Are We Making It All Up?

“Mental models, our conceptual models of the way objects work, or people behave, result from our tendency to form explanations of things…….  Mental models are often constructed from fragmentary evidence with but a poor understanding of what is happening and with a kind of naïve psychology that postulates causes, mechanisms and relationships even where there are none”  (Donald Norman:  The Design of Everyday Things.)

If someone throws a ball and you catch it then you see that as a linear sequence of cause and effect.  Someone throws the ball.  I see it fly through the air.  I move to catch it.  Boom, got it!  But science says, apparently, that it’s not quite so simple.   In the brain’s neural pathways, our visual system makes primary use of the dorsal stream for fast actions and the slower, ventral stream to recognise objects.  So the dorsal stream makes sure that you catch the ball before the ventral stream has seen that it was coming.  If you apply that to photography it seems that it may be possible to press the shutter button a nanosecond before you have seen what you intend to photograph.  That would not by any means be limited to action shots, would it?.  And it may account for that small stab of surprise and then recognition that we get from time to time when we see how one of our photos has come out.


High Art, The Horse, And Photography

Reading Fractured Times by Eric Hobsbawm I find him putting into words something that has often smoked around my brain.  This is the idea that the traditional methods of judging art simply cannot be applied to modern cultural output.  He makes a characteristically striking comparison between traditional bourgeois High Art and the horse.  Once that animal had a very central and useful role in society but that has been displaced by the internal combustion engine.  The horse lives on now only as a luxury for the rich.  Similarly the traditional handmade arts have been made redundant by technological change.  The defining characteristics of creativity now are mass production and mass demand.    What distinguishes this modern creation is its multiplicity – the endless stream of sound, image and text.  Where once the single work would be the unit of attention or critique, what developed in the twentieth century and on was simply endless commentary on that endless production.  It is possible to talk about a photograph in the same way as a painting say, but to what end?  The single work is a thing of the past.  EH does not suggest for a moment that popular culture has no value.  He simply says that it is to Art what the motor car is to the horse.  It creates what he calls an entirely new landscape of the mind.  (This seems to be a remarkably accurate description of the effect of photography.)  In a wonderful phrase EH says that cultural commentators are unwilling to admit this general truth “because no class of people is enthusiastic about writing its own obituary”.  Cracking!


The One Place To Stand

"....the challenge of finding the one place to stand from which the world, compressed into two dimensions within the picture's frame, makes sense of itself."

(Peter Galassi in his monograph for Andreas Gursky's 2001 MoMA exhibition.)

For me, this quote cuts through all the the tangled thickets to a clear space.  What else do you hope for, when you peer through the viewfinder, than that the world for a split second will make sense of itself? 

Here is another quote from the same source.  This time he is talking about looking at a photograph rather than taking one.

"The world can seem richer and more generous in disclosing its meanings when we are freed from its pressing fullness to contemplate its fixed, flattened image on a piece of paper."

I read this as meaning that a photograph is a distillation.  Like a good whisky it is the result of a process and so becomes something more than a mixture of its ingredients.


Adding And Taking Away

"Anybody who has ever tried to arrange a bunch of flowers, to shuffle and shift the colours, to add a little here and take away there, has experienced this strange sensation of balancing forms and colours without being able to tell exactly what kind of harmony it is he is trying to achieve..........   In every such case, however trivial, we may feel that a shade too much or too little upsets the balance and that there is only one relationship which is as it should be."  (Ernst Gombrich: The History of Art)

As ever Gombrich manages to nail a fundamental idea in simple words.  What else are we doing when we squint through the viewfinder at the world out there, than looking for 'that one relationship which is as it should be'?  While there might be a good deal of dispute about what that relationship consists of, would anybody deny that it exists?   It  seems to be some kind of subconscious template that has infinite variety in the world of form.