In Focus

June 30, 2017

Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more.
-- Walker Evans

I was rinsing out a glass mixing bowl in the kitchen sink one Saturday morning as sunshine streamed through an east-facing window.  The mixing bowl had contained the egg batter I used to make French toast.  As water from the tap swirled around in the bowl, tiny bubbles formed on the surface of the yellowish liquid, gleaming like translucent pearls in the morning light.  Such exquisite beauty, and so unexpected!  I stood momentarily transfixed at the sink, like a gallery patron contemplating a work of art.  But the moment passed, the bubbles dissipated, and the bowl was soon rinsed out, ready for the dishwasher.  It was a moment as small as the bubbles swirling around in the mixing bowl and might easily have escaped my notice altogether had my mind been elsewhere.

"Change the focus of the eye," the mythologist Joseph Campbell once advised. "When you have done that, then the end of the world as you formerly knew it will have occurred, and you will experience the radiance of the divine presence everywhere, here and now."  I have no idea what Campbell specifically had in mind when he said this, but phrases such as "the end of the world" and "the radiance of the divine presence" would suggest something momentous.  In my experience, however, such changes in focus are a minor adjustment and can be made simply by paying close attention to the task at hand, even if it is only rinsing the dishes after breakfast on a Saturday morning.

As a photographer, I know something about adjustments in focus, at least as they apply to a camera.  The zoom lens I use most often for landscape work has a ring around it to adjust the focus manually and a switch for automatic focus -- a useful setting for aging eyes.  By turning the ring, I can bring objects into focus at various distances, with the most distant setting labeled "infinity."  There is a separate dial on the camera itself to adjust the lens aperture, which controls how much light strikes the sensor when the shutter is pressed.  The narrower the aperture, the greater the depth of field, which determines how much of the picture remains sharply focused when you are shooting at a distance.  Generally speaking, I keep the camera at its narrowest aperture setting when I am photographing landscapes, while I may use a wider setting for a shallower depth of field when I want a particular object or person to stand out from its surroundings.  Finally, I must not omit the most important tool at my disposal: the viewfinder.  Through it I can select from the vast dome of the world around me the small rectangle of light that will become my photograph.

Psychologists since William James have used the workings of a camera to explain how human beings pay attention to things.  According to James, who devoted an entire chapter to the subject in his landmark Principles of Psychology (1890), attention enables us to carve a coherent understanding of the world from the “aboriginal sensible muchness” that greets the newborn. James laid the groundwork for the so-called “spotlight” model of attention that, with some refinements, remains the starting point for any discussion of the subject today. Our field of consciousness is narrowed down and concentrated by a mechanism that has a high-resolution focus, a lower-resolution margin and a fringe, or border area. A later refinement, called the “zoom lens” model, allows for adjustments in size to the area of concentration.
Many metaphors have been used to describe the process of discovering what Campbell called "the radiance of the divine presence everywhere."  Often these metaphors involve light or seeing, but Campbell may be onto something when he talks about changing the focus of the eye.  Focus is all about seeing things more clearly, including things that are already staring us in the face.  Yes, we are drawn to the light.  We set our sights on infinity, longing to gaze directly into the sun that fills our east-facing window.  But that will only blind us to the tiny miracle that bubbles up at the kitchen sink as we are rinsing the breakfast dishes.