Monday, August 6, 2012

Joint Attention and Winogrand

I spent some time with a book of Garry Winogrand's photos recently. The Man In The Crowd: The Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand, I shan't really review it, because I haven't really got much to say about it, really.

An extremely important element of the work in it, though, revolves around the concept of Joint Attention. At its highest levels (well, the highest levels humans can do, and therefore the highest levels we recognize) it involves following the gaze another animal to whatever it's looking at, with a mental model of the looker in mind. Evidence of a mental model can be turning back to the looker, checking, and similar. As a human being, there's a pretty good chance you know about this. It is, basically, thinking "what is she looking at?" and turning to look at the same thing. The idea, "what is she looking at" is critical, here. It turns out we can't do this reliably until we're almost teenagers, we haven't the neurological machinery in place. Autistic people can't do it at all. Like young children and a lot of mammals, they gaze-follow, but they seem to lack the idea "what is he looking at?" at some important level.

Winogrand's street photographs are simply littered with this stuff. There's the pretty girl, and then there's the man watching her. And the woman watching the man. Two men in conversation, one is looking at the other, but the other looks out of frame. The sailor and the girl passing on the street, looking at one another. Our gaze follows the gaze in the image, joint attention. Sometimes the gaze ping-pongs around the image 2 or 3 hops. It is us, the viewer, that gaze-follows and holds the mental model of the looker.

It's interesting! It occurs to me that, possibly, an autistic person might enjoy Cartier-Bresson's photographs with their deep respect for geometry, but would probably get nothing whatsoever from Winogrand.

By engaging these pretty low-level neurological phenomena, Winogrand draws us is. We are wired at a very primitive level to gaze-follow, to see an animal's eyes, calculate where that animal is looking, and to look there. Non-autistic humans add in the layer of mental engagement, the "what is he looking at?" thought, that seeks to understand what's going on in the looker's mind. Many of Winogrand's photos, therefore, essentially force a moderately deep degree of mental engagement. This, with luck, gives the geometry and composition of the photograph, and the other appealing elements, time to sink in and work.

To be honest, I don't love Winogrand's work. It's engaging, but it's a rare photograph in this book that I actually like, and those are mostly the witty ones.

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