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Monday, May 3, 2010

The mind's eye (and the eye's mind)

People involved with photography speak of the "imaging chain," by which they mean the sequence that begins with whatever is front of the lens and — depending on how finely they want to slice this sequence — continues through the lens to the capture medium (film or digital sensor or whatever else there may be — tofu or the green grass growing on my neighbor's lawn will work also, or so I'm told) and thence to some kind of processing (chemical or digital or baking or fermenting or watering) in order finally to arrive at an end product which is (today; usually) either a print or a slide or an image displayed on a monitor.

Ninth Avenue & 32nd Street, Northwest Corner

Of course, as photographers and others also recognize, this is just the technology part of the chain. The whole chain includes at the beginning the photographer and his or her "eye", intentions, and even prior experience and knowledge of photography and photographs and many other things as well.

And at the other end of the chain, there is the viewer of the photograph, his or her "eye," interests (the counterpart to the photographer's intentions), and prior experience and knowledge of photography and photographs and all those other things too.

I'd like for a moment to leave the technology part of the chain out of it, to take it completely for granted, and spend a little time musing about the photographer and the viewer, their "eyes" and their intentions, interests, prior experience, and so on.

By "eye" of course, I don't mean the physiological eye, though that's undeniably necessary. And I'd like to abbreviate "intentions, interests, prior experience, etc." to a single word: "mind."

In these terms, the "eye" is everything that is constitutive of seeing what is seen, and thus includes the photographer's or viewer's mind as well.

So that there's really no difference between the mind's eye and the eye's mind — the fusion of eye and mind in this sense is total, unavoidable, and inescapable.

And what of it?

I take it as given, but also regard as an empirical truth (until proven otherwise), that we never stop learning, that we are always learning, every millisecond that we're alive we're learning. Of course, as time goes on, much of what we're learning is "just" reinforcement  of what we've learned before (though usually with at least subtle differences).

So with every image that we see, or for that matter with every act of seeing, well-attended to or not, the image of what is seen is added to the cumulative result of what we have learned: added, that is, to the eye's mind or the mind's eye (whichever way you prefer to think of it).

A person who has looked seriously at 9,999 photographs is seeing the 10,000th photograph so to speak through the aggregate "lens" of the prior 9,999; and that 10,000th photograph will look quite different in another ten or twenty years when seen again, this time through the aggregate lens of, say, 99,999 photographs instead of a mere 9,999.

And this is true for both the photographer and the viewer.

If anything is communicated from the photographer via the photograph (and all the intervening links in the chain) to the viewer, then it must be because the photographer and the viewer have enough experience in common, have similar enough minds' eyes or eyes' minds for this communication to take place.

Is this the source of photography's real "magic"? Or the sense that we often have that there is something "magical" about it?

What I mean is, the photograph — the print, the slide, the image on the monitor — holds out the promise that there is something in common between us, the viewers, and the photographer, something that can be shared — an interest, an intention: a deliberate act of meaning — across thousands of miles and, by now, nearly 200 years.

But, you object, you could say the same thing about writing, or painting, or music, or even a folk tale handed down orally from generation to generation.

Yes, indeed. You could — and I would.

More, to quote James Joyce, in "tobecontinueds tale."

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