«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 ...»
This contradictory desire for purity and legibility, for instant recognition and understanding, is part of the reason that so much “intention” is conferred onto cameras. Thus, the quality of a lens is equated with the quality of an image and sometimes given as much weight as the photographer herself. Polaroid photographs are seen as instant, quick, and produced through a process that does not have as much intentionality attached to it as a carefully composed 35-mm shot. Purity and legibility can mean that technology has replaced the creator of the image. What is the balance between the camera eye and the human eye? Which side of this unsteady fulcrum is best suited for analytical purposes (Sontag 1978)? For example, what has the image of the smokestack in figure 1.3 been modeled on? The “scene” was there for me to capture or, it could be said, that the scene captured me. Did I “create” it, or is it just a snapshot? Whose voice is dominant here and how can it be discerned from the photograph? What is legible and what is not (Tyler 1987)?
Rather than assuming it is the real that has to be captured or reproduced, the production of the real as image may be one of the foundations for Vantage Point and Image-Worlds the visible and may be the key sign of voice at work (Vasseleu 1998). Historical information can be reshaped to fit into the framework provided by images.
Nevertheless, the difficult issue here is that there is no necessary equation between history and image. This means that the integration of images into every aspect of modern culture has resulted in a sophisticated and yet inevitably flawed inventory of images that is supposed to point toward the real and toward history.
I would make the claim that very little of what is described as the real exists in isolation of its double as image and text. In other words, it is not just the case that images depict events. Images and events coexist within a shared context and are part of a shared foundation that upholds and gives coherence 31 32 to reality. This doppelganger is a source of tremendous energy and anxiety (Kember 1998). It is also the reason why it seems so difficult to find vantage points that would allow some perspective to be taken with respect to events, images, creativity, and interpretation (Schwartz 1996).
Although figure 1.3 is not a copy of the smokestacks at Auschwitz, it hints at a relationship with the past. The vantage point that I have chosen allows for an interpretation that brings the original concentration camp smokestacks into a relationship with the present. This “production” and visualization of the real bring some coherence to memory, but also become the basis for new memories.
Vantage point is about the rather tenuous relationship or perspective that is used to describe these interactions. The statement “This is a picture of my grandmother” lends empirical weight to the image, produces the image, and attempts to mirror the past while, at the same time, situating figure 1.7 and recreating it. My vantage point allows me to make all of these claims, but, for the most part, they are not verifiable. I can point to the contingencies, assert their validity, and argue about the truth, but none of this will resolve the ambiguous power that my discourse has over the picture.
I am reversing the conventional notion (and cultural myth) that images have the power to overwhelm the viewer, and I am describing a process that is far more collaborative. I am arguing that this creative engagement with pictures begins the moment that images enter into relationships with viewers. I am making the claim that images are not outside of conventional perceptual activities, not the place where things happen that don’t happen elsewhere.
Rather, images are integral to, and are at the foundation of, visual, linguistic, and perceptual processes.
It is not the case that what viewers watch as image comes to them in the form of a tabula rasa, nor is it the case that spectators approach images in isolation of their historical relationship to photography in general. In fact, photography has been a part of historical discourse since the invention of the medium, although it took until the 1960s for the skepticism about pictorial truth to become diluted. Now there is a complete reversal, where the value of images as history far exceeds their capacity to visualize the past.
As I have been saying, images are fundamental to the growth and development of human consciousness (Piaget 1951; Chomsky 2000). The role of language is equally foundational. According to Steven Pinker (1997), The eminent psychologist D. O. Hebb once wrote, “You can hardly turn around in psychology without bumping into the image.” Give people a list of nouns to memorize, and they will imagine them interacting in bizarre images.
Give them factual questions like “Does a flea have a mouth?” and they will visualize the flea and “look for” the mouth. And, of course, give them a complex shape at an unfamiliar orientation, and they will rotate its image to a familiar one. (P. 285) Pinker is pointing toward the power of visualization, and although Hebb was a behaviorist and thus not really concerned with images as sites of recreation or fantasy, Pinker’s comments make it clear that imagination is at the heart of what he means by mind.
These fundamental issues of language, thought, and images will be dealt with in greater detail in this book. For the moment, it is crucial to understand that images are both mental and physical, within the body and mind, and outside the body and mind. To see images is also to be seeing with images. The visual field is as psychological as it is “real” and external to the viewer. From a cognitive point of view it is just not possible to separate what has been seen from what has been thought, and the question is, why would that type of separation be suggested or even thought of as necessary (Ramachandran and Blakeslee 1998)?
There is no particular sequence to the activities of visual engagement.
To be able to see and understand images means that human subjects have already been engaging in the process. Spectators often think of their engagement with images as some sort of input process, as if humans were merely reacting to what they see and not collaborating in the creation of the experience. If any allowance were to be made for the complexities that characterize the multifaceted lived experiences that human subjects have, then the ability and the competence to view images cannot be reduced to the simplicity of input/output models (Edelman 1989, 2000).
Vantage Point and Image-Worlds Another way of thinking about these claims is through the following example. Disgust at the image of a child running from a village that has been napalmed can be shared by a wide variety of different people, but disgust is not in the photo (Chong 1998). Disgust is the representation.
It is commonly assumed that what is seen in a photograph is something that represents something else. A photographed tree is accepted as such, even though the tree has been reduced to a small size and is two-dimensional.
Culturally, this jump in logic seems natural because the language that allows the word “tree” to be used in the first place doesn’t change dramatically because there is an image of a tree. But the tree as image is only there by virtue of an agreement that is both cultural and individual. This agreement says that 33 34 the image can be used to refer to “tree” without any necessary loss in meaning (Rorty 1991).
Disgust is the product of a relationship that links and reinforces these agreements about meaning and represents the conventions as well as the social context that has made them possible. It is what I bring to bear on the photograph, how I frame and examine my experience, what my experience and sense of identity is, that converts the interaction into feelings of disgust. This is why even the most painful of images can be looked at, in part because the images are not the experience but point to some of its elements.
In a similar vein, the pain that I feel looking at figure 1.4 (a map) is of course present to me, but only to the degree that it is seen as such, only to the extent that there is an agreement that links history to cultural convention and my experience to the Holocaust. However powerful, images remain within a set of relationships that are based on the creative and interpretive abilities of viewers. Figure 1.4 requires a quick movement into it and a projection as well as identification with the pain of the past, but this does not happen solely as a function of the map itself. If the instant of recognition were the only important feature of figure 1.4, then all of the complex attachments of the map to its history and context would disappear. It would speak with even less of a voice than it deserves.
Earlier in this chapter I spoke about ambiguity and the particular way in which photographs nurture contradictory meanings that require the intervention of human subjects to generate and create order. Often, images promote a quick and recognizable clarity. That is both their power and a source of their undoing. The challenge is to move the image continuously around so that its context can be examined from a variety of perspectives and vantage points. For example, the photograph I mentioned of a child running from a napalmed village during the Vietnam War and a Viet Cong soldier being shot in the head are intensely voyeuristic, posing crucial questions about the photographers who took them, their motivations, and the need to place the images into the context of the news. Keep in mind, I am not claiming that I know why the photographers took the shots. I am simply addressing my own reaction and trying to examine the relationship between the immediacy of my reaction and my skepticism about the assumed spontaneity of the photographer’s role.
Why were there cameras at those scenes in the first place? Of the many photographs taken during the Vietnam War, why were these used as extreme examples of brutality, and why have they remained so famous? If these two photographs have become symbols of the wrongheadedness of the Vietnam FIGURE 1.8 Leaving Vienna, 1938 War and the role of the Americans in it, was this the reason that they were taken? Does the exposure of the child’s body suggest something about the desire of the photographer for intensity and effect? All of these questions may simply return the images to their point of departure as powerful antiwar statements. But if the photograph is to be taken beyond its role as a pheVantage Point and Image-Worlds nomenon, then the levels of meaning I have suggested need to be mapped.
This mapping will allow the image to be replaced, recreated, then positioned in a loop of communications, visualization, and exchange.
How Images Become Virtual
Figure 1.8 is a shift away from figure 1.
3, to an archival image that is over sixtytwo years old. Yet it is no more original than the Polaroid. It is a virtual image of an historical event, a train leaving from Vienna just prior to the beginning of World War II. The stages through which this photo has become virtual are listed in figure 1.9.
FIGURE 1.9 The trajectory of figure 1.8 from visualization to the virtual
The events that influenced the departure of my mother from Vienna in 1938 would have happened with or without the photo being taken. Yet, after the events, the photo helped create a shared familial and communal knowledge about the war and the Holocaust. It is not a record in the strict sense of that word, meaning a pure reproduction. Historical events overwhelm efforts to reproduce what has happened. The representations are always traces. The full historical quality of figure 1.8 cannot be flushed out through the photo itself. This is both the dilemma and potential richness of the photo. A variety of intellectual and discursive tools must be applied to the photo in order to move beyond an initial view of it. These tools will dynamically reengage viewers every time they come across the photo, and it is this reengagement that converts the photo into an image. Note that in figure 1.9 representation is at some distance from the more essential tasks of visualization.
The transition from event to photograph suggests a relationship without creating interdependence between history and image. At the same time, the photographs immediately become archival and objects of interpretation quite distinct and different from the moment in which they were taken. Once the photo has an archival quality, a great deal of historical weight is placed upon it (Price 1994). Increasingly, it becomes a vehicle for interpretation and, in so doing, becomes a metaphor for the event. As an archival object its location in time changes, and the web of conversation and discourse around the image grows ever larger. As metaphor, it can only suggest a part of what happened, a trace of how the event came to be and why. This process can be viewed as evolutionary, but it is also ambiguous. The ambiguity comes from the distance between the event and the metaphors used to explain the events that caused the image to be taken in the first place. It is this fluidity and the fact that the image can be used and viewed in any number of different ways that “virtualizes” it (Grau 1999a, 1999b).
A claim can be made that the image has no ontological validity unless and until the archival, metaphorical, and virtual qualities of the image have been fully explored. This moves the process of interpretation beyond the “first” look of an image and requires a shift into the labyrinth of metaphor. This process in no way removes the image from its emotional impact. In fact, a significant part of the communication process remains silent, without words, and is not dependent upon the discourse that is applied to the image. There will always be both tension and contradiction between what is said and what is experienced with images. I would locate the creativity of viewing inside this tension. This is as much a struggle with language that seems inadequate in relation to what has been seen as it is a struggle with the ontological validity of what has been pictured or created by photographers.
Figure 1.10 is a photograph of Auschwitz that was taken in 2002 by the photographer Judith Lermer Crawley.