Monday, July 1, 2019

"Looks Like" vs. "Is"

John Berger was at some pains to tell the world that the invention of perspective drawing was not some great breakthrough that suddenly allowed the painters of Western Europe to stop sucking and start making awesome art. It was simply a way of seeing. A way that privileged the eye, the single viewpoint.

At this point, in our western Europe derived culture, we are literally taught that a picture is "correct" if it drawn according to the rules of perspective. Anything else is either "wrong" or possibly "artistic" with a bit of side-eye to indicate, sotto voce, that what we mean here is "wrong."

Into this mix arrives the camera which automatically produces "correct" pictures, huzzah. No more shitty art!

But in the end, all this does is enshrine more firmly the notion that the proper and correct way to depict a thing, a person, a scene, an event, is to depict it as it appears to the eye, in a single moment. It enshrines and enforces this peculiarly modern, peculiarly Euro, way to seeing as the default and correct way. I could wander off into a discussion of colonialism here, but I won't. Not this time,

No, instead I want to talk about what artists generally hope to accomplish in their depiction of things, people, places, events. What we want, generally, is to show what the the thing is in some meaningful sense. We are, or were, present. We experienced something, something we feel is worth rendering as a work of art. A photo, a painting, a sculpture, a film. It mattered to us, enough to want to make something of it. What a thing is can be construed in, maybe, an infinitude of ways, but what it surely is not is merely what it looks like.

What we want to encapsulate in our work is, surely, more than the appearance of the thing. Surely we want to reveal something of the essence of the thing (or our experience, or whatever) something of what it is or at any rate was. We have been tricked by the tradition of perspective drawing and its sequels into thinking that if we can only render the appearance well enough, we can reveal this thing itself, and this is a great, tragic, lie.

Even the painters, drawing in perspective, did not believe this. Paintings, whether in perspective of one point, two points, or no points, are as often as not larded with with objects themselves laden with symbolism. The lordling is surrounding by hounds and expensive crap, and what's with that girl's earring? But somehow these tricks got lost as Pictorialism was jettisoned. The Modernists strove to show us what the thing is by, apparently, sheer strength of will. This in turn got translated into, somehow, maybe if I just make it really really sharp, and use a full range of tones, something good will come out of it all.

This is, if not the root, at least one of the roots of the great search for better equipment. Perhaps with the right camera, the right lens, the right lights, I could get more of the appearance of the thing into the digital file, and then, somehow, I could reveal the thing itself. By getting enough of what it looks like into the RAW file, I can capture what it is. Phrased this way, the falsehood is, I dare to suppose, instantly obvious.

At this point, though, trotting out theories like you want to show what it is not merely what it looks like in, say, an internet forum (or, I dare say, a camera club) is likely to draw a mixture of blank stares and savage attacks.

The cubists threw perspective away, and painted the thing from several sides at once, which isn't a bad idea. Dopes like me hope that by combining a sequence of pictures with, perhaps, some words I can overcome photography's obsessive looks like enough to get to the is at least a little. The portrait photographer hunts restlessly for the combination of light and expression that brings the is out into the looks like where the camera can access it.

The fundamental limitation of the camera is that all it can ever do is show you what a thing looks like, never what it is.

It's up to us to, somehow, badger the photograph into transcending its own nature, into, somehow, showing what the thing photographed is in spite of its appearance.

More precisely, we need to badger the photograph in to, despite revealing mere appearance, causing the viewer to perceive what the thing photographed is.

This is more than sharpness, more than technical detail, for those improve only the appearance of the thing. Somehow, the appearance needs to be bullied, supported, buried and dug back up, so that it can allow that perception of what is over what seems.


  1. My wife and I were just talking about how funny it is that to the average person realism seems to be the ne plus ultra of visual art while for visual artists themselves realism is basically just a foundational skill.

    Personally, the massive gravity of the cameras "realistic" image production capability has turned out to be the most challenging part of photography for me. I just fail with it over, and over, and over.

    Most of the camera using, picture taking, public have no background, experience, language, or intellectual framework in which to evaluate images other than “does it look like what I think my eyes are seeing”? It’s not realism per se. There’s no organization or structure, no theory, just “does it look like what I think reality looks like”?

  2. This is what it looks like to a camera.

    1. That’s not necessarily what it looks like to an artist. Just sayin’.

  3. The quest for depicting "what is" in a photograph leads so often into bad art-school projects that have no emotional resonance and leave the viewer scratching his head or dismissing the whole thing. Personally, I find the "what is" most often in the large-format work of the f/64 group and other photographers of that era like Manuel Alverez-Bravo.

  4. Perhaps these two imperatives - show what it looks like, show what it is - work in completely opposite directions. The more precisely the thing is depicted, by greater detail, colour accuracy, sharpness etc, the less room there is for ambiguity and the thing can support fewer interpretations of what it "is". Attempts to introduce ambivalence to a picture by artificially obfuscating it abound in art-school work; holes punched, threads sewn in, various smearings and attachments just seem contrived to me. Maybe we're searching for the 'lost chord'!