From Eye to Vision: Photography as an Interpretive (Re)-Presentation of Reality

Probably one of the first things that you will learn with photography is that, contrary to popular belief, the “camera” does not “see” (or, rather, perceive) in the same way that you do.

Your neuro-optical system represents an extremely sophisticated image acquisition and processing system that filters, modulates, integrates and synthesizes a broad complex of environmental information. It processes not only light input through your visual system, but other inputs through your other sensors, such as your olfactory and auditory systems, as well as more abstract inputs, such as your sense of space, excitement, etc. This entire gamut is acquired and processed almost instantaneously into a psychologically and emotionally compelling package (i.e. the mental “image”), all without too much conscious effort on your part.

The photographic camera system, on the other hand, the latest technological wizardry from Nikon and Canon non-withstanding, is a relatively crude and simple device that does little more than focuses a controlled amount of light onto a light-sensitive medium (in the case of film, an emulsion containing silver compounds).

Not only does the photographic camera register just one environmental datum, i.e. light, as opposed to the broad suite of information registered by the human perceptual system (of which, light and vision as such are only one component), but the photographic camera is also extremely limited and inflexible in its ability to handle that single datum when compared to our visual apparatus. While both the photographic camera system and our visual apparatus are governed and constrained by essentially the same physical laws, the performance envelope of the human visual system is vastly greater than that of the photographic camera. Slide film, for example, has an exposure latitude of only 5 stops. Human vision, on the other hand, has a latitude of 11 to 30 stops (depending on circumstances, degree of acclimatization, dominant/active photoreceptors, etc.). Moreover, the human visual system is essentially dynamic, so much so that we do not really notice depth-of-field limitations, since we constantly and almost instantaneously refocus our visual system on various objects at different focal lengths as we scan the scene in front of us. On top of that, our mental images are subjected to remarkably powerful tertiary-level processing, where, without consciously thinking about it, we filter out background and foreground clutter, perform a multitude of other adjustments, such as accomodating for ambient light color temperature, interpolating osbcured elements, etc., and, by concentrating our attention on the object of interest, we effectively increase the “weight” of that object completely out of proportion to its size in relation to other elements in the visual field.

A tiny Baya weaver hopping about in a tangle of backlit branches looms clear and beautiful in your mind’s eye. Take the shot as it is and you are bound to be disappointed with the results: your brain does not work the same magic when looking at the 2-dimensional image, and the photograph is treated “as-is” – a non-descript tangle of underexposed branches that almost looks like you took a shot at random or by accident. Even you yourself, as the photographer, will perceive a complete different mental image when looking at the splash of different colors squeezed into small square of celluloid sitting on a light-table a couple of feet away, as opposed to a living, breathing animal foraging on a forested hillslope 50 feet away. To a third-party, with no historical or emotional references to supplement the photograph when reconstructing the image in their own mind’s eye, the differences are even more extreme.

The science and art of photography is all about understanding how your camera “sees”, and directing its vision to your ends. Seen in this way, saying that the “camera does not lie” is, actually, a lie. A photograph is as much an interpretive representation of the world as a painting or a poem. Moreover, the set of physical and chemical processes that ultimately define the final photographic image is only partially under your control, and it is up to you, as the photographer, to not only understand what elements of the process are actually under your control, and how to manipulate these elements so as to achieve your vision, but also to understand how the elements that are beyond your control inform your final image.

Most importantly, it is essential that you have a vision, i.e. what you want to achieve with the photograph, because otherwise you will find that the camera’s default vision has hijacked the final image, and the camera’s default vision is no vision at all. The art of photography, then, is the art of infusing the camera’s eye with your own vision.

At one level, this might mean composing and setting up the shot so that the final image approaches that which is perceived by your mind’s eye when looking at a particular subject, or, at least, one aspect thereof. In this case, you, as the photographer, will have to take on the workload of your neuro-optical apparatus, using whatever tools and processes you have at your disposal. You will need to compose your shot in such a way so as to eliminate clutter and so that the subject is poised and positioned so as to capture the audience’s interest. You will need to use the appropriate film, filters and lighting to adjust for ambient light effects. You will need to use the appropriate lenses to resolve the subject to a size in relation to other elements in the final image such that it conveys the visual impact that you want to achieve. And so on.

At another level, as, for example, with close-up photography, you are actually directing the photographic process to produce an image that is not immediately perceivable by yourself due to physical and other limitations of your neuro-optical apparatus. In other words, you are using photography to reach beyond the normal envelope of human perception.

Perhaps most exciting to the naturalist, however, is taking full advantage of the fact that the photographic camera system is not a simulacra of the human perceptual system, and using the alienating result of the photographic process to attempt to reproduce an alternate view of reality that may, in fact, be a closer (or artistic) representation of what an animal sees rather than what we see.

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