19 September 2007

The Eye Altering

Thinking through my fingers quoted on (from Crooked Timber) Dorothea Lange’s “A camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera”. Just the mention of Lange (one of my heroes since I was about ten years old) would be enough to wake me up; but then Jim goes on:

Now, when I view a particularly interesting, photograph, I shall wonder which came first, the eye or the camera. Does the eye truly change, acquiring depth and insight, after getting the camera, or was the camera purchased to capture what the eye wants to preserve?

I said that I would muse on that for a bit and then come back; and here I am. For anyone who would rather have my conclusion, and skip the rest, I think that we all have the capacity to see intensely and deeply, and for that matter to use every other sense and faculty intensely an deeply, but most of us never develop it.

Whenever I've spent time with people who depend for life on their senses and their perception of environment (gamekeeper, peasant farmer, Australian aboriginal tracker, soldier), I've been painfully aware of how dull are all my senses compared to theirs. They are routinely aware of visual details, scents, shifts of the breeze, small sounds, which still evade me even after I have been alerted to them. We have all of these capabilities born in us, our heritage from millions of years of survival driven evolution, but these days few of us use even a tiny corner of them. A photographer (or any artist) simply develops some facet of all that capacity to a slightly greater degree than most.

That doesn't answer the question of which comes first: the developed sense, or the means of recording. I, for what it's worth, think that it happens both ways in different people.

Some people have, for whatever reason, a more developed awareness than their fellows in one modality (visual, auditory, tactile, sometimes olfactory) or another. Maybe they are born with it; maybe early environment encourages it. I doubt that it would be easy to establish the mix of nature and nurture, but my own guess is that it's entirely nurture. We all have the same ancestral genetic inheritance to see, or hear, or smell, or taste, or feel, as intensely as a wild animal; only the stimulus to use that inheritance varies.

My ex wife, a painter and sculptor, was an abused child. Was her visual awareness inborn, or was it heightened by early years spent watching for small details which might trigger, or give warning of, violence? My own childhood couldn't have been more different: a warm, supportive family gave me infinite confidence. But we moved frequently, never in a home more than two years, sometimes only twenty four hours; did the continual change in my surroundings prompt greater attention to them?

When I received my first camera at age eight, it provided a frame, a discipline, within which the chaotic sensory profusion of my little world could be stripped down, constrained, reduced to visual elements in an ordered space and a restricted palette. Suddenly, I could express my wonder at the hectic psychedelic whirl of light and shade and colour and noise across my world by fixing on one small fragment of it and saying "There: look: see how that pigeon's shadow intersects the wood grain of the boardwalk! That's how life is!" It wasn't the pigeon that mattered, or the boardwalk, or the shadow or the grain: it was the fact of capturing, for long enough to wonder at it, a fragment of what life is. Whether that was part of me which the camera brought out, or an aspect of the camera which I discovered, I don't know and never will.

I often quote Charlie, the Chinese-Australian photographer who haunts the pages of Janette Turner Hospital's astonishing novel The Last Magician[1]. He takes photographs, he says, "so that I can see what I have seen". He has it exactly right.

Whether it triggers the enhanced vision or is acquired in support of a visionary need, the act of photographing can certainly develop seeing. Or, rather, the act of framing the photograph: no actual photograph need be taken. A million years ago, I attended a five day workshop with photoessayist W Eugene Smith. I arrived festooned with equipment, which Smith took from me and locked away. In place of cameras and lenses, he gave us postcards with holes cut in the centre. "That's a viewfinder" he told us, "and that's where a photograph is made; you don't need anything else, just your eye and a viewfinder."

Returning to Jim's question(s): does the eye truly change, acquiring depth and insight, after getting the camera? I'd say no - it develops its own latent potential after getting the camera. Was the camera purchased to capture what the eye wants to preserve? Yes, though what it wants to preserve may not necessarily be what it learns to see.

My post title is taken from an Ursula K Le Guin short story[2].

1. Janette, Turner Hospital, The last magician. 1992, London, Virago.

2. Ursula K Le Guin, The eye altering. Originally published in Lee Harding (ed), The altered I, 1974. Currently available in the wonderful Le Guin collection The Compass Rose, 2005 (reprint), New York, Harper Collins (Perennial).

1 comment:

GrayedOut said...

"does the eye truly change, acquiring depth and insight, after getting the camera? I'd say no - it develops its own latent potential after getting the camera."

I couldn't agree more, Felix. In my own observations, I've noticed the same phenomenon. I have the benefit(?) of having quite fickle, ever-changing interests, so I've been able to test this from many angles.

For instance, when I focus on painting, I walk around seeing the world in terms of light and shadow and heightened, macro detail - but almost in tunnel vision, at the expense of other, broader observations. When the biologist in me takes over, light becomes unimportant, and my mind stops instead to ponder mechanisms and puzzle over relationships, and I begin to see the world more in terms of connections at the organism and community level. And again, when I turn to writing, my brain switches from a focus on pure visual or mechanical interpretations and becomes more of an audio-visual machine, combining inputs into detailed storylines.

You're so right. Just imagine if we could train our brains to develop these potentials, and keep them all tuned in at once.