[Archive] On Vision in Photography and Art

Originally Posted August 2019

What do we see when we look at a photograph or a work of art?

For some time I have been influenced by the Twentieth Century Russian writer, Viktor Schklovsky (1893-1984), a prominent member of the Russian Formalist School of literary criticism. For Schklovsky, a purpose of art is to make the familiar unfamiliar (ostranenie = “defamiliarization”) (Art as Technique, 1917). As a consequence, the viewer is made to look at things differently and in so doing to see deeper layers of reality. My Visions of Nature series is explicitly an effort to suggest new patterns, colors, and textures of nature that we do not see when we look at nature as we usually do.

Schlovsky suggests, for example, that when we look at, say, a mountain, we usually do not actually “see” the mountain; at least at first we are seeing what we generally think a mountain looks like. The same is true of vision in general. Unless we look sufficiently deeply and long we see not the mountain, but our “idea” of a mountain. The artist’s purpose is to help the viewer move past this level of seeing to a more full, richer, and complete vision of the mountain.

Thus, the rather tautological phase I came up with:  To really “see,” we must see that which is “unseen.”

It turns out, today, that this way of thinking actually has a sound basis in science. Biologists studying human vision have begun to develop detailed and increasingly accurate physiological and mathematical models of how human vision actually works. (See Quanta Magazine: Kevin Hartnett, “A Mathematical Model Unlocks the Secrets of Vision.” August 21, 2019.)

The eye … receives light from the outside world and projects a scale replica of our visual field onto the retina, which sits in the back of the eye. The retina is connected to the visual cortex, the part of the brain in the back of the head…. However, there’s very little connectivity between the retina and the visual cortex. … [T]here are only about 10 nerve cells connecting the retina to the visual cortex. These cells make up the LGN, or lateral geniculate nucleus, the only pathway through which visual information travels from the outside world into the brain… Not only are LGN cells scarce — they can’t do much either. LGN cells send a pulse to the visual cortex when they detect a change from dark to light, or vice versa [which identify edges], in their tiny section of the visual field. And that’s all.

From this very limited amount of information the eye sends to the brain (to the visual cortex), an image is constructed by the brain. This is a very compelling idea for photography. Since the brain has to work with what are really suggestions about the detailed content of an image, it seems likely to me that there should be some overlap in with the active imagination, with the brain’s powers of creativity.

Not only does this make it quite literally true that when we present a photograph to the viewer, the viewer and the photographer both participate in an act of co-creation. The photographer and the viewer are having a conversation about the content and meaning of a photograph (as must be true for any work of art). Additionally, this idea reveals how the brain likely makes use of the “idea” of a thing in creating vision, just as suggested by Schklovsky.

What else can we as photographers and artists take from these ideas? I believe our photography-as-art benefits from our thinking with intent about the cues we are feeding to the viewer’s brain. Patterns of light and dark, contrasts and contrast, variations in tone and shade, patterns both small and large provide suggestions to the brain on how to construct an overall image from the limited information it receives. At least in theory, a flat image with little or no variation in tone or lightness/darkness will present difficulties for the brain. Though we should keep in mind that the eye is probably capable of detecting very minute changes of light and dark and sending the corresponding information to the visual cortex. Though, conversely, if we want to elicit a response from the viewer that is ambiguous, uncertain, questioning, then a photograph with little or no tonal variation at all is certainly the way to go.

I am excited by the support this recent science lends to Schklovsky and to my interpretation of his ideas. I am interested and eager to hear other views and responses. Please leave a comment.

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