Bazerman finds that in the business world, too much focus can be as much of a problem as too little and concludes that excessive focus can cause an inability to notice. A May 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review reports on work by Jerome L. Singer, who has found that the brain short-circuits when it focuses too much and for too long. And my perhaps counterintuitive view is that the current insistence on multi-tasking is the most egregious example of excessive focus; when we focus on too many things, not only is life too busy, but it also lacks a point of interest, like the photos I delete. Thus, my first insight from today’s Advent word is that we must learn to be careful and selective where we place our attention in our often frenzied days.
Beautiful women like to look soft and dreamy in their portraits. They don’t want pimples or pores or stray hairs to blemish their image. Photographers can achieve the effects they desire with a soft-focus lens or with digital manipulation. We, too, can achieve soft focus in our relationships by ignoring minor annoyances, minimizing character flaws, and forgiving perceived affronts–finding in their place unblemished beauty.
Even when they don’t know why, most people are drawn to photographs that feature what is called narrow depth of field or shallow focus. In the image of the beatific saint with which I opened my post, the focus is clearly on her praying hands. I have many other photographs of the same sculpture, but this one is my favorite because it expresses my intention more perfectly than the others whose focus is deeper. By analogy, another Advent lesson is the necessity of selective focus–looking closely, observing intently, and caring deeply about the things that matter the most, like the hand of Jesus raised in a gesture of blessing.
This loan-word from the Japanese refers to the parts of a photograph that are not in focus. Lenses are prized for the aesthetic quality of bokeh they produce because it is sometimes the blurred parts that give a photograph its true beauty. And so must we use bokeh to our advantage. Sometimes we must allow our weary eyes and brains to stop focusing so intently. We must relax. We must play. We must look for beauty in the blurry parts and delight in color and shape for their own sake. We must realize with Archibald MacLeish that sometimes, “a poem should not mean, but be.”