Photography and how we see

“You don’t see with your eyes, you perceive with your mind” – Gorillaz

Last year I visited the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and spent my entire time with the photography exhibits. One of the exhibits was, in part, about perception. How we view photography, the assumptions we make, and how what we see is not necessarily what is there. Photography is not fact. This is a topic I nerd out on big time. It can be a mind-bending wormhole, reminiscent of the logic 101 class I took in college. Break down a photograph and strip away your preconceived notions of what a photograph is, what exactly it is you are looking at.

I had a photography professor who would hold up a photograph and ask: “What are we looking at?” The answer from the students would be a person, a building, whatever it was. But he would say, “No, this is a photograph of a person.” The picture is not the thing.

What are you perceiving verses what is actually in the image? What are you assuming is right outside the frame? What are you projecting from your own experience onto the image? What are you going through right now in life that informs how you interpret an image? Then there’s the question of what is represented in the photograph. What did the photographer intentionally leave out? What happened a fraction of a second before she took the photograph? What about the second after? How much do you think about these things?

The Getty exhibit I was very fortunate to attend featured the work of photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. The photographs I found most interesting were portraits of royalty. Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn. Wait….these people died long before photography was invented in the mid-1800s. How is this portrait of Queen Victoria dated 1999? How are there these huge, crisp, colorful, very lifelike modern-day portraits of people who must have died long before they were taken? In reality, the images depict wax figures. The artist photographed them with a black background in very low light, which required long exposures, and the result was a very lifelike quality that immediately fooled onlookers. The pose and framing is reminiscent of old master paintings which makes it easier for the viewer to accept them as reality because they follow a convention we are used to seeing. At the same time, just enough is off about them to make us look closer and start to ask questions.

The second set of images depicted wildlife scenes. Up close and personal images of wild, even dangerous animals, in their natural habitat. But something was off here, too. They depict scenes we have seen before, in documentary photographs or movies. Their familiarity plays tricks with the viewer’s mind. We assume our eyes tell us what is there, but really our mind is telling us what it thinks we see. The photographs in this series do not depict live animals, but dioramas at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Again using low light, and cropping out the giveaways like museum panels and museum visitors and eliminating reflections on glass, Sugimoto created these very lifelike images. The giveaway here is more difficult for me to pinpoint. All I can say is it’s a feeling – something very surreal comes out of those prints.

It’s enough to make you question everything else you see (or think you see). But only for awhile, because we are so used to taking what we see at face value, despite whatever we project onto something. And there is just so much out there to see – we can’t possibly analyze and question everything. That’s why our brains automatically do so much interpretation for us. But it’s nice for the reminder every now and then.


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