Monday, 15 April 2013

Next Question - Why Images?

One way to define a photograph is to define its necessary technical characteristics. There will, inevitably, be disagreements between film and digital users about the status of certain physical manifestations of a supposedly photographic image (computer screen image, ink-jet print, and the like), but such disagreements may be useful in arriving at an idea of photographic actuality.

Ceci n'est pas un photo

So, what about technical characteristics? First, light is a requirement, not an option. A painting, or a
sculpture, can be made in an underground bunker in the pitch dark (the technical or aesthetic quality of such creations may, however, be questionable). To take a photograph in the same circumstances is an impossibility. Second, a light-sensitive medium is required to capture or record the image. Third, certain physical and optical laws govern the final appearance of the image; in this category I am thinking of things such as perspective, sharpness, and the concept that light travels in straight lines. Fourth, a photograph must be of a real object. A painter can ignore inconvenient objects or alignments in making a painting, or even introduce fantasy elements. A photographer, however, must always work strictly with what is physically present before the camera. Fifth, a photograph is an 'automatic' recording medium; it requires no pen, brush or stylus, no physical intervention on the part of the photographer other than the operation of a switch - the actual recording is a somewhat mysterious alchemy known as "making the exposure" which takes place somewhere in the workings of the mechanical / electrical / electronic device called the camera. Sixth, the in-camera image must be processed to bring it out of the camera and into the light of day. A painting, on the other hand, becomes visible from the instant that the first brush stroke is made; even though the image may not be complete, it is seen from the moment of its inception.

So far, all of the above apply equally well to both digital and analogue images. Where things become tricky for me, in this technological era, is in the realm of the digitally encoded image file. I believe that reproduction of photographic images in newspapers has been with us for long enough for us to recognise that a picture in a newspaper has a photographic origin; but few of us would argue that the ink-on-paper image that leaves inky marks on our hands is an original photograph. Nor do we confuse postcards or calendar images with original photographs. Therefore, while I would draw a distinction between an image produced by an inkjet printer (not a photograph) and a chromogenic photographic print (a photograph), I have no problem with understanding the photographic origins of either print.

I equally have no problem with conceding that an image made with a digital sensor is a photographic image; I simply have difficulty visualising what that digital sensor image actually is. A negative or transparency is an extant physical entity; I can hold it in my hand, I can hold it up to the light and see the image. But a digital image file is an intangible. Without the right kind of technology to decode it, and place the image on a screen or cause the image to be printed onto a sheet of paper, it cannot be seen, it cannot be touched. It exists (that must be true, or else how can one explain the appearance of the image on a computer screen when one gains access to the file?) and yet it has no perceptible physical form. I know of its existence in an intellectual sense, yet I cannot perceive it without the assistance of the appropriate technology.

So, I do not think, in a strictly technically defined sense, that digital sensor-derived images are not photography. My own interest in photography, though, has become less about the technology and much more about the psychology of the image. And because (so far, at least) digital imaging seems to be so exclusively concerned with the technology, it forms more of a barrier to me, than a way forward.

Tyrella Beach, County Down
(One of the possible sources of conventional/digital disagreement might arise from the ease with which digital images can be manipulated. Even if the original sources of a composite image are all strictly photographic, can the final composite image still be defined as a photograph? I’m sure I will return to this question, which gives rise to more complex questions regarding the nature of reality and truth, as well as the more obvious ones about the trustworthiness of photography).

So, given the technical, practical and physical differences between photographs and paintings, why is photography the chosen form of creative expression for photographers? What makes a photographer take up photography instead of painting or sculpture? It is common, and I have used the explanation myself on many occasions, to explain the fact that photography is my preferred form of expression because of an intrinsic inability to draw or paint. However, such an explanation still does not address the fundamental question of why I feel compelled to express myself through imagery - if I feel that I cannot draw or paint, why have I not gone down the road of writing, or music? What intrinsic trait do I possess that drove me into a visual medium of expression?

Our prehistoric ancestors, despite lacking the technology available to us today, still had a profound connection to the world at large through imagery. Academics today speculate about the possible ritual importance of cave paintings of animals, some of them extremely ‘realistic’. The true significance of cave paintings at places like Tarascon in France remains unclear. But scientists conclude that this art, some of it brilliant even by today's standards, reflects the development of "symbolic life," an important turning point in hominid evolution that has sometimes been dubbed "the mind's big bang." Cave paintings may show that early humans were developing a sense of self, abstract concepts, and, perhaps, the beginnings of a mythology. The making, and understanding, of imagery, even if confined to a small section of the population, is a very sophisticated psychological development, which gives insight into the way in which hominid brain function was advancing.

Here are the first couple of paragraphs from ‘Eye and Brain; the psychology of seeing’ by R. L. Gregory; 1979, Third Edition. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

"We are so familiar with seeing, that it takes a leap of imagination to realise that there are problems to be solved. But consider it. We are given tiny, distorted, upside-down images in the eyes, and we see separate, solid objects in surrounding space. From the patterns of stimulation on the retinas we perceive the world of objects, and this is nothing short of a miracle.

The eye is often described as like a camera, but it is the quite uncamera-like features of perception that are most interesting. How is information from the eyes coded into neural terms, into the language of the brain, and reconstituted into experience of surrounding objects? The task of eye and brain is quite different from either a photographic or a television camera converting objects merely into images. There is a temptation, which must be avoided, to say that the eyes produce pictures in the brain. A picture in the brain suggests the need of some kind of internal eye to see it—but this would need a further eye to see its picture … and so on in an endless regress of eyes and pictures. This is absurd. What the eyes do is to feed the brain with information coded into neural activity—chains of electrical impulses—which, by their code and the patterns of brain activity, represent objects. We may take an analogy from written language: the letters and words on this page have certain meanings, to those who know the language. They affect the reader's brain appropriately, but they are not pictures. When we look at something, the pattern of neural activity represents the object, and to the brain is the object. No internal picture is involved."

Considering the implications of the way in which the brain translates the information given it by our eyes, then the ability to appreciate images is almost even more incredible. A flat, flexible rectangle containing some shapes and colours – that’s all a picture is. And yet we look at it, and we see the object, person or place that the picture is of. It definitely is not the actual person or thing, but we are prepared to accept it, as if it is in some way. I will return to Professor Gregory in a future post, to discuss the disappointment of tiny, receding mountains in landscape photographs. (See the article: "Size Constancy Scaling").

But for now, I will content myself with saying that we sophisticated 21st. Century homo technilogicus seem to be no longer aware of just how amazing our ability to read images really is. The super-saturation of our day-to-day world, with pictures everywhere we look, leads to us not really paying much attention to most of them. Even if we wanted to, how could we find the time to review every single photograph – let alone all the video clips, paintings and drawings that are produced every day? So we have to make choices. And even those few images that we choose to regard are given only the most cursory of glances for the most part. A picture has to be immensely arresting to get our attention. To use the terminology established by Roland Barthes, the photo must possess studium to attract our gaze, and a punctum to make us look deeper. But even in those instances, we soon find ourselves drifting on, looking for the next image. So what are we looking for? And will we know it when we find it?

No comments:

Post a Comment