The gasp of recognition

Water abstract

I’ve been following Joel Meyerowitz’s blog, Once More Around the Sun, for a little while now.  He and his wife are spending time living in Europe, at present in Italy, and Meyerowitz is posting one shot a day along with his thoughts about the image and what made him press the shutter.

One of the things I most like about the blog is that the pictures, while always having something of interest about them, aren’t polished and professional, as you might expect.  Meyerowitz uses the blog more as a kind of visual diary where he keeps rough notes, rather than somewhere to post finished pieces.  I find it rather reassuring to see work from a photographer of his calibre that shows these spontaneous shots rather the technically perfect finished images that we’re more used to seeing.

I’ve long admired Meyerowitz as a photographer, but hadn’t realised till recently how good a writer he is too.  In today’s post he talks about coming across a particular scene, ‘gasping’ when he saw it:

……..when I gasp I know I am in the right place, or the right moment.  I trust that gasp to be something from my source speaking without words.  Words come later, but in the moment there is only the intake of breath that means, Now!

I can relate to this totally.  Often I’ll suddenly notice something with a kind of flash of excitement, a gasping if you like, and I know I’m on to something good.  Contemplative photography instruction refers to this as the ‘flash of perception’.  I understood what this meant when I first came across the phrase, because it’s something I’ve always been aware of myself, but I’ve also wondered if it’s a meaningful way of putting it for people who haven’t yet recognised this as part of their experience.

In The Practice of Contemplative Photography, Andy Karr and Michael Wood identify the qualities of the flash of perception.  They say the perception arises suddenly, out of the blue, that it has a shocking quality due to this suddenness, and also because of this it feels disorienting.  They go on to say the perception has great clarity and richness, and the experience is joyful, relaxed and liberating.  I’d whole-heartedly recommend Karr and Wood’s book if you want to know more about contemplative photography, but I do sometimes think that greater explanation leads to greater confusion and that this is a very simple thing that’s more easily summed up by something as straightforward as a gasp.

As Meyeorwitz says, it’s something wordless coming from somewhere deep inside – the place deep inside that ‘knows’ and doesn’t have to explain why; the part of ourselves where intellect doesn’t get a look in and where words often just confuse the issue. The resulting image may be meaningful to other people or it may not be.  It doesn’t matter.  What it shows is the way that person saw something, in that moment – the gasp of recognition.


Joel Meyerowitz is a New York street photographer, perhaps best known for his images of Ground Zero.  If you’d like to know more about him, here are a few links: – his own web site (new version currently under construction) – Guardian article – Joel Meyerowitz: ‘brilliant mistakes…..amazing accidents’.   Excellent article, with a short video. – a selection of exhibition work, including some of the Ground Zero images

Cape Light – my personal favourite and quite different from his usual work.  Beautiful subtle colour and amazing light.