OK, class! Grab your sack lunch and get on the bus. We're taking a field trip into the unknown. There's Rod Serling up ahead by that signpost. Stop and give him a ride, or at least a high five. Then grab a pencil and a sheet of paper. They still make those; you may or may not have them. If not, pull up to your digital rectangle and make clicking noises with your fingers on the keyboard.
Right now, make a list of one hundred things you are familiar with. Don't think, just write. It shouldn't take long, ten minutes max. Your list can have physical objects, people, emotions, beliefs, dangling participles, triple entendres - whatever springs to mind. Just get them on paper as fast as you can. The average modern human has a vocabulary of 10,000 words, so a hundred items is child's play. Technical writers use up to 80,000 different words, 79,500 of which are incomprehensible and unnecessary, which of course you know if you've read one of their tomes. You'll be able to list your 100 words in a shorter span that it would take to read the title page of your camera manual.
Done? Good. Fold it up. Put it somewhere handy (wallet, purse) as you'll be using it for a couple weeks.
Next, think of 5 things you don't know the names of. This is a lot tougher, isn't it? How do you identify what you can't name? You can't even write them down. Ha ha!
We are buried in labels, clothed in sticky notes. We have labels and tags for virtually everything we've ever encountered. We keyword our photos in Lightroom and Bridge and love how easy it makes it to find a particular image later. And if we can't quite put our finger on something, we have Google and Siri at our beck and call. Our everyday world is rapidly transforming into a cloud-based filing cabinet, sorted and tagged. Everything is effable.
Words can evoke mystery too, however, but it takes sweat and tears to extract it. A good writer can weave a story that transports us to another place and time, merely through the mastery of vocabulary. An exceptional writer can free us from the snares of category and the hungry maw of cliche, by doggedly following a faint trail through the rocky canyon of named things up to the high country of the ineffable. The rarest few know how to shatter saturated words, freeing them from chrysalis encasements, liberating language from the grammar tyrants, freeing the spirit.
Photography is no different. At first we typically gravitate toward familiar themes and techniques, mostly because we're taught that's the way it's done. At some point though we wake up to realize we've been led astray by a few well-meaning experts and hordes of not-so-well-meaning hucksters. So we start urbexing our inner landscape, searching for clues to authenticity. We might find a nugget here and there until through tenacious shoveling we break through into the motherlode. Rules begin to fade in importance; creativity blooms, our photographic vocabulary starts to electrify us.
The good news is that the wily Russians have already been there, done that, and concocted a plot to overthrow our constantly spinning inner label makers. They call this anarchistic technique OSTRANYENIE, which rolls off the tongue nicely, does it not? OSTRANYENIE can transform a familiar willow into an explosion of light, eyes into sidereal tidepools, bacon into Shakespeare.
OSTRANYENIE has a devious definition. It's this: "to look at the familiar and have it become strange again."
OSTRANYENIE really does upset our PC apple cart. The funny thing though is that photography is a preternaturally opportune approach to making the familiar strange again. Consider all the time-warping and reality-bending tools it has - shutter speed to stop time or stretch an instant into minutes or hours. That's Superman stuff! Or aperture to shave space into the tiniest slivers or see around corners. ISO can reach down into darkness and magically turn it into visible light. Weird, weird stuff happens inside Pandora's black box we call a camera. The camera is a time machine and we are H.G. Wells and Dr. Who, masters of space and time. We peer through the viewfinder into alternate universes and shouldn't be shocked when one of them stares back.
Our assignment is to point our cameras at a familiar thing, then apply OSTRANYENIE until it isn't that familiar thing anymore. It transfigures into something other which may or may not have a name. A cat may become fat or a hat or a mat or a gnat named Pat, a busy street may be a bebop symphony, sunrise may be ________. Look at things twice, three times, upside down, backwards, listen, taste, engage all senses, be insatiably curious and OSTRANYENIE will reveal withheld dimensions.
This is where our list of 100 things comes in. Unfold it, pick one item and think about what it really is, was, could be. What are some synonyms? Opposites? Pick another item - how does it relate to the first one? Does it create a third? A triangle! Play with your words, transforming each from impoverished peasant to ballet dancer or rocket scientist. Now how would you photograph or process them? Make each of your next 100 photographs become something other, something new, something strange again.
OSTRANYENIE will run for two weeks, from March 23 through April 5.
For extra credit, you're invited to do a SLATE project, too. If you haven't done one yet, visit slate.adobe.com to get started.
WEEK TWO ADDENDUM:
OSTRANYENIE Week Two is underway... We've had lots of terrific examples of familiar things becoming strange again posted in Week One. How can we kick it up a notch for Week Two?
Making familiar things strange again is fun, but... what's the point? Well, fun for one, and that can certainly be enough. But ostranyenie can also be translated as "showing the strangeness of" - in other words, illuminating the essence or mystery of being. How is it possible that any of what is exists at all?! Is what we see only the thin outer shell of something more profound? The effort of ostranyenie suggests that we can indeed peer beneath the veil to reveal some of that impossible mystery.
An old rustic pocket watch is a thing of artful beauty in and of itself. But if you'd never seen one before, you'd barely suspect the wonderful intricate clockwork inside that makes it actually work. You hear a ticking, and get curious... you get out a magnifying glass and inspect the edges - ah, there's a small slit... maybe it will pop open. Curiousity drives you to find a thin blade; you start prying. And... !
The sun is shining through a willow with fresh green spring leaves. You properly expose, focus, and shoot. It's nice. It's a photograph of a spring tree, maybe even suitable for framing. But curiosity makes you start thinking about the nature of light - what happens to it as it passes through the thousand fluttering leaves? Does it bend? Diffuse? Change hue? Flicker on and off? You start to play, defocus, choose a slow shutter speed, twirl your camera, and create a watercolor wash abstract. The result is a visual symphony, singing about the impossible wonder of energy particles traveling at 186,000 mph smashing into stationary obstacles. It's still a picture of a tree, but isn't. You've peered beneath the veil and gasped at the majesty of quantum physics, the Tree of Life. It was there the whole time but you needed the right tool to see it.
You haven't forgotten that list of 100 words you wrote on Day One, have you? It's marinated in your back pocket now for a week so it should be ripe. Pull it out and pick a word. Let it freely roll through your imagination. Pick another and do the same. Put the two together and let them argue and flirt. Sparks fly. Can you photograph the result?
The ultimate purpose of ostranyenie is to break old habits, whether they be linguistic or visual, conceptual or philosophical. Working on all fronts helps us see with open eyes and hear with new ears, and walk in another's shoes.