Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Art History III

This is a question I would very much like to know the answer to:

Why did some cultures with no particular tradition of perspective drawing embrace the camera?

For Europe and the white colonies, the embrace is obvious. The camera allows us to easily make "a proper picture." I am not convinced that this same argument applies in, say, India, China, or Japan.


  1. The reason people of any culture are attracted to photography is that they have eyes. They've spent their lives seeing a world, and then there's this little machine that will quickly and easily create a rendering, a flat representation of their family or home, say. That's about as universal an experience as there is. It's a fuckin miracle, and you ask why we like it? The appeal has nothing to do with capturing perspective.

    My understanding is that the perspective thing in the Renaissance was as much about the rediscovery of humanism as anything. The point of view became evident and important.

  2. At the risk of coming across as irredeemably Euro-centric, I think it's possible to exaggerate the extent to which sophisticated visual cultures which had not themselves "invented" linear perspective were unable or unwilling to see its advantages, once exposed to it. Like pre-Renaissance Western art, it seems to me that other ways of representing objects in a 3D space become self-evidently inferior by comparison, *if* representing objects in a "realistic" 3D space is the artist's aim. (Which, of course, it needn't be). I'm not sure I buy these traveller's tales of cultures unable to "see" photos, any more than I buy the idea of languages that have no ability to express past, present, and future.

    However, the thing is that photography doesn't demonstrate how effective perspective is as a way of representing reality as the human eye perceives it: it embodies it. You don't need to understand perspective to realise "Wow, this is exactly how the world looks". To the question, "How did you do this??" the answer is not "I studied linear perspective for many years" but, "I pointed the camera and pressed this button". The rest is chemistry...

    Of course, photography, even more than "realist" painting, also impoverishes our ability easily to say things like "this person is WAY more important than these others", or "here is an entire life-story unfolding in the same frame". But that's a different story.


  3. I don't think any culture with any tradition of 2D representational art ever had any trouble understanding photographs. I think they're pretty self-explanatory. And, sure, they are an immediate, hyper-detailed, representation of what was there, and that's pretty obvious to pretty much anyone.

    My point really revolves around why different (visual) cultures all seemed to see roughly the same value in such a thing.

    I think will write a follow-on piece here to unpack more what my original question might mean, because it seems upon examination to go off in a couple directions.

  4. Maybe it is a powerful feedback loop. The arrival of perspective hits the culture and everybody says, "Oh shit, yeah." From then on, they are different. Changes are not always gradual.

  5. "Camera obscura is a very old device. Oldest mention of its effect is by Mozi, Chinese philosopher and the founder of Mohism, during the 5th century BC."


    Just sayin'