thinking with pictures

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Camera vision as slice of time or river of time

Whether the subject is creatures residing in a zoo, or an event in one’s own community of work or family or the wider society, the effect is very similar: during the time you are present, you selectively perceive the things in front of you and to a lesser degree the things in your peripheral view. Some people develop a habit to turn deliberately to view what is behind their field of vision, or to peer behind those things that occupy the space in front of them. But after departing the scene, new subjects occupy one’s visual field and fill one’s head with fresh preoccupations, relegating the earlier scene to a status of “suspended animation,” seemingly frozen in time until one returns and the experience of engaging is renewed. In sum, by habit or by physiology we see what is in front of us, but all else we imagine to be frozen in time – something that matters, offers opportunity, presents risk, or carries responsibility during the time that we personally are present in vision and in body. Why does this matter? A bigger, more mature and multi-sided understanding requires effort to overcome that habitual and false perspective on one’s world.


Sabae-city zoo – Lesser Panda [2017 by author,]

Still photographs record the scene when the shutter is released to form an exposure of a fraction of a second normally. Video clips and “video snapshots” by contrast capture a few seconds of sound and image. But even here the playback experience tends to lead to the idea that the scene is forever unchanging; each time the moving picture plays, the same actions are repeated and the same sounds are expressed. So while video frees the subject from static representation, both still and video lead the viewer to think that the scene is frozen in space and time.

In this photo on a weekday afternoon, mostly middle-age and older people are looking with interest at the several resident Lesser Panda Bears, possibly for diverting 3-D movement and contrast to ordinary home or work scenes; or possibly to read the label text and improve one’s edification; or possibly as regular visitors who have something like a personal relationship to the individual creatures that spend the days and nights of their lives from youth to death in this place. But no matter what circumstances bring the visitors here on this day, and no matter what reason they may come, and no matter what they take away from the time spent indoors or peering at the outdoor enclosures, what is common to all of these people is their sense of time: while they are on site, then the lives of the resident bears are ongoing, unscripted, and filled with many possible activities. But after leaving all this behind, for some reason we set aside those dynamic lives and suspend them; putting them “on hold” until the next visit weeks or years later.

A truer understanding of the experience of visiting a place or person, a country or a company, is to resist the habit of putting “on hold” all the things falling outside one’s own, limited visual field and consciousness. Rather than to fill one’s mind with the subject at hand and in plain sight, but disregarding all else, it is worth training one’s mind (and one’s mind’s eye) to accept that all subjects – both in one’s sight and outside of one’s sight, intelligible to one’s own language and also those languages one does not know – are dynamic. All subjects can be protagonists in their own story, not limiting lived experience to placing oneself as the hero and all other living things and inanimate subjects as unmoving background elements to one’s own adventure story.

When looking at this zoo scene as a collection of protagonists, human and animal, going about their own lives, no matter if one’s eye falls upon the bears during visiting hours or not, then a richer experience comes to life: no longer is one’s personal vision all that narrowly matters. Instead, out in the world, there are diverse and conflicting, as well as supportive and serendipitous, intersections in the many lives of people on their own life course, animals with their own life stage purposes and individual expressiveness, and the rest of the living world of plants, insects, and all other life forms to complete the portrait of the world. Expanding on this multiplicity of subjects leading their own lives around the clock, not just when one’s own mind sees them in person, it is possible to rewind or fast-forward the flow of time and the rate of flow to comprehend these many lives not just in one slice of time like a single day or the fraction of time in a shutter release, but across generations or centuries.

Of course, going through one’s day in vision of this wide-angle perspective can be too much information when it comes to directing one’s own routines and decisions and making of plans. Pragmatically speaking, there is a reason why most waking consciousness restricts a person’s mind to just one protagonist, or with empathy perhaps more than one protagonist. But there are still benefits that come from confronting the limitations that result from disregarding all the other lives going on, and pretending they are frozen in time except for the moments one is present. By periodically stopping to acknowledge one’s incomplete view, and to develop a new habit of accepting the many lives that go on in parallel to one’s own, even when out of one’s sight, then one’s own life becomes richer; not confused by accepting multiple protagonists and diverse stories going on in real time, but instead seeing one’s own place and trajectory is just one among many; not the only one, and probably not the most important one all alone or disconnected from those other places and those other subjects that are not visible at all times to one’s own mind.

Seeing the world framed and captured through a camera lens makes some of this vision clearer than before. This is one more reason to keep some sort of camera within hand’s reach at all times!



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Vision and memory as 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.