Tuesday, May 21, 2024

What it looks like

Anyone who's taken any meaningful number of photos and looked at them has likely experienced the sensation that, while a photo looks like the thing, it doesn't look like the thing. This is the gap between the optical reality of whatever it is, and the so-called percept, the impression the thing makes on your mind. If you take a picture of a wrench or something, a "record shot," it probably works out ok. If you take a picture of a sunset, or a city street, or a child's expression, you're likely to experience the gap between optics and perception. Arguably this is the challenge of quite a bit of "serious" photography.

This phenomenon can turn up, to a degree, at the very moment of pressing the shutter.

I don't know about you, but I have certainly experienced this sort of a thing a lot: a long process of fidgeting to set up a shot, tinkering and moving and thinking and looking, and then at the moment of shutter press instantly realizing "no, that's not it." This is a deeply stupid thing which I hate, and have labored to train myself out of, but it's also quite real. Something about the shutter press itself tends to drop away perception, leaving you somehow more open to the optical reality in that instant.

I am vaguely developing a theory that this might be what Garry Winogrand was on about when he said “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.” This may or may not be the exact quotation, and it's possible he said much the same thing many times, I don't know and it doesn't matter. My point here is that perhaps what he was actually doing was not never getting around to making the all-important contact sheets. Perhaps his work was done at the shutter press. Perhaps all he needed was that moment of pure optical seeing, and that satisfied him.

If you pay attention, you might have noticed that in this sense we live in a society that is filled with Maiers and Winogrands. Millions of people with a phone record photographs of myriad objects and scenes, photographs they may never look at again. I don't know about you, but I have frequently experienced someone scrolling through their photos, 100s or 1000s of them, to show me something they just remembered. "I saw this weird cat" or "there was a guy riding a bike with a hat" or whatever. There are two things here that seem noteworthy: first, that we collectively now record random visual facts that we recall later in conversation, and second that we record 1000s of other visual facts that we will never recall later.

The first strikes me as the visual analog of other social interactions "I heard a joke" or "let me tell you this funny story" or "I had such a frustrating time at the bank today." We, or at least some of us, now integrate purely visual phenomena into this normal flow of human interaction. "I saw a weird dog, let me show you." This constitutes an extension, and modification, of the ways we interact, and that's interesting. McLuhan would probably make something of it. A culture that does this is somehow different from one that does not.

The second one, though, that's Winogrand again. Somehow, people are recording visuals without much expectation of ever looking at them again. They may rationalize it thus, but in reality their phones simply have far too many photos to ever meaningfully be used to salt later conversation. Their actions, the taking of so many photos, point to something else just as the same actions point to something else in Winogrand and in Maier.

I theorize that they're looking at the world in a photographic way. For whatever reason, some people are interested in what the world looks like in photographs, in the sense that they savor that moment of the shutter press, that moment of pure optical seeing. They find value, I submit, in that moment and that way of seeing the world.

As a person who, after a fashion, draws, I am coming to understand that there are more ways to see the world than I imagined.

When you draw things from life, you observe the subject in a completely different and new way. You have to notice the details, the relationships between this bit and that bit, and so on. You notice how large the gap between the bottom of the nose and the top of the lip is, whether the eyes tilt up or down at the outer corner, and so on. A lot of very very small things.

If you learned to draw the way I did (which I think is essentially the modern approach to teaching drawing) you do a lot of exercises and whatnots to "see" optically, to step around the perceptual layer, and to see just as the camera sees. This can, in theory, be the end of it. My technical abilities, and I suspect virtually everyone's technical abilities, simply aren't good enough to make that work. At some point you have to develop a kind of dual vision, combining the perception with the purely optical vision. Only then can you really bring whatever it is to life on the page.

My problem is that I'm simply not accurate enough to take a purely optical approach. There are some savants who can do it this way, but I'm pretty sure they're very rare and that normal working artists work just like I do. That is, they combine a perceptual vision with the optical one, using the percept to make adjustments to the drawing. "No, her face is a little more round" or "it's a bit darker under the bridge" or whatever. In this way, interestingly, the drawing comes out aligned with the percept. The problem of "it's correct, but the thing doesn't look like that" literally does not occur. If the drawing doesn't look like the thing (which happens a lot!) it's a technical problem. You've simply failed to put the right bits in, and leave the other bits out, or you've muddled up an important relationship. It happens!

It goes beyond simply leaving out the inconvenient power lines that are the bane of all landscape photographers. You're leaving out everything that doesn't support the perception, and emphasizing the things that do. The drawing is in some sense (perhaps aspirationally) optically correct, but nevertheless it constitutes a rendering of the perception and not of purely optical vision.

Drawing, and more specifically the teaching of drawing, teaches one to see the world in a more camera-like way, but also forces the intrusion of a lot of details that people like Winogrand may have never noticed. Winogrand saw the pretty girl, and then he saw her through the viewfinder, and then he saw her again at the moment of the shutter press. Winogrand saw the girl in, probably, at least three meaningfully different ways, and still he likely never noticed the gap between nose and lip, and could not tell you about the tilt of her eyes. There are a lot of ways to look at a girl, or at a rock, or a bird, or a sunset.

Drawing is a giant pain in the ass, and you have to bring a pencil everywhere. A phone, though, everyone's got a phone. Everyone can see the world that way, now. Literally anything that's even slightly eye catching can be examined in that "shutter press optical truth" fashion, and as a side effect, the captured frame can be recovered later if you like.

I never really understood the desire to see the world that way. I've never taken photos without the intention of eventually generating a photograph, probably on paper. This is kind of standard photographer philosophy, right? "It's not done until it's printed!" kinds of sneering are commonplace. That you are not a real photographer unless you print is, for all practical purposes, unquestioned dogma. Thus it is that we find Winogrand and Maier such mysteries: "why oh why didn't they print? It is beyond understanding!!!"

It's possible, though, that just as I see the world through the eyes of a (ham-fisted) guy-who-draws, and it's genuinely fun, that Winogrand and Maier and 100 million other other people are finding pleasure in seeing the world through the eyes of someone-who-photographs.

Whatever it is that's going on, what is certain is that the action of photographing occurs many orders of magnitude more often than the "making of a photograph" in the traditional sense. Statistically, the percentage of photos that are made with the intention of printing them, or even sharing them, or even showing them to a single other human, rounds to 0.0. Something is going on here, and the traditional views of photography simply are not relevant to whatever that is.

I don't think I'm really part of that? I still take photos for downstream purposes, never just for the action of doing it, but I am certainly the odd one out here.

1 comment:

  1. "Why do people do x" ? I dunno. I like trying on FUBAR photography. I don't think a capture suffices as a photograph, but you need to crop, dodge and burn the shit out of it. Maybe other stuff. Then you can claim ownership of the image, instead of attributing it to this thing you bought.