thinking with pictures – metaphors that let you see the subject from new angles

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Only skin deep – fragile atmosphere, complexion, and human language or culture

The thin shadow visible in this Earthscape, taken from orbit, courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, shows what little separates us earthlings from what is beyond. Skin-deep though the atmosphere is, all else depends on this. The same seems to be true of human variation across the continents. According to best estimates of numbers of generations of humans to date and the degree of genetic natural/background level of mutations it is possible to calculate that the 6 billion people currently alive come from a breeding pool of about 1,000 who survived some sort of astronomical catastrophe. As a result, beneath the surface of skin and hair, people are practically identical*. And yet so much of social navigation, aspiration and discrimination hinges on those surface cues of “are you like me; are you from around here, or not.” Similar to this shallow layer of atmosphere and of human phenotypes is the fragile layer of words that people use to characterize their social landscape and life chances, as well as the physical world they inhabit. Figures of speech and painting pictures using metaphoric brushes allows people to transfer a set of relationships and patterns from one field of meaning onto another. In the fleeting lifetime of a spoken string of syllables that evaporate into the surrounding waves of sound, the hearer’s worldview can be reinforced, shaken or altogether be expanded. Yet what could be more fragile and skin-deep that the rhythms and textures coming from mouth, tongue, teeth and vocal chords. Words, bodies, and heavenly bodies all depend so much on such tenuous layers!

*see also the 3-part set of short interviews from people from all walks of life in 60 countries by Yann Arhuis-Bertrand, Human

from http://flic.krpax4Z2k

This barrier from space to hold our moisture and oxygen: a green skin.


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The blue hour versus full, glorious light

scenes from the blue hour

illustrations of crepuscular light

The crepuscular light after sundown and before artificial lighting takes over causes one’s eyes to relax to almost maximum aperture. Some animals, like dogs, are equipped to see especially well in this in-between time of light, neither fully lighted nor purely dark. Browsing sets of images with the keyword ‘crépuscule’ (French for crepuscular, and more frequently tagged than the English) yields all sorts of scenes. Better than images, though, is the real thing: to walk predawn or in twilight at the close of dusk. What makes this time magical? Perhaps it is the fleeting sense of possibilities; as if history, future and present were freely flowing into each other. Perhaps it is the relaxed eyeball muscles to open the iris (or does the physiology work the other way: constriction pulls open the iris and the resting state is closed down?). Or perhaps it is the dynamic range that is so much reduced compared to broad daylight when the separation between shadow and highlight is so extreme.

On the other hand, browsing a collection of scenes soaked in glorious rays of sunlight or indeed walking through such a space in body, there are certain appeals of beauty, too. What makes these moments out of the ordinary capable of stopping you in your tracks to marvel at the scene? Perhaps it is the big dynamic range and the enhanced separation of foreground, middle ground and background. Everything appears more vivid and with added 3-dimensionality, compared to normal. Perhaps it is the rarity of so much solar power when usually there are clouds or obstruction to one’s view. Perhaps it is the sheer number of photons filling the space. Whatever it is, pictures that communicate the quality of light that is brilliant, stunning or glorious will continue to attract attention, whether amplified by post-production manipulation or true to the original scene and minimally touched after clicking the button. [screenshots credit on 30 Jan 2015] CODA: Consider the music analogy. Quiet music (analog to crepuscular light) causes a person to pay attention and savor what little is there, but bright and bold music (analog to a day of glorious light) engages the whole body in physical ways instead of cerebral or poetic ways. The pulse causes muscles to twitch and juices to flow in the dramatic medium, rather than the more delicate voice of the subdued strains. Likewise in the arena of food: plain fare has subtle charm, but riotous concentration of spices also can cause inspiration.

glorious light

illustrations of brilliant, glorious light

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“I see” versus “I can’t picture that”

Visual processing occupies about 20-25% of the human brain. Clearly it is a major modality for interacting with the spatial and social environment. And, of course, it is a leading place to satisfy one’s urge to seek out or to express beauty. So we commonly say (in English, at least) “I see” or “I can see what you are saying” or “I don’t see things eye to eye with you.”

image of human angle of view

human eyes’ angle of view

In the course of learning something new, normally we accumulate several pieces of a puzzle before we grasp the overall shape of an argument or comprehend the meaning of something. In other words knowledge is built from accumulated information and small distinctions and data points. Contrast this with the photography sequence: either you stumble upon an eye-catching scene (reactive or receptive to conditions; sense of recognition) or a play of light; or you go forth with premeditation to stalk beauty in places you have known or suspect will yield good results (event, context of action, landscape and time of season or time of day). In other words, in the photographic mind “I see” appears fully formed, not an incremental series of pieces that leads to an “a-ha” realization of the whole meaning.

So the figure of speech “I see” is the culmination of growing knowledge and the resulting final awareness. But the photographic experience is to see the whole scene appear fully formed, to recognize the significance of the composition as viewed, or with an artful touch to adjust one’s position and focal length to faithfully capture something of the scene’s character and expressive of the image stirred in one’s mind.

We pass through our day and when the light is right or the elements of a mental composition are in conjunction, then we pull our camera from its resting place and capture the scene in the moment. Truly we can say “I see” at the release of the shutter.

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Seeing what’s behind the picture

sunlight late in the afternoon

late afternoon golden winter light

Browsing the deluge of carefully composed and produced images at or one of the user groups like “panoramas” or “landcape” [sea and landscapes] gives the impression that these visual feasts are static features that a person can revisit. But part of the process of reading photographs is to remember three things. (1) This is a frozen moment captured and circulated; that just before the shutter was released things may have looked different and that just after the image was captured the elements may have moved, as well. (2) Outside the image frame is a wider context. Perhaps this distracts from the composition, but nevertheless the wider context is worth holding in mind when savoring what is presented within the four sides of the frame. (3) There is historicity: specific time, season and calendar date are worth knowing so that the image is not purely an anonymous abstraction. While the play of shape, texture, depth and composition may form a pleasing tableau, nonetheless these subject all belong to the field of space-time constraints and are subject to various restrictions, trajectories and purposes.

panorama with cloudscape

Galveston Bay – summertime

In other words, the illusion of stability and beauty of light is communicated by still photographs. But to fully know the moment captured, one must supply the missing parts: (1) the timeflow before and after the shutter was snapped, (2) what lies outside the field of view composed, and (3) the specific place and time, including the relevant cultural footnotes or significata and the forces of the natural environment at play in the moment, too.

[cloudscape: Louis Vest at flickr creative commons]