“nothing more than silver crystals arranged on paper or, in the case of digital photography, nothing more than a concatenation of 1s and 0s resident on a hard drive. Yet, when it’s a portrait, a person looking back out at us from a photograph, we could believe that the photograph has captured something of the sitter’s essence – something of the stuff that is in his head…we are programmed by natural selection to project ourselves into the world…we want to know where we end and the world begins…where that line is. It’s the deepest problem of epistemology”
–Errol Morris, Believing is Seeing–
Disabused of nonsense, I examine the paper. Silver crystals or programmed numerals, eh? Both I cannot see. What I see is an arrangement of darker and lighter on a grey scale, constituted by hundreds of gradations and variances. I see whites and blacks bastardized into shapes and forms making up the content of an 17”x22” piece of archivally produced watercolor paper, matted on one side. There the code has adhered.
My looking I will say “automatically” seeks resemblance in the shapes and differences I perceive to anything I may have perceived sensually before. It reports “rounded,” “textured,” “wrinkled,” “object” and “background” (notice three dimensions – space, time and substance) without question. But the paper is strictly rectangular, its surface has a subtle grain, but by no means “wrinkled or textured,” and it is patently two-dimensional, a flat plane.
But perception had bypassed even these errors and already concluded “head,” “eyes,” “face,” “mouth,” “nose,” “ears,” “clothing.” Beyond that “corduroy,” “shirt,” “doll,” “cracks” and “sand” or “dirt,” “young,” “infant,” perhaps even “toy.” Far cries from variations of color on pulped and compressed organic matter. And a radical leap from fact or “truth” (something corresponding to reality)!
Intelligent and rigorous as I propose to be, I am clearly susceptible to grand illusions. In fact I find myself incapable of convincing my mind or senses of the truth of the matter. I stopped myself short of providing name or narrative to what I perceived, but nothing held me from taking it as far as gendering a figure!
This “light-writing” – how do I read it? Clearly I read the contents of my own brain onto it. This piece of paper littered with variables of grey becoming a full-blown imagined, invented physical object in a context, instantaneously with it coming into view!
If this doesn’t prove me religious or mystical or addicted to fictions and fantasies, it indisputably labels me as primed from groundless faith and beggars my “rationality.” I take the bait, compose a scene and conjure an experience.
“To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it…it’s the revenge of the intellect upon art…upon the world!…to interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings’…it is to turn the world into this world…it is the modern way of understanding something”
-Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation–
And did I deplete it? Instead of seeing the open subtle radiance of what was there before me, I took to deconstructing, categorizing and delimiting it. “Forming” or “fabricating” it toward narrower and narrower possibilities (allowances?). As if I were arbiter, de-Terminator, as it were.
Show me light and dark and I’ll dismantle, disentangle and simplify it down to specifics, something bite-size. But not available specifics, no, not the particulars there before me – in themselves – open and presenting – no, not those free existing presences, but to particulars I can re-cognize, things I am ready to see. What something in me wants to see, familiar or unfamiliar.
My socioeconomically-shaped brain saw light and dark dusted together and secured to a surface and re-presented it to myself in ways that supported or validated my trained and chosen view of things – a doll’s head wrecked from use or disuse, floating free as an object within a surround. I lied to myself to support what I’d accepted in belief, what reassured me. To make an order I could not understand into a reordering that I could.
This masterfully selected and developed photograph arrive to my body unnamed, with no captions or text, no intention or meaning. It presents a photographer’s interest – something caught in a person’s perception at a certain moment of time, an arrangement of world that we say “spoke” to him, albeit without language or sound.
The photographer’s eye then detached and defined, from a context endless in all directions, this frame of materials, of sight, and tore it away at just these parameters, from just this angle, and recorded it – took it. From there he expanded the size of what he saw, magnified it and brought it through darkness and an elemental chemical stew into light. He scanned the result, still looking for more, perhaps even seeing more than could literally be seen.
Further affecting this discreet tiny rip of the reality of the world, he manipulated it carefully, painstakingly, revealing and creating ever more extant artificiality, unto his own personal, private and unknowable satisfaction. At that point he produced a new object of matter into the world that we call a “print.” Jetting countless points of ink with the aid of a mechanical device onto hearty paper created for paints, he concocted (remember – always in tandem with machines, ever relational, in flux, at risk and imminently malleable) this single variable fingernail-thick object reflecting light to our eyes: a portrait photograph.
The elaborate efforts of a human at one end of an emblematic chain, toward the elaborate efforts of another human being at the other…a something we may, given incalculable and mind-bogglingly enormous situationally-specific conditions, come to encounter as “art.” And it is this I am declaiming to you here, with something very much like a religiously fervent belief.
N Filbert 2011