Eyes don’t have it

from How to Make Good Pictures: A Handbook for the Everyday Photographer (1943)

Eyes don’t have it.

In A Theory of Semiotics, Umberto Eco claims that “semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used to lie” (7). Perhaps the most deeply entrenched lie of all is that the camera is analogous to the eye. The diagram above presents the concept in its weakened form—as simile. What seems far more treacherous to me is the persistence of the metaphor that to photograph something is to conserve the experience of the thing presented for assimilation later. Perhaps it is only a lie of oversimplification—eyes come in pairs, and feed different data streams which are selectively interpreted and these data streams present only quanta, segregated by the peculiarities of sensitivity and the wandering nature of attention which guides them.

A camera cannot direct its attention and ruthlessly captures whatever optical reality it confronts encoded on a sensitive surface, chemically or electrically, via relatively simple algorithms. We perceive a minute fraction of what our eyes transmit; a camera, while presenting a miniscule amount of data by comparison, gives its data nearly complete to the storage medium which integrates it without consciousness.

However, both apparatuses are proper grounds for semiotic inquiry. It could be argued that the eye does not lie in the same fashion that a camera does. This hypothesis is easily discarded—an eye, as it is guided by consciousness lies by both omission and addition. Anyone with experience proofreading will testify that they both see words that are not there, and miss the presence of superfluous words. Cameras lie when they present anomalies of either sensitivity or optics which distort by the addition of noise, or by the failure to resolve differences which were present in the originary subject. This is not the sort of lying which semiotic theory normally engages. It is the conscious lie, the lie with intent which is much more problematic.

The concept of the camera eye is not an intentional lie, but it is an intentional fallacy. It assumes that the camera represents an extension of the human eye’s intension or that the camera has an intension all its own.

In The Spoken Image, Clive Scott summarizes these attitudes of photographers in this way:

  1. The eye of the photographer is an SLR camera, the brain the film, so that his camera merely registers what he has already seen.

  2. The camera is a different kind of seeing, and the photographer has to learn what its (emphasis mine) eye will reveal, can reveal, in those split seconds that elude us, which, with our lazy and selective optical habits, we always miss. (18-19)

Scott continues:

The eye of the camera sees an alternate, parallel, or imbricated reality to which we must accustom ourselves, for the camera is the eye of modern technology, and this is the eye which we must adopt if we are not to become ‘the illiterate’ of the twentieth century. This was the programme pursued by Moholy-Nagy, and the new kinds of vision he attributes to photography are: abstract seeing (photogram), exact seeing (reportage), rapid seeing (snapshots), slow seeing (prolonged time-exposures), intensified seeing (micro-photography, filter-photography), penetrative seeing (radiography), simultaneous seeing (transparent superimposition) and distorted seeing (optical jokes). (19)

These categories are primarily tied to changes in technical approach with only two exceptions: the snapshot (rapid seeing) and reportage (exact seeing). Radiography and photograms do not even use a camera at all, and yet the analogy remains—photography is an extension of vision, and to be literate we must understand its modes. Is this really the case? I feel it more essential to understand the semiology of photography rather than its genres. However, these categories highlighted by Scott are relatively close to another possible approach—a tropology of photography.

Abstract and simultaneous photography present a metaphoric trope—rather than asserting that the photograph is an index which points at a reality outside the camera, they distort by transference to a photographic object an reality which does not exist to the human eye. Similarly, radiography or filter photography presents a spectrum that is not normally visible as a metaphoric reality that exists underneath the visual. Exact, rapid, or slow photography are indexical—hence, metonymic in mode. Missing from this list is an expressive or suggestive photography which would be synecdochic, creating the transference of a quality or mood via a visual representation. Distorted seeing, either through perspective tricks or chemical manipulation might represent an ironic form. Burke’s construct of the “four master tropes” might easily be directly applied to photography.

In order to pursue this line of reasoning, however, it is necessary to cease thinking of photographs as a purely iconic presemiotic phenomenon. I am beginning to believe that a photograph is communicative object of a completely different mode than the undifferentiated icon.

I think that the photograph can present a proposition. A photograph is not a relatively neutral analogue of the eye, but rather a device which allows the human who operates it to make a proposition, not just (re)present a vision.