26 August 2005

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:

  1. Who are these pictures for?
  2. What are these pictures for?
She got it right in one try: who they are for is the photographer and his or her friends (they're not for you and me), and what they are for is to recall the scene to the mind of the audience.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bob, excellent post.

I find that when I don't know the people in the photo and it has no emotional meaning for me, the first things I notice are those items in the photo which I don't want to see.

August 27, 2005 11:40 AM  
Blogger Pamela said...


I understand where you are coming from - but here is a question for you: if you were to open an old photo album, and see a picture, let's say this picture was taken by an aunt or uncle. And this picture showed one of your children at christmas, looking up with delight just after they found out what their present was. Would you look at that picture and see that the lighting was all wrong, and that cousin Mervin was picking his nose in the background - or would you register that this loved one of yours was experiencing a moment of joy? Isn't it possible that you would register both? And that the emotion that is valid for you and a small handful of people within this very specific context makes up for the artistic absence?

Yes, this picture requires knowledge of who this child is, and of how much they wanted that present, and of how much they have grown and matured after this photo was taken. But all of that context is a treasure too, in its own little way. It is part of the value that a snapshot, even a poorly taken one, can possess. Sure, it may not be the photo that survives the ages, to be admired by all long after the participants are gone. But one day, your children's children's children may peer at that photo, amazed to see that Grandma or Grandpa wasn't always a zillion years old. They won't care that it wasn't the perfect photo.

That being said - you have no idea how pretty and attractive and a million other things that your photo makes me feel. It may be a photo that everyone can enjoy, but it means an order of magnitude more than that to me. To me, that photo represents what most women spend thousands of dollars on wedding photos for - proof for the ages of vitality, of attractiveness, of youth (ok, so not-so-much youth for me, hehe) -- the details vary but the theme remains. Your example of a photo that has no need for a mnemonic is exactly the opposite to me, because in 20 years, this photo will bring to life the memory of what it is that I am now, for the small group of people who knew me. And not just a shady memory, but an idealized, perfected memory at that...

We just need to insure that everyone has access to a not-a-bob...


August 29, 2005 3:30 PM  
Blogger Ethan said...

A few years ago I saw a gallery exhibit of an artist's work that might interest you.

He was interested in a similar visual analysis (as well as some additional gender/political stuff), which he explored by finding vintage pornography stills and using digital retouching to remove all the humans from the pictures leaving only the rooms, furniture or other backgrounds.

It was a whole gallery full of empty tableaus, but knowing as I did that these scenes originated from pornographic images, it was hard not to sense that something seedy and dark lingered in the images. I can't recall the artist's name...

August 31, 2005 9:24 AM  
Blogger Stu said...

I absolutely agree with this. The real skill, I think comes when the photographer can photograph what they're seeing but also leave you a little bit of story to make up for yourself.

Great post, thanks!

July 21, 2006 1:59 PM  

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