Non-perspectival photography: towards a post-digital visuality


 Richard Whitlock

1.The Street single frame
Richard Whitlock, The Street, HD Video, 2012 [with link to Vimeo]

The Street is a ‘moving picture’ of a street in Thessaloniki in Greece. It was made from many video and still images, adjusted in such a way as to eliminate perspective from each element individually and from the scene as a whole. Instead of the central perspective which seems natural to photography, it employs an orthogonal parallel projection, like an architectural elevation. This positions the viewer, somewhat impossibly, in many places at the same time: down at street level, peering under the cars, while gazing over the blocks of flats. Confronted with the image, you find yourself opposite each balcony, high and low, left and right, in an extension of vision that painters have employed since antiquity.

The component images are fitted together seamlessly, like a single snapshot, to accentuate the tension between the photographic medium and the non-photographic perspective. The resulting pictures show a reality that cannot be registered by a single lens, or, indeed, perceived by the human eye. It is as though the viewer was seeing through a single vast flat eye.

2.The street in situ
The Street in situ at the Center of Contemporary Art of Thessaloniki, 2012-13.

Power

In the struggle for power, in the fight for global economic domination that is becoming more apparent everywhere, the struggle to control the way we see the world is also implicit. The artist has a key role to play in this state of events, keeping open the road to many different possible realities, positioning us in different ways in relation to the world and to each other. By reality I mean what we make of the real, the way we organise our perceptions. We feel more human in some of the models art proposes and more alienated in others. Under perspective, the dominant visual mode today, we find ourselves distanced from the things around us and from each other. We become onlookers, outsiders to a world in which objects become things to be to be looked at and studied. We look at them and examine them with impunity, since they belong in a different world. Under perspective nothing returns our gaze, nothing looks us squarely in the face, unless it be positioned at the vanishing-point, in which case it will have vanished.

 3. pidgeonholes    4. pideonholes adjusted
Under perspective nothing looks us squarely in the face.

Perspective lies at the heart of the scientific attitude that Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1961: 9) describes as a ‘pensée de survol’ (‘a thinking which looks on from above’). Science, he says, ‘manipulates things and gives up living in them’.

5. zina's gallery6. zina's gallery adjusted
Ordinary photograph vs image adjusted to parallel projection

Power dissipated by removing perspective

We are so accustomed to lens-based images, with their inevitable vanishing-point, that we have almost forgotten that there are other ways in which we can reconstruct the world around us. A non-perspectival picture like The Street allows us to see how perspective operates. When perspective is removed so too is the power it exercises on us. We feel lighthearted and may even begin to laugh, as though a weight has been lifted from our shoulders. Hanneke Grootenboer’s statement about anamorphosis can also be applied to parallel projection: ‘the influence of perspective manifests itself in the difference between conquering and being conquered.What an anamorphic look at a perspectival configuration teaches us is how we are snared within its system’ (2005: 132).

The lack of perspective is also somewhat disconcerting as our assumptions about reality are called into question. We have to interpret a non-perspectival image for ourselves, whereas under perspective the work of interpretation has already been done for us and we can only submit to it, be conquered by it. In the non-perspectival visual framework, art itself is thrown into question. Did not the idea of art, in the modern sense, first appear along with perspective in the Renaissance? (Belting, 1994). Until the digital age photographer-artists were essentially bound to perspective by the lens. And why question this? Have we not been taught again and again that this is the right way to see things, that this is reality?

Time

The collapse of linear perspective also has a startling effect on narrative, as it leads to the collapse of linear time. This challenges the viewer to supply his or her own narrative. It is as if the entire plot of a ‘movie’ were available to the eye all at once, allowing you to look at the various episodes of the story whenever you like, like in a medieval painting. You can skip the dull bits, and go to the end first, if you wish, as though you were reading a book. But there is no real beginning or end. The cars in The Street, for example, stay the same size as they recede into the distance. They are not really going anywhere, just ‘doing their thing’, existing in the present, in the present continuous tense – like the trees, the people, the washing hanging out to dry. The cars are moving, parking, moving off again. The woman is shaking out the carpet. The washing is moving in the breeze. And these are not just any cars, any woman, any washing. They are The woman, The cars – the particular ones that were there on that day, and they are also somehow paradigms of themselves and as such have a quality of permanence. You feel they will always be there.

Collapsing the subject-object divide

Without perspective we get the feeling of being at one with the world. A ‘thing among things, man among men’, as Sartre said (1939 / 1970). The subject-object divide created by perspective is deactivated. In The Street you may feel that these are not strangers sweeping their balconies and driving their cars, but rather people ‘like us’. And how beautiful they are, these women, these carpets, these bedspreads billowing in the air in this non-perspectival scene! I watch them again and again. I did not ask the women whether I could photograph them, as had I done so they would have probably stopped doing their normal things normally. I console myself with the thought that they came out onto their balconies not just to do their chores, but to look around, and to be looked at too. Is that not what we mainly do anyway? Have we not evolved as creatures by looking and being looked at, by attracting and being attracted? So I do not feel very much like an intruder. These women’s actions are familiar, they are doing what I might be doing myself: I feel at one with them.

Vitality

An extraordinary vitality flows into a photographic image as soon as perspective is eliminated, bearing out Pavel Florensky’s impassioned attack (1919) on perspective as destructive of reality, no less. For him ‘Linear perspective is a machine for annihilating reality, an infernal yawn that swallows everything wherein the vanishing-point functions’ (Florensky in Misler, 2002: 93). Perhaps this vitality is due to the fact that without perspective to guide it, the eye is constantly searching for familiar terrain, for the vanishing-point it is used to, and so it must work harder than usual. And the brain, also accustomed to perspective, sends back to the eye for more information, for a re-check. You get the feeling that you are a child again, seeing everything for the first time. There is indeed something childlike about parallel projection. Ancient Egyptian painting is always in parallel projection and seems childlike to our educated eye:

7. Musicians_and_dancers_on_fresco_at_Tomb_of_Nebamun (1)
Dancers from the tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt, ca 1350 BCE

Unlike Ancient Greek zographiki (description of life), ‘Egyptian art was not intended to merely imitate or reflect reality, but to replace and perpetuate it’ (Dunn, 2014). Its goal was not mere depiction, but the search for vitality, for life itself!

Axonometric projection

Photographic space can be remodelled in many ways, so as to combine the reality effect of photography with many different representational systems and their concomitant philosophies. Axonometric projections have a dynamic feel to them, for example, because of their strong diagonals. This was the representational system par excellence of the Russian avant-garde and of Constructivism. It is also used in computer games such as SimCity, where new worlds are also to be constructed. In an axonometric (trimetric) projection the angles formed by the sides of a single object (the marble slab in the following illustration) are applied to all the other objects in the space. This lifts the viewer up into the air, like in a Chinese scroll painting. Even more than perspective this projection creates a feeling of ‘survol’, a dominant overview, though in Chinese painting this is attenuated by being combined with other viewing systems (Cheng, 1991: 65-6).

8. isometric trial
Adjusting a photograph to an axonometric projection

Attention / distraction

Jonathan Crary (1999) describes how capitalism has demanded ever-increasing concentration by workers, consumers and art-gazers alike, but that the more we focus on a single object the more our mind wanders. New research (e.g. Baird, 2012) does indeed show how the brain works just as much when it is day-dreaming as when it is focusing on some task at hand. Its ‘default mode network’ (DMN) comes into play when we give up trying to ‘think’ (which is when a new idea, the solution to some problem perhaps, pops into our head). In our everyday lives we are pulled this way and that by so many images clamouring for attention that in the end we block them out. We have come to expect to be assaulted by an image and prepare to defend ourselves. The Street, in turn, disarms us by inviting the mind to wander.

The Hospital (2009), another non-perspectival ‘moving picture’, also articulates a play of attention and distraction. As with The Street it is designed to be shown on a side-wall, perhaps in a corridor or foyer, not directly in front of you, so that you come across it as if by chance. In this work the reflections on the surfaces of the nurses’ desk in a plastic surgery clinic are the only parts of the image that move, while the rest of the image is still. The sources of these reflections, the nurses and patients coming and going in the hospital corridor, have been digitally removed, however, so that you turn your head to see who has come into the room behind you. The space you are in and the space of the picture thus begin to coincide.

9. The Hospital single frame
Richard Whitlock, The Hospital, HD video, 2009. [with link to Vimeo]

Conclusion

…in the final analysis there are only two experiences of the world… and two types of culture – one contemplative and creative, the other predatory and mechanical. (Florensky, 2002: 218)

Photography – paradoxically thanks to the mechanics of digitization – is now in a position to move away from the mechanical and predatory and towards the contemplative and creative.

References

Baird, B. et al. (2012) ‘Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation’. Psychological Science 23 (10): 1117 –1122.

Belting, H. (1994) Likeness and Presence – A History of the image before the Era of Art. Trans. E. Jephcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cheng, F. (1991) Vide et plein: le langage pictural chinois. Paris: Seuil.

Crary, J. (1999) Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Dunn, J. An Introduction to Egyptian Art. www.touregypt.net/featurestories/artoverview.htm, accessed 04-04-2014

Florensky, P. (2002) Reverse Perspective. Trans. W. Salmond. In N. Misler (ed.) Pavel Florensky, Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art. London: Reaktion Books. (1919)

Grootenboer, H. (2005) The Rhetoric of Perspective. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1961) L’Oeil et l’Esprit. Paris: Gallimard. Trans. C. Dallery as Eye and Mind in J.M. Edie (ed.) (1964) Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception and other essays. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Sartre, J.-P. (1939) ‘Intentionality: A Fundamental Idea of the Phenomenology of Husserl’. Trans. J. Fell. Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 1, No 2, May 1970.

Richard Whitlock has made sculptural, graphic and photographic installations in many parts of the world. Dissatisfied with photography as a means of adequately representing these works, he began making photographs and films in unusual ways, avoiding the central perspective natural to these media. This by-work became a major preoccupation, leading to non-perspectival photographic and video installations in Helsinki, Grenoble, the Crimea, Taipei, Thessaloniki, Athens and New York. He lives in Greece.

 

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