24 July 2008

Well, maybe I am...

I've had a number of responses to my They say I'm a dreamer post. All of them interesting, and thank you – but I want to pick up on two of them in particular (below, on the left).

Then there were also several asking about the post title. That comes from a song my mother used to sing when I was very small. A quick ramble around the web hasn't established who authored either the words or music for this song, which was probably called Far away places. My mother attributes it to Vera Lynn, but Google throws up Willie Nelson, Dusty Springfield, Bing Crosby, Sam Cooke, and others. The words given vary, too; those I give below on the right in the light grey column are as sung by my mother and are not guaranteed to correspond with any other version!

Ray Girvan, from JSBlog, gives by email his perception that "the first thing that crossed my mind was that the train is going to come from the direction of the observer of the picture, so the picture could easily be read as someone with their eye on the horizon, but oblivious to immediate danger right behind their back."

This interests the amateur habitat theorist in me. If you are not familiar with habitat theory, its basic building blocks are the perception by an animal (and we are, remember, animals) of environment features in terms of "prospect" and "refuge". The ideal location for the animal is at a "prospect-refuge interface" which allows it to observe as much as possible from a position of maximum concealment. The amount of prospect which is visible past the bounds placed by the place of concealment is a practical compromise known as a "vista". The application of this to the visual arts lies in an assumption that tension and pleasure in the human response to art derives from these atavistic responses. For any more than that, I recommend getting hold of a second hand copy of Jay Appleton's The Experience of Landscape.

Coming back to Ray's perception of my image, there is a clear difference in his atavistic environmental audit and my own. He looks at this image and his body feels itself to be in the open, with those perspective lines of the continuing behind him where the camera cannot see, exposed to danger from both directions. In other words, he perceives prospect but no refuge. I, on the other hand, feel the "dado" provided by banks and foreground clutter, plus the horizontal cloud boundary above, as a definite refuge frame through which I view the vista beyond. Thinking this through consciously (which I had not, before) I realise that I also see the dark mass of the child's body in front of me as additional cover, shielding me from observation ... not a pleasant thing to admit, but there you go.

Viewed in this way, Ray's environmental perception is clearly far more sophisticated than my own. Where my psychology allows me to be kidded into the belief that the world of the photograph ends at its frame, his not only insists on maintaining recognition of the larger reality beyond that frame but also populates that larger reality with the pragmatic knowledge that trains travel in two directions.

The other comment which also added a layer of psychoperception came in a blog response, Trains, on Julie Heyward's Unreal Nature.

Julie "can’t help wondering if the fearful reactions he has discovered from some people to the photo is due to the expectation of either an explosion or the arrival of train robbers – or both." Now, it's worth remembering that this comes from someone who has the common USAmerican horror of public transport, and has wondered aloud whether anyone on a bus is by definition an alien ... but, nevertheless, she has a valid point: our perceptions are conditioned by the cinema and specifically by "the many, many modern action thrillers that I rather like but which all blur together into one continuous explosion ( from which the hero always emerges unscathed )"

I'm not going to spend more time on her comment, despite the fact that she certainly deserves it, because I can't wait any longer before expressing my slow burning delight at the "wild bunch" group photograph which she offers in illustration of her post. Look closely at the two figures positioned at left and right hand ends of the front row. She has stolen both my likeness and Ray Girvan's (she must have really worked at finding that one), and done a stunningly subtle job of incorporating them into the wild bunch. I shouldn't be surprised; this is the sort of thing she does to great effect in her own work ... but I am as vain as the next person, and feel like a child who has witnessed a perfect magician's trick.

Far away places
With strange-sounding names,
Far away over the sea;
Those far away places
With the strange-sounding names
Are calling, calling, to me.

Going to China, or maybe Siam;
I want to see for myself
Those far away places
I've been reading about
In a book
That I took
From the shelf.

I start getting restless
Whenever I hear
The whistle of a train;
I pray for the day
I can get underway
And look for those
Castles in Spain.

They call me a dreamer – well,
Maybe I am,
But I know that I'm burning to see
Those far away places
With the strange-sounding names
Calling, calling, to me.

  • Jay Appleton, The Experience of Landscape. Hull, 1986, Hull University Press. 0859584615.

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