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«CHAPTER ONE Vantage Point and Image-Worlds Time past and time future Allow but a little consciousness. To be conscious is not to be in time But only ...»

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For example, what happens when there is a loss of consistency to the everyday experience of images and sounds—when expected patterns of explanation and interaction are disrupted as with the tragic events at the World Trade Center in September 2001? The importance of images to this event cannot be overstated. However, a great deal of what happened was beyond the images and instead was in people’s houses, on the streets, and in shared thoughts about the pain and suffering of those who died. The images were powerful, but they were not enough as people looked for social contexts in which they could share their pain and shock at the events with others. Images of suffering have this dual effect of distance and closeness and are examples of the frailty of communication as well as its strength.

This raises other questions. Does human participation in and acceptance of image-worlds require new definitions of history and a radical reimagining of what it means to engage with events, both near and far? Are new definitions of place, locality, and community needed? Are images predicting a dramatic move to an oral culture, where notions of preservation and memory shift from written language and discourse to traces, fragments, the verbal, the musical, and the poetic (Carpenter 1970)?

Vantage Point

What methods of analysis will work best here and which methods have become less relevant? I suggest that method (the many ways in which the analysis of phenomena is approached, analyzed, and synthesized) is largely dependent on vantage point, a concept that is closely related to perspective and attitude. This means not only that the phenomenon is important, but also that position, placement, who one is and why one has chosen one form of analysis over another (ideological, philosophical, or personal) need to be transparently visible.

To varying degrees, I believe that images are not just products, representations, or copies of reality. Images are not the by-product of cultural activity. They are the way in which humans visualize themselves and how they communicate the results. They are at the very center of any coherent and historically informed definition that can be made of human nature and the cultural and social configurations that humans create. The construction, use, and distribution of images are fundamental to every culture. Furthermore, just as the human mind is wired for language, it is also wired for images. In fact, language, images, and sounds are inherent parts of human thought and the human body, as well as generative sites for the thinking, feeling process.

The ability that humans have to speak sits in an interdependent relationship with their aptitude to image and imagine the world around them. By extension, I agree with Noam Chomsky’s carefully articulated argument that the ability humans have to use grammar is innate, although I am also convinced that experiences shape that innateness in early childhood (Chomsky 1968). Similarly, I believe that children are born with the ability to transform the world into images of an imaginary nature or through the application of sounds, fantasies, and dreams to experience (Winnicott 1965). Therefore, the ability to use and create images comes from an innate disposition that humans have that is sometimes proportionately balanced by experience and sometimes not. I am convinced that dreams are one of the royal roads into a world that does not need a narrator to be effective and that daydreams are Vantage Point and Image-Worlds among the most important residual strategies that humans make use of to manage the swirl of thoughts and images they encounter within themselves and in the environments of which they are a part (Grotstein 2000).

Seeing Sight

–  –  –

In order to explore these issues in greater depth, let me turn to the photograph in figure 1.3.

I took this photograph (figure 1.3) during a period of my life when I was thinking, dreaming, and reading about the Holocaust. A large part of my family was lost in this terrible event. I have lived my life in the shadows, stories, and metaphors of that experience and the familial memories that are attached to it. Yet, I did not set out to shoot this picture with the Holocaust in mind. How then can one “write” about this image? Does it “speak” to me? Am I conferring a particular and personal meaning onto the photo in an effort to 11 FIGURE 1.3 Smokestack against a night sky (Ron Burnett) make it relevant? In fact, am I imposing a meaning upon it for the purposes of this discussion?

Is this photograph like a text? Must I “read” it in order to understand what it is saying? I recognized the importance of this photograph some weeks after it had been taken. What time does this photograph come from? Is it the time of its taking or the time of its interpretation? When exactly did all of these aesthetic, personal, and historical factors come into play? What if I had said that this photograph had been taken in 1944 or 1955? Can one “play” in such an arbitrary fashion with both the photo and the experience of viewing it?

Should one?

An argument could be made that this photo more accurately documents my feelings than any other photo I have seen taken during the Holocaust or subsequently recovered from that period. Something happened when I saw the scene presented to me—and irrespective of the fact that there is no way of validating the relationships that I am establishing here, the process of interpretation is creating a variety of vantage points. Something distant—events, memories, and histories—comes into “view.” And perhaps that is the issue. Vantage point does not come in a simple or direct way but must be created. Seeing is an activity of creative engagement with processes of thinking and feeling, and, as a result, there is not a transparent relationship between figure 1.3 and its meaning. Seeing and thinking have often been bundled into reductive notions of perception as if perception were somehow less mediated and more instantaneous than just gazing or looking (Arnheim 1969). If to see is to create, then images are never “just” the product of one or many internal or external processes. The distance needed to understand “sight”—distance from an event, person, or picture—is created through an act of engagement that temporarily connects and overcomes the storm of thought within the human mind. Even familiarity with a Vantage Point and Image-Worlds scene may not provide enough information to make vantage point clear or usable for interpretive or experiential purposes.





This issue of creativity is central to How Images Think. The intersections of creativity, viewing, and critical reflection are fundamental to the very act of engaging with images in all of their forms. This would suggest that the notion of the passive viewer, for example, is a myth. The experiences of seeing images are always founded upon a series of engagements. To me, there is no such “person” as a couch potato (although it would be necessary to examine why that myth is so strong and why it has endured).

Figure 1.3 does have an intrinsic meaning for every viewer.

I had to draw upon my personal history and create a text for the photograph. I find figure 13

14 1.3 extremely sensuous. As a result, I am able to move from its flatness and two-dimensional nature to words in an easy and unforced manner. At the same time, the symbolic “value” of the image seems to move it into the realm of representation.

I would prefer to “see” figure 1.3 as visualization. This is an important distinction. Visualization is about the relationship between images and human creativity. Conscious and unconscious relations play a significant role here.

Creativity in this instance refers to the role of viewers in generating what they see in images. I am not talking about vision in general but the relationships that make it possible to engage with images. Visualization as a concept is also an entry point into the depth of the viewer’s experience—a way of moving beyond the notion that there is depth “in” the image. Even more so, this approach tries to understand the various and complex ways in which a subjective basis for visualization can be analyzed.

Images do not stand in a symmetrical relationship with depiction, understanding, and analysis. To visualize also means to bring into being. This may eliminate some of the traps that the notion of representation sets, for example, that creators actually have a great deal of control over what they create and viewers generally respond in kind (Maynard 1997).

In a more general sense, how does one arrive at the meaning of images?

The content of images and photographs seems to be self-evident. How large is the photo? What objects are present? What color do they have? Do the contents of the image translate into “smokestack” (Wittgenstein 1965, 2)? These are important questions about the character and nature of the photo, but they describe the empirical surface of what is being pictured. In order to deal with this image one would have to move to a higher level of abstraction (Barthes 1981). My comments about figure 1.3 provide a frame that surrounds the image and a context for examining it. My interpretation of the image would have been self-evident if I had added the caption “Holocaust” or “Auschwitz” to it.

My discussion transforms the photograph into a complex metaphor and may reveal the motivations that attracted me to the scene in the first place. In a general sense, the meaning of the photograph depends on the discursive efforts I put into it and on the tensions between my own interpretation and that of other viewers. This is at least one part of the creativity and tension of viewing, which encourages the development of a variety of different vantage points as well as contestation around the meaning of images.

In the nineteenth century photographs were seen as transparent windows onto the scenes that they pictured. This is why photographs were not regarded as “art” but as records of events, people, and environments. The impact of that attitude remains to this day even as the introducImages freeze movetion of digital techniques alters the terrain of expectations ment, demonstrating around truth and transparency in photographs. The problem is that when images are seen as records, the perspective that choice. Once sights is chosen for analysis will generally shift to whether what they are set in pictures, show reflects the reality the images are meant to depict. This fleeting experience is locks images into a representational triangle of object, image, stilled. Movement is and viewer. The creative intervention of viewers is then seen as a disruption of the intentions of the image-creators rather not banished; rather, than a necessary part of the process of visualization. it appears residual, Some photographs are more opaque than others and

a memory of the proderive their strength from a set of references that are internal

cess of fashioning the to the aesthetic of the picture. This poses challenges of interimage, a reference to pretation and explanation, as well as realism. Figure 1.3 does not “demonstrate” a clear relationship with the meaning potentially disturbing and/or message(s) I am trying to communicate in this text. I spaces beyond the conferred a particularly personal meaning onto figure 1.3.

edges of pictures.” However, there need not be any congruence between what I (Ossman 1994, 19) say and what another viewer does with the photo. There is a constant tension between the universal and the particular here. This is because photographs suggest a demonstrable relationship between objects and subjects in pictures and what is seen, even though the activities of viewing are about different levels of visualization and often, increasingly complex levels of abstraction and thought (Mitchell 1992).

However, since I consider viewing to be an intensely creative act, it is likely, if not desirable, that what I see is not what someone else will see. I am not suggesting that the interpretation of images is entirely subjective and relative. There are conventions, codes, and rules governing the elements in an Vantage Point and Image-Worlds image and its overall organization. The issue is what happens to images when they are placed into a viewing environment? Certain images say a great deal instantly, and it seems as if creative engagement were far less important than recognition and identification. I will return to this question, since I believe that what feels instant at one moment is not at another.

The images of the destruction of the World Trade Center by terrorists were not static; they immediately became part of a dynamic, ongoing historical process. It is precisely because images are the product of a particular moment that more must be added to them than is ever present in the images themselves. This excess, which is often seen as somehow interfering with the meaning of the image, is a necessary staging ground for interpretation and 15 analysis (Deleuze 1986; Eco 1984).

16 Imagine someone standing to the side of figure 1.3, pointing toward it, and saying, “That is a smokestack set against a fiery sky.” The image seems to become more specific and constrained. Yet the statement will only be valid if it is accepted. Images depend upon a shared agreement among viewers and a fairly structured set of conventions (Eco 1997, 57–122). Yet they remain a site of dispute if not contestation. There is a social and linguistic agreement to accept the word “smokestack” to describe a particular object, but the same arrangement has not been made with images of smokestacks.

This is what allows me to make a claim about figure 1.3—my claim, however, may not be true. This argument has important implications for what is meant by the term “image.” In a sense, image as a term makes it appear as if all of these contradictions could be contained—this is the seduction—while at the same time, engaging with images far exceeds the boundaries of the frame and involves a process of visualization that cannot be constrained (the mental space of the viewer) nor should it be (Bourdieu 1990; Stafford 1996).



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