The Photographer's Eye
Go visit flickr. Pick out a photo with some people in it (pick one where they're looking at the camera). Now let me describe what you're looking at.
There are two to five people in the photo. Some probably have their arms around each others' shoulders or waists. They're looking straight into the camera. Probably there's a beach, or a picnic table, in the picture. Or maybe they're inside, possibly at a restaurant table, with their faces brightly lit because of the flash and the background hidden in shadow. Wherever they are, they're smiling broadly.
There's other stuff in the picture too. maybe half-finished plates of food, or a 4-wheel drive vehicle, or toys and a plastic wading pool. Maybe there's even a power line entering the right side of the back of someone's head and exiting the neck on the left side, like the Warren Commission's magic bullet.
What exactly is going on here? I asked my friend Pam about this yesterday, and she gave me a great answer, which started me thinking...
My questions to Pam were:
- Who are these pictures for?
- What are these pictures for?
In other words, there are really two pictures: the picture you and almost everyone else on the Internet sees on the screen, and the picture the very small group of people who were actually there at the time the picture was taken see in their minds.
Now the interesting thing is that while you and I see the assassin's power line, the Nissan Pathfinder, and the half-eaten Pad Thai, the people in the intended audience do not see these things. The first picture - the thing on your screen - is just a mnemonic to them; it's the Platonic shadow of the second picture (the "real" picture in their minds). When the people in the intended audience look at the first picture, they see the second picture.
I couldn't understand why people were putting these pictures on flickr, because I have a particular type of brain damage which caused me to forget that the second picture exists. The type of brain damage I'm referring to is "the photographer's eye".
I've been photographing things for a long time. When I started photographing things, my photographs were mnemonics, like the ones on flickr.
If you photograph long enough, however, you'll eventually have the experience I had: you'll take a "real" photograph. What I mean by a "real" photograph is one which does not require the viewer already to have the real photograph in her mind in order to see the real photograph.
This experience of duplicating the real photograph you have in your mind with the one you put on film changes the way you see forever. Like certain psychotropic drugs, it actually re-wires your brain.
This brain damage makes you look at pictures differently. Because you know it's possible to make the mnemonic (the picture on screen, or on paper) look like the "real" photograph in your mind, you start to think about the picture in your mind and make sure there's nothing that doesn't look like it in the viewfinder before you press the shutter button. So when you see a Nissan Pathfinder, you walk around until it isn't in the picture.
As the condition progresses, you spend more and more time moving around and fiddling with the camera to make sure that what the film sees is what's in your mind. I take pictures of my friends like everyone else does, but they don't look like the ones on flickr. When I take a picture of Pam at a conference we're both attending, for example, it looks like this:
I didn't use a flash, or studio lights, or a fancy background, for this photo. I just asked Pam to sit next to a window, fiddled with my (manual) camera settings a bit, and took the picture. What you're seeing here is what I saw. But unlike most of the pictures you'll see on flickr, you're not also looking at whatever else happened to be in the area when I saw what I saw.
(Full disclosure: I did a little dust removal in Photoshop, took out a stray hair or two, maybe touched up the odd mole, and cropped the picture from 24x36 proportions to 8x10 so that it would print on standard photographic paper - but otherwise you're looking at what came straight out of the camera.)
My picture is better for me than the ones on flickr, because the brain damage has rewired the part of my brain where the mnemonics live. I still take mnemonic pictures, by accident, because it's hard to take a "real" picture. But I don't post them on flickr - I just file them away in their little boxes in the closet. They annoy me, because instead of making me recall the scene, they make me think "the scene didn't look like that!", which makes me feel like I've failed as a photographer.
My picture is better for you too, especially if you don't know Pam. It's better for you because you don't have to read my mind ("Was the photographer looking at the girl, or at the Nissan Pathfinder?"), and you don't already have to have a picture of Pam in your mind, to figure out what I saw. I removed everything that wasn't what I saw from the picture before I took it. All that's left is what I saw, so that's what you see - even if you weren't there at the time and even if you've never met Pam.