January 13, 2004
This is not an ice sculpture

Here's an ice sculpture, which I found here that is to say a picture of an ice sculpture, and it vividly illustrates the difference between how a camera sees and how the human eye sees.


During the run-up to the recently and very satisfactorily concluded Rugby World Cup, I posted some great photos of the great rugby player Jonah Lomu, and I made this same point. Chris disagreed:

And Brian ... I beg to differ about your take on how the eye actually sees things. All that blurry stuff, caused by depth of field focus is exactly what I see when I focus on something HERE and not BACK THERE. Try it.

Ever since then I've been meaning to respond to Chris, and have meanwhile been watching myself watch foreground objects and background backgrounds, to see how I do it. So I have tried it. And Chris is, unless he and I are members of different species which I suppose is always a possibility, completely wrong. When we see an object and a background, what we see is a volume. We see the space between the object and things behind it. We size up the situation, by moving, both our bodies and our eyes. We theorise – sometimes wrongly, which is when this difference really hits you – about what is going on, and from then on that theory informs and shapes every incoming signal.

But what the camera sees is a static, two dimensional surface, in or out of focus but never both at different moments right next to each other, still less any different angle on the scene. The two experiences could hardly be more different.

Getting back to the picture of the ice sculpture, there is no way that the human eye would allow itself to be so comprehensively confused about what the hell this object consists of, the way this camera was. This picture is about as clear a description of what is going on as the special effects in the latest James Bond for that invisible car.

The eye would duck and weave, to establish volume and shape and surface. It wouldn't just gawp – camera style – at whatever incoming light signals came in, and just tabulate them in a baffling, static rectangle. I'm not saying it's a bad photo. In a way, its very bafflingness makes it rather a good one, if you like that sort of thing. But it is a very different experience from actually seeing the thing.

Photography is one of the great under-discussed influences on Modern Art. It is discussed quite a lot, but not enough.

Consider. Photography pretty much drove the painters out of the likeness-making industry. They had to do other things. Photography publicised what the painters subsequently did, which gave huge impetus to the whole shock-art style of self-advancement. In general, the experience of Art nowadays is utterly saturated with the experiencing of Art via photos. And maybe (I'm a lot less sure of this part of the story but it makes sense to me that it should be so) the very first thing that photography did to Art was to make painters unprecedentedly aware of and self-conscious about the various processes involved in seeing things. After all, many of the first photographers were themselves painters, applying this new technology to their existing trade.

Impressionism looks very post-photographic to me. You can just here them saying: hey, we could do that, but in colour. But, we'd better get a move on.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:12 PM
Category: Modern artPhotography