One thing that hopefully is clear from Part 1 is that this whole study of the idea of context is really about expanding our own knowledge base—personal growth– and not really something that is external to us. When we look at images or are out creating them, this is what we draw on and what influences the way we see. When we then run into someone’s work we don’t seem to be able to engage meaningfully, and have the opportunity to learn more than we “saw” through our own filters, we just add to our personal knowledge base.
I think it should also be clear that we grow our knowledge base through pretty much everything we do. Reading books, listening to music, conversations with people, etc– discovering things we didn’t know through whatever means. All of this expands our worldview and we end up drawing on all of this as we navigate our daily lives—including making and looking at images.
So, in the first installment of this series, we discussed processes that we can undertake when looking at an image to learn things outside of our awareness, or our worldview. But I would contend that we often don’t really use all of the knowledge that we have within us. We have built up mechanisms over time that short-circuit our digging deeper because these short hand mechanisms serve us extremely well in our daily lives. We often have to make quick, intuitive responses as we navigate our world. Most situations don’t require long or deep thought or understanding and many could end up fatal if we didn’t react instinctively.
What I am referring to here is just how the mechanism of human visual perception works. There are two techniques within this process that I want to talk about, one is totally within our control now while the other will take a bit of study to use more effectively. The first is a ridiculously simple concept—almost banal itself and can be easily disregarded for its simplicity—but both are not as easy to always apply as they may seem to be. They take practice.
Due to the differences between them, I will cover the “simple” one first and the other in another installment (to keep this shorter and the techniques segregated). Also, this first one might be more applicable to looking at visual things while it may be counter productive when creating a visual, if we undertake it consciously.
The process of visual perception is pretty much, at its base level, a survival skill. We take in information and through the processes of memory and association; we identify objects and situations that we encounter. We pay attention to the things that are relevant and often dismiss or ignore those things that don’t seem to be relevant at the time—the relevance of something can change based on the situation and is not fixed in most cases. It is also a pretty well documented fact that even when we do find something relevant, we aren’t always really recognizing what it, in fact, is. We make certain assumptions that fit our needs and in most cases, that serves us well in those situations.
I think I can say that we all have encountered the situation where someone will say, “hey, did you see this or that, wasn’t it cool” and we have no recollection of what they are talking about even though we were in the same place at the same time. I know that my wife and I have these sorts of exchanges all the time. I “didn’t” see that and then I go back and yes I did see it, but it didn’t register because it wasn’t relevant to what I was doing at the time. With new information as to what that thing was, or just a new perspective, it gains meaning to me.
The point is that we often jump to certain conclusions about things because of associations we are used to making between things we see and what we know—and those may not always be true. When we look at an image of any sort, those mechanisms don’t just disappear. For instance, I remember walking into the St Louis Art Museum and seeing a painting by one of my favorite painters, Thomas Hart Benton. Benton is a very lyrical painter (also was Jackson Pollack’s early mentor—although I doubt many would surmise that without seeing Pollack’s very early work) and everything in his images seems to exude a sense of being alive. In this particular painting, there were some men cradling wheat and several women bending over stacking it—well, that is what I saw anyway. After a minute of admiration, I walked up to it and really looked, there were no women at all, just the men and stacks of wheat. The style of painting and my own filters had made me see something very different in the form of those stacks of wheat than what was really before me. Looking at it now, it is hard for me to understand why I saw women, but I did. Link to the Painting.
So what is the point here? Essentially that one of the foremost tools at our disposal when we look at a piece of art doesn’t take any training at all—but some attention and practice. We just have to simply, objectively pay attention to and physically describe what we are looking at. This sounds incredibly easy and most think that they already do this, but my experience is that we often don’t see what is actually there but rather translate, through our individual filters, what is there. To be effective at doing this takes a lot of effort and discipline as it isn’t how we do things normally. But doing it can actually increase our awareness of what a piece of artwork may actually be about and define context that may otherwise be out of our awareness. In fact, we should do this with our own work as well.
A good friend who is a designer is always looking at my photographs and coming up with interesting things he sees that I didn’t. Often they add to the richness of the image but were outside of my awareness—they worked and so I didn’t give them much attention as I might something that wasn’t cohesive within the work and also not the main subject or interest point. With years of his doing this with my work, I have gotten a bit more aware of these things myself when I actually look at the work I decide to present.
When I read some of the more advanced writers/critics of our time, on art and photography, they more often than not do just what I suggest here before they launch into any other sort of analysis of an image. They just start calling out objects that they see in an image, relationships between objects, what the relationships, objects etc might represent etc.
For instance, take a look at this image, http://www.kunsthaus.ch/struth/en/exhibition/families/ before you read on any further to get your own take on the image and notice your interpretation of what you see there.
Below is Michael Fried’s description of it at the opening of the chapter on Thomas Struth’s Portraits (in his book “Why Photography matters as Art as Never Before”) before he even gets too much else.
“The Hirose family sits jammed together on a sofa; a tabletop piled with books and pieces of paper fills the right foreground of the image (slightly out of focus because near the picture plane); to the left one sees part of a desk, also piled with books and papers, and some glass-fronted bookcases; to the rear a lamp and telephone rest on on a table but attention is captured by several African sculptures, one a mask hanging on the wall, and to the left of the mask a framed painting of a mask like head in a somewhat cubist style. To the right rear one looks past an open door into another room.”
He then goes on to describe a few more images, all before getting into any of the analysis about the work. What he is doing is actually insuring that the image is being seen and not just interpreting, through his own filters, what is actually in the image. (He does then use these objective observations of the various family portraits to discern clues as to level of sophistication, relationships and other potentially relevant conditions portrayed.)
The importance of doing this objective description is that it makes us stop and consider things as they really are rather than missing or misinterpreting pertinent information by just seeing a family portrait and really not seeing all of those other things that can inform the image.
So, here is a little case study. I have selected this work because I am familiar with it and I also think it is a relatively easy one to decipher by employing this simple technique. Again, before reading further or looking at the link to the series below, describe what you see in the image above and see if you can draw some conclusions about what the work might be about. This piece is from a series of work that was created and exhibited by my wife.
Without any other reference, I think many of us—myself included—might just see some pictures of rocks on first blush. But by describing what is actually in the image, we might begin to see some things that will give us a clue on the intent of the work. Looking at several images, or just the one additional one below, and going through this same process of describing what is actually depicted will quickly reveal that these images have some rather specific and commonly shared traits and are not just random rocks—all exhibit some form of fracturing. The physical inventory we developed by describing what we actually see will reveal that most exhibit some evidence of recent fire—the charred ground/objects and smoke damage. We might also note the bare ground and the Pine needles. By just taking the time to see what is “actually” depicted, one could easily end up with an understanding that they are most likely looking at a phenomenon that was created by fire, which it was. This phenomenon of these rocks fracturing, or exploding, takes place during high temperature fire and can be found only after a recent fire—before they are hidden by new plant growth and/or scattered or buried by other natural events. There may still be some questions but viewing the images is now at a different level than what the cursory look could yield. The process can often lead to a contextual awareness that a casual look and innate response may not have been able to reveal. The link to the series is http://carol.acurso.com/.
Even looking at a single image, this process of describing what is actually there will often suggest that there is something more than what we might first assume.
Again, paying attention to what is really there, and describing, requires a lot of discipline—it isn’t how we go about most of our routine tasks and looking at images can become a very routine activity—especially when we aren’t used to seeing more serious or thoughtful work.
By looking at work in this more precise way–dissecting the physical elements within an image–we can often increase our awareness of the context of an image. It is just one step in the process leading to a more complete understanding of what we are looking at. It also allows us to gain some more objective evidence regarding what we are looking at, something maybe different than that first take gave us.
I admit that I don’t always take this kind of time myself. We will choose when and when not to do this type of activity. But if we are going to really comment on an image, then it should be the first thing we do. I know that in my own art classes, we were assigned to review art work—alone or on field trips—and the first thing we had to do in our written critiques was to fully describe, in detail, what it was that was before us before we started the further process of analyzing the image. The process can make a huge difference between our first gut reaction to something and the intelligent analysis of a work.