What I remember most about my friend Guy Reynolds, a photojournalist who died last month, was his gift for paying attention, something most of us find difficult to do in a culture plagued by increasing distraction.
Like most great photographers, Guy often saw things others didn’t.
Nearly three decades ago, he accompanied me as I visited a nun who ran a retreat center on the grounds where, many years earlier, she had studied as a novice.
In those early days, she recalled, a chaplain had caught a fish hardly bigger than a fingerling. She cooked the tiny catch and, as a joke, served it to the chaplain on a big fish platter to dramatize how puny the meal was.
While our host recounted her youthful prank as we walked down a hall, Guy interrupted with a question:
“Do you mean that platter?”
We pivoted, following Guy’s finger as he pointed to a piece of dinnerware, largely obscured by other china, in the far reaches of a glass dining cabinet.
“Yes, that’s it,” the nun told us after opening the cabinet to reclaim a memento of her youth. She’d been back at the retreat center a long while, traveling the corridors every day, but hadn’t noticed the familiar platter herself. Guy, with a seemingly casual side glance, had seen it instantly.
Maybe there are some like Guy who are simply born with a genius for closely sensing the world around them. But all of us, with a little training, can get better at it, as New Orleans resident Rob Walker argues in a new book, “The Art of Noticing.”
Walker, who moved to New Orleans from New York City some two decades ago, writes about design and the arts, and he also teaches a five-week class each year at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Walker’s work requires him to depend on his eyes a lot, but he suggests that paying attention demands more than that. It involves all of your senses — and thinking in new ways, too.
His book lists 131 exercises, many of them simple, to sharpen what he calls “deep attention.” Counting chimneys on a walk, for example, directs your eyes upward, connecting you with a part of the daily landscape you might not otherwise see. The trick is to read the routine environment at a fresh slant, enriching its sense of possibilities.
“Paying attention, making a habit of noticing, helps cultivate an original perspective, a distinct point of view,” Walker tells readers. “That’s part of what I try to teach my students, and it’s part of what I try to practice myself. But paying attention isn’t easy.”
The challenge, says Walker, is that there’s so much competing for our focus. Even so, a meaningful life calls us to see more clearly what we too often overlook.
Guy Reynolds, were he still here, would certainly want us to do just that.