Monday, March 21, 2011

Observation on Photography

I was looking at a photograph of a turntable on the internet. The photo was part of a online product catalog. The turntable was depicted from directly overhead, and also from the side, at an angle. In both cases the turntable was completely lit from all possible angles. There were no shadows present.

It occurred to me that the product photo needs to show us all the visible aspects of the product with no light effect to hide details. The photo needs to correspond to our abstract notion of what the turntable is. In our minds, the turntable is a collection of specific measurements, materials, colors, etc. To photograph it with light playing across surfaces would complicate the simplicity and abstractness of the mental model, rendering it less useful as a product photograph.

In addition to corresponding to the mental model, the photo also goes to creating our mental model.  This is not as primary a function, though it is plain to see that the prevalence of product photography in mass media has conditioned us to imagine all such items as being perfectly lit, platonically perfect material objects. They seem to exist in some dimension cut off from normal reality. Objects are lit from all sides, and set against completely white backgrounds, such that we can not place them anywhere in our world. In normal reality (nature) objects exist in real light and have spatial relations to other objects and to our own bodies.

So, what is the difference between locating objects in nature versus locating them in a void? Or put another way... what is the difference between a photographic image of this sort, and an artistic image?

It is tempting to suppose that the photographic image only deals with the essentials of the object. For instance, the photograph might show hard, clean lines with no shadows, precise details of the discernible aspects of the object, and also show the objects from points of view (such as overhead or from the side) which are designed to maximize our ability to understand the geometric design underlying it's construction, as well as it's spatial dimensions (height, width, length). And so on.

A product catalog photograph focuses on those aspects which are easily organized and retained in the mind. In the case of a product catalog, the things we retain in our mind are a list of specifications, and product imagery that is easy to relate to this list of specifications.

Clearly then, a product catalog image is in the service of an abstracted list of specifics. The object is stripped down to "those essentials" which direct our attention to those specific correspondences. But a list of specifics in our mind is not an artistic criteria. Or at least we can say that the type of artistic criteria it is, is conceptual... NOT perceptual.

Our notion of fine art imagery derives from images made to correspond to perceptual criteria. When perception is the criteria, that which is considered "essential" changes. Suddenly the shadows matter, and the relations to other objects and composition. Natural perspective (linear and atmospheric) suddenly are relevant, and the object is subject to modes of representation that correspond it NOT to how we think about it, but to how we see about it.

It might be argued that representational art is based every bit as much on a mental model as is conceptual art. We are told that representational art rests upon the science of perception and of the techniques of creating illusions. Since these types of things are conceptual in nature, it is asserted that representational art is really no different than conceptual art.

But the conceptions of representational art (i.e., the conceptual tools used to create it) exist to aid the mind in understanding what it sees, so as to produce those representations.. They are directed toward nature as the object. The images created are focused on perceptual nature (that which we see). Even though the artist employs conceptual tools to understand and represent nature, this does not mean that nature is not the object. These conceptual tools aim at some external object as their focus.

The conceptions of conceptual art focus on the mind as the object. The visible elements of nature that are used to represent conceptual states are not the source from which those states have arisen, and they have no particular connection to them. Typically, the imagery of conceptual art has more the status of a signifier... a sign that refers to some idea.

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