thinking with pictures

Leave a comment

Vision and memory as a still images, not moving images

Credit, sampling of pages taken from Battle for Korea : A History of the Korean Conflict by Robert J. Dvorchak

In looking at a friend’s portrait photo or a stranger from a news event, we take in the details and the overall image to create a moment of recognition or memory place to attach other information and images in a cumulative, longitudinal process. In other words, much as the visual experience of moving images is created by recording 24 or 48 frames per second (the cinematic flowing feeling) or at 30 f.p.s. ( the TV broadcast rate in USA and other NTSC countries; 25 fps in countries with the PAL or SECAM video standard). At its root are still images, but by skipping from frame to frame the experience of motion is effected. The analogy to the eye movements on a page of text (but not on an electronic screen of text, where scanning motion is more pronounced) comes to mind; that is, one’s eye jumps from point to point, gulping whole chunks of text at a time – not letters, syllables or words, but entire phrases or possibly paragraphs. Due to this episodic series of static points adding up to a complete image, something perceptual happens to one’s sense of time; namely, we view individual still frames in the “continuous present,” much like the author’s voice in some classic ethnographic accounts of faraway societies in which “the xyz tribe hunts in December, migrates to winter grounds in January, and does not return to their encampments until the following April,” for example. Readers are left to imagine this description as being true and ongoing from the time of the fieldnotes to the moment of publication to the day that the reader opened the pages to read, and yet the whole span may be a generation, a century or even longer between initial observation and the present reading experience. Just so of still photos, the “continuous present” seems to be in effect, whether sepia toned image of the 1800s, a Korean War battlefield scene at front lines or in rear areas, or snapshots from one’s office party last week. Viewers a left with the impression that these individual compositions are eternally acccurate then and now. Furthermore, by viewing a series of the images, as in a photo essay or abundantly illustrated text like the example included here from Dvorchak’s story of the Korean War (at least the United States segment of the allied forces), then viewers tend to compile the multiple frames into a larger whole, something like the Frames Per Second that go into moving pictures that play back the frames to give the impression of “live” conditions captured and relived in the viewers’ minds. In summary, both the appearance of an ongoing, “continuous present” (or fraction of a second, frozen in time) and the appearance of moving pictures caused by playing back the group of discrete still images are distortions of some bigger perceptual reality in which the frozen moment was followed by some other moment that was not photographed; and another after that, on and on up to the present such that the reader who opens a book of images is seeing not a current visual likeness, but one in which a series of events lead up to the moment of shutter release, and a series of events followed the moment of shutter release. Stating this flow of time seems obvious, and yet how easily the viewers’ minds are tricked into the feeling of a continuous present, unchanged from shutter release. Only when confronting the source location and then looking at the image captured at that place sometime in the past will one sharply see the lie “frozen in time.” Armed with that knowledge, one can go forward engaging in recent or very old photographs and fill in some of the events that connect moment of capture to today. This same confrontation happens outside of photographic perception, too, as when revisiting a childhood memory location later in life and matching memory to today’s impression; events may have altered the physical fabric of the place, or even if physically unchanged, then one’s life experience of the intervening years is bound to change the significance and scale of things there. So next time you flip through a photobook or even the visual representations captured in the years before photography emerged, treat the image with this added caution – that the likenesses frozen by the shutter are part of a wider, living, and persisting stream of events that are not bounded by lens frame, f-stop, or angle of view. Treat the subjects that are portrayed as living, fluid things for which a still image is only a fragment of the larger subject.