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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How we look at photographs

I had a tiny little epiphany the other day, one of those things that's blindingly obvious in hindsight.

There's all this business about leading lines, and how the eye moves around a piece of visual art, and where it settles, and so on. These are always trotted out as absolutes, but of course we really mean something about "the eye tends to" and we really mean it in a "mostly, most of the time, most people" sense.

There's another minor dimension here, though, which is largely relevant to the creator of the image. We tend, having once seen an image, to get locked in to a way of looking at it. That is, our eye will move to the same thing, and generally in the same ways, when we look at the image a second time. If some minor detail strikes us the first time we see a photograph, we'll tend to focus on that minor detail every time we see the image again. If we made the photograph, we have an idea, for instance, of what the subject is. We tend to look at that subject, each time we see the photograph. It can be quite shocking to observe how differently others look at the very same photograph. They may pick up on what seem to us minor details, or irrelevant material. Worse, most people who look at the image may pick up on the same "irrelevant material."

There are two consequences of this which occur to me. The first is that the photographer in a very real sense literally cannot see the photograph in the same way others see it. You can learn to guess pretty accurately how people will see it, which is what all the business about leading lines and so on is about, but you cannot viscerally grasp how others will see it. You are simply too prejudiced.

The second consequence is that if you show unfinished work, you tend to poison the waters. Suppose you have a photograph that you think is pretty good, but which needs some work to really clarify the relationships or subject, or something. Don't show it to anyone before you've done the work. If the work is muddy and unclear, the chances are good that the cold viewer will see the wrong things, and then never be able to see the final image the way you wanted it to be seen. Even after you do the work, after the relationships are clarified and the subject brought forward, your early viewers will still see the image wrong.

If you're making images for yourself, none of this really matters. You will always be able to see the image the way you want it seen, and who cares about anyone else? If you want others to see it the way you imagine, though, work at it before showing it.

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