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Looking Again

Seeing and image making are things we have done for a very long time. Although we have divided our ways of understanding the world into the arts and the sciences, there is nothing in the world we study that tells us how to look at it. There are no signs in the woods, the seashore, the prairie, the kitchen, or in dreams that tell us as viewers or image makers when to use a given technology, be it microscope, paintbrush, camera, or hand. It is we who decide to study something as a subject of science or as a subject of art.

Context (historical, cultural, etc.) wraps experience. It is wise to acknowledge it exists, and remember that it informs how we study things. But at the same time we can see the world anew. We can look with fresh eyes. For me and I would venture for others as well, this offer of freedom is welcome. It can be liberating to be able to say, “That’s interesting. I’ve never looked at things that way before”. It’s a matter of looking at things as they appear to us, as phenomena, rather than strictly as we know them to be. It’s not about re-introducing doubt. It’s about perceiving from a new perspective. We can never escape context, but we can alter it.

In considering the history of image making, we see the evolution in representation from images that roughly resemble real world things to images that more accurately resemble them. In fact, it seems that a very large part of the development of image making technology is an attempt to improve upon our accuracy of depiction. Photography replaces printmaking and painting as what we think of as realism. So much so that we think of images made via technologies as being more real. Whereas the traditional products of fine art like painting are today seen primarily as the expression of a person’s humanity and/or individuality. Do we forget that the photo image is still constructed by someone making the deliberate choices in selecting subject, framing, etc? We are satisfied with believing that photos are more objective and accurate. Accuracy here is defined as looking the most like the object depicted. Or another way of saying it: to copy what is seen. And the way we measure the accuracy of images produced with a technology like photography is by looking at things like the density of film grain, or the number of pixels. Taking such measurements requires yet other technologies, e.g., a densitometer. So, ironically, we have come to depend upon technologies that mediate first hand visual experience to give more credence to that experience. To what end? How sharp is sharp?

This pursuit of accuracy of imitation is something that continues to dominate much of the world of image making. But starting in the twentieth century there is a break from this in modern art. Modernism has such a boundless devotion to novelty that much image making in modern art moves inexorably away from imitation. Now creativity is defined as making something not recognizable. While many artists can claim success in having accomplished that task, is the work successful as Art? Once all reference points of a visual experience are detached, is the value of the image making endeavor lost? If the viewer is expected to supply ALL the meaning, does the piece have any work to do? Images have to engage the viewer enough to keep our attention. If one accepts the idea that some behaviors are biological imperatives, i.e., some things that we are “wired” to do, I think it is true that a big part of perception is about looking for patterns, for the familiar. Even artistic images have to give the viewer some entry point, some kind of a handle. As with fiction, they also have to provide some breathing room, some space for the viewer to participate with their own context and perspective.

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