Sunday, April 19, 2009

Experience = f(Photograph; Context, Interpretation)

In a recent blog entry ("Photography as Transcendence"), I presented what I believe is one core component of what distinguishes "fine-art" photography from a "photograph" (even an otherwise technically well executed one). I wrote that the finest photography makes you forget you are looking at a photograph and makes you experience it as if it were real; as if you were a part of it. The example I used was (indeed, the whole blog entry was based on) a nude portrait taken by one of the photographers at the photography Co-op I belong to. As such, it was obviously representational; which prompted at least one reader to ask whether I was implicitly arguing that the "finest photography" must depict something real, since how else can the viewer feel she is "one" with the work?

My answer is that photography obviously need not be restricted in any way in what it represents, or how it represents it. Even the word "photography" is needlessly restrictive. It is useful only insofar as it "points to" something someone has created (which the world calls a "photograph"). But once the physical object is created, the word "photograph" has served its purpose and can be safely discarded. It is the object we care about; or, more precisely, the affect the object has on us, as viewers. Of course, the degree to which one viewer "feels as one" with a photograph always depends on the viewer's particular predilections and aesthetics. Ardent admirers of Andy Warhol generally react markedly differently to a given image (whatever the image!) than admirers of the art of Wassily Kandinsky. But that is the whole point; a point that - upon deeper reflection - may hint at the embryonic stirrings of an experiential equation of aesthetics:

Before I explain some of the (obvious?) parts of this equation, let me quickly get the "f" (= "function") out of the way. Feel free to disregard it. It is inserted merely as a philosophical placeholder, and for completeness. It reminds us that there is "something" that binds and equates the two sides, but its precise makeup is (for our purposes here) unimportant. It is exceedingly unlikely to have a nice, mathematically well-defined definition. In fact, the best description of what it is a placeholder for is a "human observer" (of "photograph"); and no one, so far as I know (with the possible exception of Stephen Wolfram, developer of Mathematica and the soon-to-be-released Wolfram Alpha), has yet been bold enough to posit a "function" for a human being.

"A human being is part of a whole, called by us the 'Universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest--a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness." - Albert Einstein
So what do I mean by this equation? I mean that - ultimately - that the only experience that is of any lasting consequence to an observer viewing a photograph (or any work of art; or anything!) is the experience itself. That is to say, after all is said and done, after an observer "views" an artwork, the only thing that matters to that observer, the only thing that is of any lasting value, is how - from the observer's own inner point of view - the observer has changed as a consequence of experiencing the artwork. No one can say what that experience will be like, beforehand. The observer is able to reflect back on what the experience was like - on what the artwork means - only after experiencing it (which involves recursive feedback loops on nested experiences, meta-experiences, and the like; none of which we'll get into here). But the observer will be changed in some way. She may be happy, sad, puzzled, angry, detached, thoughtful, tearful, sardonic, ..., or (though unlikely) she may remain completely unchanged, save for the memory of having physically interacted with the artwork. And it is the way in which our ineffable inner state - our prison-like solitary experience of "I-ness" - changes as a function of our viewing of an artwork that defines what that artwork means to us, as viewers.

The left-hand-side of the equation thus represents the inner experience that a viewer has of an observed artwork. The "Photograph" is the physical photograph, and is perhaps the only part of the equation that may be described with something approaching a mathematical rigor. It represents the tangibly objective properties of an image. The paper it appears on, the color dyes and pigments it is imprinted with, its tonal range and contrast levels, and - to some degree - the "things" it depicts (either representationally or non-representationally, as "abstract" shapes and forms; defined mechanically, as by a digital scanner).

The "Context" refers to (1) the context in which the photograph itself appears (perhaps as one of a series of related images, or some other over-arching portfolio of images; is it hanging in a gallery? is it a stray remnant of a discarded box of old polaroids? a web-only image on some unknown photographer's photo-blog?); and (2) the context in which the observer finds herself in while viewing the image, which itself includes both inner and outer dimensions. Is the observer in a gallery setting? is it a private viewing with family and co-workers (the latter set including people to whom she is not as "close")? has she just had lunch with a friend and is in a good mood? has she recently had a spat with her mom and is feeling sad? has she had a long interest in photography, or is perhaps herself a photographer, or is her interest more fleeting?

Finally, "Interpretation" refers to how the viewer interprets the artwork; or the (inner) meaning she ascribes to the work. Interpretation refers to how she really "sees" the work; not necessarily how the work "really" is (objectively speaking, as defined by its physical dimension, the "Photograph"). Note that the viewer does not have to (and, in general, may not even be able to) "see" any of the objectively-hidden "subjective" dimensions of an image, if there are any. Think of the well-known "Hidden Dalmation" image which consists of black and white patches, and may be "seen" as such by some viewers; or may be "seen" as a dalmation by others. The "Photograph" dimension of this experience is the objective image; the "Interpretation" dimension is either "seeing black and white patches" or "seeing a dalmation" (and its attendant associations: does the viewer like dalmations? is she afraid of them? does it remind her of a childhood incident that, by itself, has nothing to do with dalmations or dogs of any kind?...)

"All our thoughts and concepts are called up by sense-experiences and have a meaning only in reference to these sense-experiences. On the other hand, however, they are products of the spontaneous activity of our minds; they are thus in no wise logical consequences of the contents of these sense-experiences. If, therefore, we wish to grasp the essence of a complex of abstract notions we must for the one part investigate the mutual relationships between the concepts and the assertions made about them; for the other, we must investigate how they are related to the experiences." - Albert Einstein

What the equation E=f(P:C,I) suggests is that whatever an observer experiences by viewing a photograph (or any artwork) is a (likely very complicated) function of (1) the photograph itself, as a physical object; (2) the inner emotional and outer environmental contexts in which the viewer is situated in while viewing the photograph; and (3) the interpretation that the viewer ascribes to the photograph (which, since it is also a function of multiple factors, may be but only one exemplar - true for a given context - of a possibly vast set of alternative interpretations by the same observer).

On a trivial level, we've simply decomposed a single dimension ("Experience") into three. As an academic exercise, it focuses attention on some of the basic factors that influence how we view art in general. Other writers, considerably more esteemed than I (and with deeper results), have gone through this exercise before. For example, the well-known photographer / photography theorist Stephen Shore, in his book The Nature of Photographs, introduces a similar set of factors (that he calls "levels") for interpretating an image: the physical level, the depictive level, the mental level, and mental modeling. Each depicts one of the four core elements of an image: vantage point, frame, focus and time. John Szarkowski, the late great photography historian / curator / critic, in his The Photographers Eye, suggests five dimensions: the thing itself, the detail, the frame, time, and vantage point. But however you slice the dimensions - one can always add or subtract to taste - such decompositions, if done thoughtfully, are useful because they partly disentangle the otherwise messy soup of objective and subjective factors that define our overall experience of an artwork.

But what I am after here is subtly different. Assuming that the experience of an artwork is the most meaningful dimension (though, as we've discussed, it too has an ephemeral nature, and may take on added dimensions as the same observer "views" an artwork at different times and in different contexts), what the equation leaves the door open for - at least formally - is the possibility that the same overall experience may result from many different combinations of photograph, context, and interpretation.

Think about that for a moment. Suppose the "Experience" is "feeling joyful, imagining you are in a field of Gold, without a care in the world, and being suddenly transfixed by the notion of Buddhist impermanence" (or anything else, for specificity;-). What gave you this experience? Perhaps it was looking at Ansel Adams' "Moonrise, Hernandez" at the Smithsonian (where an original print was recently on display, and which induced roughly the same "inner experience" in me as I was viewing it). Although we are conditioned to think of our experience - after the fact - as being synonymous with what we were viewing (when asked, we reply: "I was looking at the Ansel Adams exhibit"), the more personally meaningful symbolic (and literal) token of our experience is the memory of the experience itself. It is the memory of what we felt as we were viewing whatever we were viewing; the state of mind we were in, cognitively, intuitively, and emotionally. (For mathematically inclined readers, this is essentially the art-equivalent of taking a Fourier transform between, say, momentum and position space in physics. The respective spaces represent two views of the same system; and do so in a way that preserves information. In our case, "information" is equivalent to "experience," and the function "f" hints at a Fourier-transform-like "experience preserving" sloshing back-and-forth among three dimensions.)

Now imagine - perhaps in some distant time, when evolution has worked its magic on our cognitive / emotional / aesthetic processing abilities - we are able to recall experiences as readily as we now recall things and events. Were we such creatures, we would not care whether the "thing" was the "Moonrise, Hernandez" by Ansel Adams (or the "event" a showing at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC in 2008); we would care - and remember - only that there was a moment in our lives when we felt "joyful, imagined we were in a field of Gold, were without a care in the world, and were suddenly transfixed by the notion of Buddhist impermanence." But so many other combinations of photograph, context, and interpretation could have put us into the same state! Depending on the person, perhaps Minor White's "Capitol Reef, Utah (1962)," viewed on a computer monitor late at night could induce essentially the same experience. Generalizing further, perhaps the same experience may also be had by listening to, say, Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata with a group of close friends at a local country concert hall.

Getting back to - and expanding upon - the main thesis of the earlier blog entry, I now state the main conjecture of this blog entry: the finest photography consists of those images that - for the broadest possible set of contexts and interpretations - yield the most meaningful experiences in the broadest class of observers. Note that the class of "finest photographs" is emphatically not defined solely by the physical dimension of any one photograph; and - critically - includes the observer. "Moonrise, Hernandez" - arguably a fine example of "fine photograph" in the Western world ;-) may rank somewhat lower among the Aka People of Africa (whose collective "aesthetics" are probably quite different from ours). Photograph and viewer are - must be - inextricably interwoven and coupled. A "photograph" has no more a single interpretation, and entails no more of a single experience, than a human is defined by a single inner state and experiences life as a single event (though some mystics claim that is precisely what life is). What a photograph "is" (to an observer) depends on - and is, in turn, shaped by - how the observer experiences the photograph; which henceforth becomes part of the observer, and helps shape what other photographs "will be" and the manner in which they, too, will shape the observer.

"I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive." - Joseph Campbell

Taking a cue from Campbell, we can rephrase the main conjecture of this blog entry as follows: the finest photography consists of those images that - for the broadest possible set of contexts and interpretations - induce the richest, deepest feelings of being alive in the broadest class of observers.

Thought Experiment #1: What would an artwork that depicts all of the possible artworks, in all of the possible contexts and interpretations that a given observer might ascribe to them, look like, starting with - as an example - Adams' "Moonrise, Hernandez"? How would an observer of Adams' "Moonrise, Hernandez" experience this meta artwork? Is there a Borgesian Aleph of art?

Thought Experiment #2: This blog entry has introduced a formal destinction between a "fine art photograph" and a (run of the mill?) "photograph" as defined for a group of observers. An obvious question is, what does this distinction entail for the individual observer? Folloing our formulation, we speculate that an observer - say the artist herself? - seeks that combination of artwork, context and interpretation (as any other observer does, of course) that induces the richest, deepest feeling of being alive. Here's a thought experiment: thinking only of yourself as observer (no collective "averaging" is being done here!...this is you we're talking about!), what would you imagine that artwork to look like that - out of all possible artworks that you can possibly create in this lifetime, and that you can observe in all conceivable contexts so as to form all imaginable interpretations - is the one that makes you feel most alive? Now go out and create it....

Postscript: the image posted at the top of this blog entry is a triptych of photographs of moonlight, reflected in Lake Saranac, in the Adirondacks NY. The images were taken from a series captured during a single, exceptionally clear night in August, 2008.


Seinberg said...

What would an artwork that depicts all of the possible artworks, in all of the possible contexts and interpretations that a given observer might ascribe to them, look like, starting with - as an example - Adams' "Moonrise, Hernandez"?Hey, wait a second! Isn't that problem NP-Complete? First give me a non-deterministic machine, then I'll show you what that artwork looks like :-)

(And I get to collect the royalties from other problems I solve with the machine).

aplop said...

I have finally managed to read this post in its entirety. Too many disruptions lately :)
Your final wording of the hypothesis presented here (with the help of Joseph Campbell) is strongly satisfying even though I was at first unsure of your approach. My uncertainty laid in your equation. I understood that you were seeking a definition of "fine photography" but was thrown when I saw "Experience" rather than "photograph" on the left hand side of the equation.
Also I have always thought that a photograph was in part defined by the photographer and yet your equation makes no reference to the photographer and instead puts the onus almost entirely upon the viewer. As the saying goes "Beauty is in the eye [or mind] of the beholder".
Naturaly one could say that the photographer also ends up as a viewer and thus is included in the equation. But it left me wondering back to an equation of my own which I once used to explain to a friend the relationship between a photograph and a photographer. The equation: Q=f(A/i) is not quite as comprehensive as yours and perhaps not as well thought out. But allow me to explain. I saw a relationship between the quality of a photograph (Q), the amount of presence or awareness (A) at the time the photograph is made and the photographer (i). However I took "A" to be a constant because my own experience tells me that Awareness is always there, unmoved and unchanging. But the amount of awareness or presence a photographer has seems to me to be directly dependent on how absorbed the photographer is in the belief of "I". In other words what part the ego played in the making of the photograph.
So with "A" being constant and an assumption that a healthy ego is equal to 1 you can see that the more absorbed the photographer is in his sense of self (i.e. i > 1) the more impact it has on diminishing the value of "A" and thus "Q". On the other hand the less involved the photographer becomes in his sense of self (i < 1) the more impact it has on increasing the value of Awareness and in consequence the quality of the image. Theoretically, the complete absence of self in the making of an image would create an image of indescribable beauty.
Anyway, your formula is much more useful and as I said earlier, strongly satisfying as an all encompassing definition. Afterall, the "deepest feelings of being alive", is exactly what pure awarness or full presence brings you.

aplop said...

I've returned to comment on your thought experiment 1 (TE1) and noticed that you have added a second (either that or I didn't notice it last time I was here). I may be wrong but I think that the two are linked because the ultimate artwork of TE1 would certainly make you feel more alive than any other artwork possibly could thus satisfying the requirements of TE2.
Furthermore I would also suggest that the meta artwork referenced in TE1 already exists however one's ability to view it is most likely dependent on having a sense of being (or maybe that should read a non sense of being) that matches the beingness of that which created the artwork in the first place. This meta artwork is here for all to experience but the experience is severely diluted because no sooner is experiencing happening that the mind steps in and translates the experience. More often than not this is done by referencing the experience into the context of "I". In other words the mind turns the experience into another episode in the story of "me". In this way the real experience, the true seeing of the meta artwork is lost in translation. And so we continue to try and create the ultimate artwork or compose the ultimate song or catch the ultimate wave not seeing that which is right in front of us.
And this brings up a couple of questions. Is it possible for an artwork to be so fine that only those with the clearest mind can actually experience it? Or does a fine artwork automatically induce a state of clarity in the viewer which enables the viewer to experience... well... being, aliveness? Your hypothesis in this post suggests the latter but TE1, to me, suggests the former.


trace said...

I made a rather profound observation on art one night when I was combinationaly drunk and stoned (I get profound in that condition). I was 17 or so at the time, and talking with a friend, I said: "Art is a second-hand view of the world, made third-hand by the viewer". What I was referring to of course, was the aspect of the process that the viewer cannot be a part of. They are removed from the creative process, and are left with observation/feeling for the artwork.

Art is a second hand view by the artist in that we create from materials already present in the world. We create "another thing" by recombining what is already before us. We are still unable to create something from "total nothingness". This is God/Grandfather territory. We can participate, second-handedly, in the process which is inseparable from the artwork itself.

One thing I think that perhaps helps the observer to come closer to the experience of a photograph's creation, is that so many today have the experience of photographing and creating their own images with digital tools. I think with the advent of so many photographers, there is greater appreciation for the image because there is a greater experience of the taste of the process on whole.

trace said...

Addendum: There is a wonderful film done in the 1950s called "Le Mystere de Picasso". It is a film depicting Picasso at an easel drawing/painting works on paper or like medium. Shot mostly from the perspective opposite Picasso, and lit to show his "process". It is a fascinating view and how wonderful to see something like this with more artists!

Dora Maar's series of photographs showing the evolution of Picasso's epic "Guernica" is another example.