ON SEEING

David, Florence, Italy

 

When you were born you could not really see at all.  Your eyes were still growing ––  only half the size of your parents. You came out of darkness into a world of dazzling light, color, tone, texture, shapes, and motion.  It would take about two months before you could recognize fully your parents faces.

At first, the world appears to be a bright and blurry mix of patterns and blobs.   According to the American Optometric Association, babies “are not born with all the visual abilities they need in life . . . they need to learn how to use the visual information the eyes send to their brain in order to understand the world around them and interact with it appropriately.”

When Life Begins

In April 1965, Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson published a stunning photographic essay in LIFE magazine featuring the beginnings of life. Nilsson’s cover image of an 18-week-old human fetus used revolutionary image technology to capture a moment “that allowed the world to see what it had never before witnessed.”

As we grow we acquire the skills to survive in the world –– depth perception and ability to focus and track objects better.

Human beings have always tested the limits of vision, from landing a fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a thunderstorm, hitting a 95-m.p.h. fastball, to sinking a 60-foot put into a 4.25-inch hole with a 1.6-inch ball on a golf course.

Weighing slightly more than 3 pound, the neurons in our brains generate more than 10 quadrillion calculations every second.  Research shows the human brain can process an image in 13 milliseconds ––fast enough to return a serve from tennis star Serena Williams at 125-miles per hour. Together, the human eye and brain are by far the most complex organs in the body.

Donis A. Donis contends, “Seeing is a separate step in visual communication. Seeing is the process of absorbing information into the nervous system through the eyes, the sense of sight” (A Primer for Visual Literacy, p. 20).

At the same time  John Berger suggests, “It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.”  In this way, we can say that visual communication begins with awareness.

On one hand, the act of seeing is concerned with the physiological and biological aspects of the visual process in relationship to cognitive abilities of the brain. On the other hand, the act of seeing ccan also focus on subjective experience such as emotions, cultural tastes, attitudes, and beliefs.

In 1958, Frederick Franck went to Central Africa to work as a medical missionary for Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer, a theologian and physician. Before leaving for Lambaréné, Gabon, Franck, a native of the Netherlands, purchased new cameras to document his experiences. After just a few weeks of making pictures, however, Franck put the camera away, forever.  What the surgeon, philosopher, and artist

had discovered was making pictures  with a camera actually prevents us from really seeing and truly appreciating what we are pointing the camera at.  For Franck, “The glaring contrast between seeing and looking-at the world around us is immense; it is fateful. Everything in our society seems to conspire against our inborn human gift of seeing” (Zen and the Art of Seeing).

Franck adds, “We have become addicted to merely looking-at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking-at the world—through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, microscopes, stereoscopes—the less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others.”

For Rudolf Arnheim, seeing requires “an interplay between properties supplied by the object and the nature of the observing subject. This objective element in experience justifies attempts to distinguish between adequate and inadequate conceptions of reality” (1954, 1972. p 5).

Complex interactions between external visual stimulus and prior knowledge, goals, and expectations are brought into play through visual perception. Even so, looking at something and really understanding its full meaning are different issues.

What we call reality begins with our senses ––  seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.  The physical environment we experience with our senses is one dimension of living, but we create the outside world our minds.

We cannot separate the mental processes that accompany what our eyes take in. In fact, images are not created in the eye at all, but rather are constructed in different areas of the brain.

Visual perception is a way of explaining the complex interactions between the eye and brain. What we know about the visual system today   

about the act of seeing that . There is no escaping that the visual experience is mix of physiological, biological, cognitive, and mental processes –– all of which occur in milliseconds. The dictionary defines visual perception as the ability to interpret the surrounding environment by processing information that is contained in visible light.

However, before interpretation visual messages, we have to understand how the visual system works. First and foremost, “seeing is not always believing” as the adage goes. For David Minger, “Visual perception is easily tricked, and in the legal system eyewitness accounts are notoriously untrustworthy.” **

For Ira Hyman,  “People are horrible eyewitnesses. We misperceive things. Our memories are limited. We create false memories in response to misleading suggestions. We reconstruct our memories. People frequently choose somebody in a police line-up even when the culprit isn’t there. We are victims of social pressure from friends, family, and authority figures.” **

According to the Innocence Project, “Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70 percent of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide.”

 

 

 

 

 

THE CHURCH OF THE NEARLY DEPARTED

Out on the bottoms along the Missouri after a day of picking green beans.

The flood of migration to the Great Plains in the middle years of the 19th century is a tattered footnote – an age where people looking for the Promised Land nodded and winked to one another and went on through as fast as ants on honey. Northeast Kansas, for the better part of the century, until the railroad came, was a pit stop — a place to regroup before the long trudge across the vast frontier. This is where, for such a short time, the Pony Express came through, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad started, Lincoln campaigned in 1861, Amelia Earhart was born on a bluff here where Gatling, living to the north in 1857, invented the the precursor to mechanical death, the Gatling  gun, and people come from all over to visit haunted houses.

John Ball, in his 70s, a farmer,  crumpled and dust covered, enjoyed   his morning coffee with friends at the local McDonald’s nearly every day where they complained about politicians and hemorrhoids, but not at the same time. Giving himself an hour he was  out to the fields by 7:30. On occasion, when times were better, for farmers; married to the weather and grain prices as they were, he would go to Mass. The Church of the Nearly Departed with its interior looking like a wax museum featured brightly colored plaster statues of angels, saints, and altar boys placed strategically on either side of the nave to evoke a feeling of balance and symmetry. The small crowd of faithful filed in, subdued. A woman near the front began to recite the Sorrowful Mysteries. Ball took his place toward the back  with his holstered pliers and cell phone hanging from a thick leather belt. When the priest, a large jovial man in his forties entered he sang in a robust baritone, Here I am Lord;  Ball; on cue, stood thumbing through the hymnal for the words.

“Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

Ball enjoyed listening, rarely joining in, with the exception of the Ave Maria, which he had memorized by heart as  a child.

The Mass ended like a fire drill, leaving the organist and the custodian to tidy up.

For Ball hope and hardship were the same thing and Mass was the pause in between, where his mind cleared and his soul reunited with God, even if for so short a time.

On the eastern edge of the Plains, where the turgid Missouri meandered North and then West for another 2,000 miles, Ball passed his time, made due and tried to forget the past – his wife’s death; his children to the cities years ago. He learned hard. The daily grind of running the farm, dealing with creditors and the extremes of blistering summers in August and the  rigid Arctic blast of February, had left him fallow.

There were lazy days  But, mostly Ball knew only the work – fixing fence, birthing calves, and the endless hours behind the wheel of his thirty-year-old John Deere.  On the days where boredom and putting off paying bills were inescapable, his mind drifted to 1968, the year he spent humping a machine gun and a ruck sack through the jungles of Vietnam. He was a patriot just like the other farm boys from Kansas, but he came home; for better or worse.

Ball pressed an arthritic hand upward against his unshaven and weathered cheek as his rusting Chevy pickup bounced along the crushed gravel round. The 1970 Chevy Longbed, with the broken odometer and bent bumpers, could have been a metaphor for Ball’s life if there were anyone around to take notice. On the floor of the truck Ball had kept a .22 Winchester Rim Fire rifle, a pair of fence pliers as old as Joseph Glidden’s barbed wire, and a six-pack of warm Hamm’s beer.

He reached into his dirty striped overalls and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. Steering the truck with one hand he glanced at the notice, tossed it aside, and reached to the floorboard for a beer. The can snapped opened in Ball’s meaty hand.

It had been a brutally hot summer. The corn, stunted and burned, would probably pay out only half of its original value, he thought. The beans faired little better. Ball had seen this all before, countless times before. The boom or bust fate of farmers hardened the soul like callused hands.  And then there were the freed slaves who fled north to seek a new life in the West after the Civil War. Ball’s neighbors to the south, on more fertile soil, were Black, they has become part of the land, a resolute and  scrappy bunch; their history all but forgotten.

He was born on his great grandfather’s kitchen table in December 1946.  It just happened. His mother, alone, waiting for the family to come in for supper. She shook violently at the sink just as the truck pulled up. Then, when instinct kicked in,  she sat on the edge of the knotty pine table and pushed. Another baby Ball was born, the fifth of ten: a sacred number, 10, the wheel of fortune, a deck of  tarot cards, and bowling pins. Five is also good: five fingers, five toes – all practical things like Ball himself.

His neighbor Joyce called him at two in the morning. Ball was startled. The last time someone had called at that hour was when Marlene died a few years back. The cancer, as he called it then, consumed her slowly.

He hated to be reminded.

“John?” the voice on the other end of the line asked. “It’s Joyce,” coercing a response. “John, someone is driving through your fields. A car.” There was more silence as Ball tried to think of something to say. “Call the Sheriff,” he said . “Would you mind. I’ll take a look.” More silence.  “Thanks Joyce,” he winced as his phone etiquette was about on par with his other social graces.

Can’t be local,  Ball thought, as he instinctually grabbed the Winchester and and the  XL50 Maglite his daughter sent him for Christmas last year. The practical child, Ball took note.

Rooster, his nearly blind but still breathing retriever waited at the door. “com’n with?” Ball winked at the dog half expecting him to answer. That’s the best thing about dogs, they can’t speak, but you can almost always guess what’s on their minds.  Rooster bolted through the screen door long overdue for repair and bounced into the back of the truck with a thump, followed quickly by a yelp. “Settle on down old man,” Ball cracked.

After pumping the gas a few times, the truck sputtered and groaned to life. Ball found the clutch. Where the hell was he going? Joyce never said, but since she saw the headlights he figured he could drive around out to the south 40. The farm had been divided years ago into parcels to accommodate the family trust. Ball got a patchwork of 240 acres and the house, but the land performed well enough to support four generations of Balls.

254th road made a sharp bend toward the river and then cut back north near the edge of Ball’s farm.  In the distance Ball could faintly see the radiating flashes of the Taft County Sheriff’s Ford Explorer making its way from the other direction. Then Ball could hear the sirens.

David, “Jonesy” Jones had been with the Sheriff’s office for less than three months and he was eager to prove himself, maybe be sheriff someday.

Ball shook head and grinned. “New kid, Sirens, mad cows, 2 o’clock in the morning. All Makes sense.” Ball stomped on the accelerator, but  truck just rattled in resignation. Ball saw the car first. It was stuck in a trench and nearly invisible under a canopy of corn that was within a month of harvesting.

Two teens emerged through the rows to stand on the side of the dirt road. Rooster rushed off the back of the truck to greet them with in a near perfect belly flop.

Deputy Jones rolled up along side with his siren wailing and light flashing. Ball was struck by both the sound and the light at the same time as the radio dispatch whiny staccato blared in the background.   “I’ll take it from here.. License and registration… insurance… and what do you think you were doing out here,” the deputy said with bravado. “Take what from here?” Ball replied. a little annoyed already at the officer’s  heavy-handed countenance. “I’m handling the case,” Jones said. “Of course you are,” Ball said  with a bit of Deja Vu clouding his mind. “But shouldn’t you ask if these folks are okay? “Shouldn’t you find out if there was anyone else in that car out there?” Ball waited a few minutes and returned to the cab of his truck where he sipped on a warm beer. He watched quietly  as Jones took driver’s information and shuffled back to his patrol car to inform dispatch.

Jones returned with a citation pad, just as Ball stepped in again. “What you got there officer?” Jones resented Ball’s confidence and calmness. “Looks like  reckless driving and criminal trespass for starters.” “How’s Tom doing these days?” Ball asked about Sheriff Tom Willis who has been in and out of the hospital lately. Willis was about Ball’s age and also a Vietnam veteran.

Jones ignored him, but in the silence that followed Ball took control. “I’m not gonna press charges, officer Jones,” he said.

“This is my land and my insurance company will settle up with these two in the morning for the damage they did to my crop… that is after they get that car out of my field.”

Ball reached out to shake Jones’ hand, they both smiled and left it at that. After Deputy Jones retreated to his patrol car, Ball walked the couple over to his truck, where they sat quietly while he and Rooster went out into the field to turn off the car, which was still running. “All good?” Ball said. “Where we headed?”

It was raining when the woman from the insurance company climbed up the wooden steps of his front porch in heals. Ball sized her up as someone from the office who hadn’t been out much, but his persistence and “don’t mess with me” tone of voice on the phone must have paid off.  And here she was. Maybe late forties, early fifties, he thought. She had a firm handshake, sandy brown hair, thin, professional looking; everything you’d  expect someone to look like if you in town. but out here. No. No raincoat, umbrella, boots – probably not a good day for sizing up the damage from the joyriders.

She handed him her card. Marcia Loveless, Farm and Ranch Insurance, Claims Adjuster.

“Thanks,” Ball said looking past her and into the ribbon of rain coming down off the roof. “I was really hoping the rain would hold off.”

“Me too,” said Marcia. “Maybe you can give an idea of what we are talking about here.”

Ball gestured for her to come into the hallway as he pulled an old pair of his deceased wife’s muck boots and a raincoat out of the closet. Things hadn’t changed much for Ball in the house. Somethings were best left the way they always were.

Dodging puddles, with Rooster in close pursuit, Marcia Loveless, the insurance woman and Ball climbed into his truck and they headed south a mile or two. Ball loved the rain, even if it meant not getting the claim in on time. Ball turned to look at Rooster who had climbed in the jump seat behind them. “You stink,” Ball said. Marcia shot him a look. “Oh, not you, the dog,” Ball recovered. She smiled. Even though she was dress for the desk, she grew up on a farm in Iowa and knew her way around animals and equipment.  “Maybe you can just get us close without getting too deep in,” Marcia said.  Ball turned on to another, even muddier lane looking for a better view of the fields, when his flip phone chimed. “Hello, this is John Ball,” he said. ”  It was Joyce, the neighbor who had called him a week earlier about a car driving across his field. “Hi Joyce, how’s this rain treating you down there?” he said. Ball knew Joyce as  someone who loved to share gossip, especially about people in church.

to be continued…….

 

ESSAY ON SEEING II.

Salisbury Mills, New York (1978), Easter Sunday
Photo Dennis Dunleavy

Acknowledging the disembodied nature of past acquaintances,
all those missed opportunities blown. The camera as mistress revealing secrets of my ambitions. I have always struggled when someone asks me
to explain the meaning of a photograph. How do you describe a dream?
There are the things we recognize and are familiar with, but the missing dimension is the immutable truth of what enters the lens and is fixed in space.

Is there a difference you know. Looking and seeing are not the same.

Between looking and seeing?

Artist and philosopher Frederick Franck thinks there is. For Franck, “We have become addicted to merely looking-at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking-at the world—through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, microscopes, stereoscopes—the less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others.”

Photographers must learn to see the world in unique ways through framing, timing, focus, and vantage point. In addition, we must learn to see the world so that the viewer feels invited to participate in the seeing. The viewer’s mind, according to Jonathan Bayer (1977), is stimulated, amused, intrigued, and even assaulted by what the photograph can offer up, real or imagined. As Caroline Brothers (1977) contends, “Meaning inheres not in the photograph itself, but in the relationship between the photograph and the matrix of culturally specific beliefs and assumptions to which it refers to” (p.23).

The photograph is a social and cultural artifact. All photographs convey meaning by informing and entertaining us. However, meaning does not reside in the image itself but in human interactions and communicative processes by which it becomes embedded within our culture. Images appeal to both our intellect as well as our emotions (Robert Coles). The power of the image is in the meaning it has for us through the context in which it is made and presented to us. For Bill Jay (2000), “A photograph is the end product of someone caring about something “out there.” The best photographs exude this caring attitude in a manner which is not definable but which is very evident.” Context is the value and significance of the elements as they relate to the informational needs and cultural tastes of an audience at a given time in history.

 

Frame by Frame Image Editing

The world’s fastest camera can take 36.7 million frames per second, 350 million new photos are posted on Facebook each day, and the average number of shots in a movie is 1,045. Everyday we are bombarded with more than 34 gigbytes of information, enough data that would burn out the average computer within a week.

A great deal of attention is paid to the technical and artistic production of images in photography and film, while the importance of editing seems to be noticed when it is poorly done. The truth is, that is the way it should be since an editor’s job is to take inconceivable amounts of information and turn it into a coherent whole.

Editing is a process of arranging, revising, and preparing images for the screen or print.  In this instance, editing still and moving images means to  turn our attention on the  individual elements, which create an larger impression of a  whole scene. As in Gestalt psychology, the whole is always greater than the  individual elements that are contained within the frame.

For example, although antiquated, the practice of making contact sheets, small thumbnail images of a shoot, is still quite relevant in learning how to edit images – frame by frame.  Not so long ago, film was inspected with a lupe, a small magnifying glass used to examine the qualities of an image or frame.

 

 

The greatest benefit of the lupe, however, is not just close inspection – frame by frame- but how the tool  forces the photographer or cinematographer to slow down. Digital technologies provide many advantages over analog/linear processes

, but they also make us misread image by settling on the first thing we think is good. The prudent  selection of an image is determined by the  ability to recognize subtle nuisances –  light, lines, textures, tones – that 

reveal something about who we are, what we believe or value.  Editing is a refinement of reconstiting a vision of the world that conforms to time, memory and the subjective experience we encounter every waking moment of the day.

 

Alhough we love watching movies, shows on TV, or thumbing through National Geographic, but unfortunately we mostly just look or watch a incessant stream of representations without realizing how  the visual experience influences the complex conditions of knowing the world.

If we were to explore a common thread between editing different types of images, it would have to be the emotional impact pictures, still or in movies, have on the viewer or audience. Research reveals how emotional responses to what we see not only captures our attention but also draws us toward simliar objects. Emotions have both physical and behavioral components that can either be negative visual experiences or positive ones.  In order words emotions affect how people perceive the world around them (Ling & Carrasco, 2006). When we speak of editing we are really referring to the editor’s intent to motivate others through representing the world according to aesthetic conventions, cultural tastes, or personal values.

Human beings respond to visual stimuli instinctually. Ravé  Metha (2013), author of a series of graphic novels on Nicola Tesla, believes that we are living  in a hyper-visual culture  — a time in which a tsunami of more than 500 million images are produced and shared across social media and the Internet daily. 

For Metha, “Kids today are growing up with apps like Snapchat and Instagram where all they see are pictures wih few little words beneath them. But these pictures tell a thousand words to these kids, it tells them a story. Then they will scroll tens of these pictures in less than a minute and essentially have just digested 10,000 words of information in a short amount of time.”