20 November 2008

The catastrophic eye

It's interesting how assumptions are formed, undermined, changed. It's particularly interesting how the processes are (in mathematical terminology) "discontinuous" or "catastrophic" – that is, they troll along happily in their rut, full of inertia, resistant to redirectional pressures, and then suddenly: pop, they have changed state with no intermediate transition.

I have a lifetime's experience of how photography can misrepresent truth. I studied the usage of such misrepresentations by Goebbels et al. I have exposed photographic hoaxes, and I have perpetrated photographic hoaxes of my own. All this long before the advent of digital manipulation tools which made it all so very much quicker easier. Intellectually, I regard the photograph (even an unmanipulated one from a robot camera on a random timer) as no more inherently "honest" or "truthful" than any other representation. And yet ... my default setting on seeing a photograph is still the naive and/or journalistic one: to start by assuming that it is a straight record of what was placed before a camera.

I am not, I hasten to explain, making value judgements about this. I don't think that a photograph should be a straight record; far from it. I am just recording the reflex tendency of my subconscious assumption.

I suspect that most human beings share this default setting.

Putting aside the historic past and coming up to date, I have spent a lot of time over the past nine months immersed admiringly in the work of Julie Heyward – which is all manipulated, so what you see is never (or, more subversive still, almost never) a straight record of what was in front of the camera.

Despite that, my default setting (even when viewing Ms Heywood's images) my subconscious default setting didn't change. Even as I knew her images to be constructed, my subconscious took them at face value and had to be instructed otherwise. This was demonstrated when (see "Seven bites at the cherry") I took a carefully constructed joke (gently at my expense) to be a simple seasonal record and so completely failed to "get" it.

So – all in all, my default settings can be said to be pretty resistant to change.

But today I discovered that a discontinuity had occurred: my default setting, at least where Ms Heyward is concerned, has flipped to the opposite pole: I now, it would seem, subconsciously assume deception and have to be actively persuaded of record.

I realised this when I looked at yesterday's post with the picture of a bee carrying a radio tracking device. I am very familiar with such devices. I have used them myself (though not glued to bees; more on that elsewhere). And yet, my first reaction to seeing the photograph (linked from the National Geographic) was to assume that this was one of her constructed images – a Coferesque creation from the world of Artemis Fowl, perhaps: a bee with jet pack or maybe grenade launcher. I went not only to the National Geographic in search of the original image, but to three or four collateral sources as well.

Forty eight years in one position, resistant even to Goebbels, then my default switch reverses in a moment. Isn't psychology wonderful?

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