“…essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
Susan Sontag On Photography
I experience a recurring dream of being in a crumbling house filled with malevolent memories, angry ghosts, shameful failures. I understand why I have the dream, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about having it. Sometimes in the middle of this dream I tell myself, “OK, this is that same fucking dream,” and I can stand back from it and watch it unfold, safe from it’s violent emotions. Other times I’m caught in it, and I find myself involved in its manipulations. On these occasions I don’t have a choice. I’m pushed along by the narrative, enclosed and swamped by the breadth of it, swept up by the force of it. When I’ve finally awakened I’m breathing hard, my pulse is racing, and I’m covered in sweat. I’m filled with uneasy emotions – deep, harsh, and unrelenting. There’s no distance between me and the effects of what’s just happened. I know it’s not real, but at that moment, it is my reality, the only reality. I am in close, a part of the unfolding experience, seeing the inevitable outcomes of something out of my control.
We begin Vision with this, a photograph by Irving Penn No. 58.
What you are looking at is in our age an “accepted” way of seeing a figure in a photograph. We don’t question this kind of viewing any longer. It’s what we’ve come to understand of ourselves and how we interpret the images of others. But let’s have a real look at it, let’s go a bit deeper into the mechanics of it. Right off we can see that the perspective is skewed. It’s not necessarily how we would see this perspective if we were laying there on the floor with this model. The image itself is a captured interpretation of the figure, a severely cropped view of a momentary reality. The len’s curved surface and one point perspective, it’s focal length and the shutter speed, have determined the way the form is “seen”. Her right knee is formidable, right in our face. The left leg is in the process of moving, either down onto the right leg, or maybe she’s about to swing that leg over. Her hips are caught in the movement. Her torso twists in a very exaggerated way, at hard angles to her legs. You can see her muscles pulling. Michelangelo would approve. There is no space in the photo, it’s unclear where this figure is, where it exists, other than on the floor of some ambiguous white space. The figure’s been isolated and abstracted, presented to us as a thing, a form, an idea. What is clear is that the harsh foreshortening makes this figure look powerful, encompassing, engaging, and even though it’s abstracted, truncated, it’s sexy and very, very human. But it denies specificity, personality or deep understanding. It is an icon.
Postmoderns easily accept this kind of optical engagement. We understand it. We expect it. It’s coded into our visual vocabularies. Today, academic photographers everywhere engage in this kind of lens warping and skewing. This technique’s become a quick means to present an intimate abstract experience of a rising subject. And in fact, this type of image is par for the course in most all of our electronic lens based experiences. There are literally, what must now be, billions and billions of truncated naked figures photographed in similar ways floating through ethernet just waiting be clicked on and downloaded. Why they are there, well that’s an interesting question that we’ll try to tackle as we go on in this series.
This is a photograph (apologies to the unknown author of this found image) of our old friend Giambologna’s sculpture of the Rape of the Sabine. The sculpture itself is an eye grabbing theatrical tour de force, so much so that Urs Fischer appropriated it for his work in the last Venice Biennale and received a lot of accolades for his choice. Look at the hand grasping that woman’s buttock and you’ll recognize something else. That hand will later become grist for Bernini’s mill. Talk about appropriation! (OK, we’ll leave that idea for another time as well.) What we are looking at in this photo is the extreme angle of sight within the image itself. Again the subject rises into view against a blank ground. It is ALL form and rising composition. And in a Postmodern twist we get two eras of different kinds of vision slamming into one another. There is the Mannerist vision of OTT figuration as learned through Master Michele; the twisting torsos, the vibrant movement, the overwrought, balletic experience of the naked figure – all action, power, and movement used to intensify the impossible physical drama going on between the figures – rape depicted as a ballet among beautiful bodies. The sculpture emphasizes the major forms, the power and tension in the torsos, buttocks, legs and arms, but it also adjusts our vision, teasing our feeling with the more delicate sculpted moments – the fingers pressing the flesh, the hair falling out of place, the perfectly formed feet and hands. Mannerists were master visual manipulators especially with the dainty bits… But we are not looking AT the statue are we? That would actually be a very different visual experience – Mannerism in the round so to speak. What we are looking at is an extreme angle of a thing in-itself captured through the lens. And it’s that photo composition which is of interest. We are experiencing the distorting view of one point perspective seen through a framing lens. We see the violent foreshortening and flattening of space that we’ve come to expect in a photograph, and one that we’ve come to expect to see in abstractions of the figure – in painting think of Picasso and de Kooning, or for that matter, Yuskavage and Currin.
Additionally this extreme foreshortening abstracts our understanding of the connection to the thing in itself. Though we are seeing figures and they look correct, they are not. Not simply because this is a Mannerist sculpture of exaggerated proportions, but because the sculpture has been flattened, distorted and objectified by the lens machine, removed from our vision so to speak. We would not, could not see it in just this way if we used the naked eye even if we stood in the same position. We need the prosthetic to isolate a thing in this manner. Our vision, our minds don’t do this without it. Our machines change our perceptions. We accept that we are looking up, because we know how a body is structured, but in this spaceless, airless ground we may also be falling. There are no points of visual reference outside of that composition itself. So we accept the reality of the statue because we “know” that this is a photo of some thing. We accept that the image must be correct, it’s a captured image of a lived moment after all.
Another part of this kind of lens seeing is that it not only isolates and distorts, it allows the eye to move in closer, it magnifies. And we have adjusted our vision to understand and expect this closeness as well. Below is an Irving Penn photograph of Barnett Newman.
There are distortions here as you can see, but what I want to discuss is the intimate vision of this photo. When we move in to the subject, when we get close in this way we become part of the image itself. We begin to have a different relationship to that rising subject. I love this photo for a number of reasons but mostly because of its incongruous elements. I’ve never been able to take these contradictions of meaning very seriously. First of all because of the ridiculous cigarette being delicately held in that meaty hand. The space and angles again are ambiguous, abstract, and though we “know” that hand is Barnett Newman’s, for Chrissakes, it could be anyone’s hand. Barney may be walking past someone, or maybe turned into someone who’s just tapped his shoulder while holding the camera in the other hand, or maybe there’s someone crouching below holding the cigarette. Then there’s the ridiculous monocle. It’s like Barney’s a decadent visual fighter pilot and only one of his eyeballs has succumbed to the rigors of his craft, like a wounded WWI flying ace. All that in combination with the fuck-you mustache and slightly raised brow over the monocle and you have a cliched image of a classic autocratic ruler. So much for the All American Painter.
We are in close for a reason. We are there to become instantly intimate with this face, these features. And the closer we get, the more our vision becomes something else, something that, in essence, disengages our vision, disengages our objectivity. We are not able to maintain our distance from the rising subject, we can not get to clarity even though we see every pore on that face. We are abstracting a form at such a rate that the rising subject engages us without thought, so that our encounter reaches into our own physical experiences. We are heating up a visual encounter in a very cool medium by moving in close, so that we don’t have to think, so that we “feel”. We see this mechanism in movies all the time, it’s what brings us to an involvement in a character’s “emotional arc”. We move in close, especially to the eyes of the subject. That overpowering closeness is primal, involving, disconcerting. We are swallowed up by what is happening, we are overcome by this ground which is the subject itself, submerged in the narrative of proximity. I’ll leave you to go through the Freudian aspects of this kind of involvement, but let’s just say that a good optical storyteller will always look you straight in the eyes stretched across a 30 foot screen. Calling Sergio Leone…
What these tropes of lens based vision accomplish fairly easily is an eroticized optical engagement. You are not looking for meaning in this type of viewing, you are engaging in an experience of seeing. Meaning is always already known, pointless in the presentation of the image itself. In the photo above (I don’t know its provenance, my apologies to the author) there are a number of mechanisms at work to give one just this kind of experience. First there is the very dramatic chiaroscuro. The lighting on the figure is right out of the Baroque; a form emerges from the darkness, highlighting our own visual consciousness, intensifying the tautness of the muscular back. Second is the drastically foreshortened torso which places us in an ambiguous perspective. We may be face to backside, but we don’t know where we are in the space. We could be falling, upside down or sideways, in heaven or hell for all we know. Our only reference, the only known space in this composition is from buttock to shoulder. Our understanding and experience is directed only through that one point, everything else falls into blackness. Third is the erotic optical charge implicit in both the figure itself, the lighting of the form and our closeness to it. We are meant to experience this torso in a heightened physical state. The upper torso is lit like it’s cool marble which then flows down into a fleshy, cushiony posterior – we move from “art” (sculpture) to something “real” (flesh). Hell, we don’t know for sure if this image is of a male or a female, we are given only the ambiguity of its flesh. We have abstracted not only the image, the lighting, and the Baroque historical references, we have eroticized the processes of these abstractions. We are not necessarily responding to the “naturalness” or “reality” of the naked figure, but to the optical mechanics and appropriated references in the image itself. We don’t engage the erotic lens image as a passionate encounter for a specific, unique experience, but instead we are titillated by the closeness of the lens and the manipulation in this optical encounter itself. It’s an encounter that has no place, no face, no space presented to keep one in a perpetual state of desire. This kind of viewing is at the base of most Postmodern art. It “works” in nearly every situation, in every mediated construct. We can experience these kind of optical desires indefinitely without ever actually being passionately, physically involved. It’s without consequence like video game violence, aerial drone killing, online sex, Facebook friendships, youtube confessions, and most importantly, theoretical art blogs…
Once upon a time the advertisers would have draped this vehicle with a scantily clad model reasoning that tits and ass would sell the thing, make you, the consumer of the image, WANT IT, desire the actual product. But as time has gone on the Ad Men, the best of them anyway, have realized that it wasn’t the T&A that was selling the car but the lens, the mechanics of the lens. The intimacy and distancing of the lens actually manipulated the viewing of the thing, actually worked down to the viewer’s fingertips so to speak. And it did so because this kind of viewing is how we experience our “reality”. This short video advertisement has all the lens mechanics going on in it that we see in the photographs above; the sleek sheen of the hubs, the extreme foreshortening, the angled perspectives, the in close viewing. (Watch it without the sound.) All of it we respond to without thinking. It creates desire almost automatically in the viewer. These moving images are abstracted, the ground ambiguous, the engagement cool, then suddenly heated up with extreme optical proximities. We are being seduced and manipulated into the experience, into the engagement. But unlike the images above, this image has an additional purpose, one just beyond our acceptance of disjunctive viewing. There is the program guiding the lens images alluding to that fact that you may actually purchase the thing desired. This programming is of great interest as well, but it will have to wait for a future discussion.
We’ll be discussing color, programs, movement, sight and vision over this next series in order to dissect Postmodern viewing. We’ll also be reaching back to some favorites in order to explain a kind of hybridized sight, something we’ve discussed before, and we’ll now elucidate further, make more clear and alive for you. It’s the 21st Century. Let’s understand that we are complex visual beings and make a new vision for our times.