Through the Window

I’m trying to write short pieces using principles of photography to talk about how the world works. Some will land better than others, but one has to start somewhere.

Somewhat paradoxically, our attention is constrained by our wide field of vision. We can see nearly everything in front of us and that can make noticing things quite hard. An object has to shout to catch our attention, visually or audibly, and in doing so removes other objects from consideration. If nothing shouts then context flows free, juxtapositions abound and meanings are up for grabs.

The eye is constantly on the move. Images in our minds are really composites, constantly updated collages of many glances in different directions, merged with memories and filtered by emotions and anticipations. Our ability to effectively see everything in our field of vision is awesome, but hard to control.

We can manage our focus by using a frame. Any frame will do but the cliche of the photographer or film maker connecting their index finger to the opposing thumbs to make an ad-hoc frame is surprisingly effective.

A frame will enclose a subject, isolating it from that which is excluded, and that removal of context is where its power comes from.

The meaning of an object comes from its surroundings. This is one reason why an art gallery tends to be a white room with nothing to distract from the art on display - it is attempting to be a context-free zone. (Of course, that fails because the gallery itself is a very strong contextualiser, but I digress.)

When you put something next to something else, the meanings associated with those things interact and create something new. This is comic-book theory 101, as formalised by the Right Rev Scott McCloud. While individual panels or pictures have meaning, that meaning is significantly added to when other panels are juxtaposed and the comic is read. The words on this page work in the same way - individually they have meaning but collectively, in context, they mean significantly more.

Framing a subject for a photograph is an act of selecting context. We might chose a tight crop and exclude any context. We might pull back and show the environment the subject is in. We might go further and put the subject next to other things. We might go all the way and show many subjects, letting them fight equally for attention (the “field photos” of Joel Meyerowitz). The meaning assigned to the subject, the story told, will be different in each.

Think of a person watching the world go by their window. They see people walk by, but only for a moment. They don’t know where they came from or where they’re going to. The only information they have is what’s visible through the aspect of their window. They don’t see the whole picture, of course, but they see it without distraction. Their impression of the world has a focus not available to someone on the street itself.

Is one better than the other? No, of course not. But they are different, and that’s important.

There’s a case to be made that Plato’s cave functions as an excluding frame. By chaining the viewers so they can only see shadows the cave removes context and leaves everything up to the imagination. But remove the chains and the viewer has the choice between the world-as-it-is and the abstracted shadows. In the service of a greater point, Plato believes the shadows are a lesser experience, but I’d argue they can be a useful tool when used freely. Switching between the abstract and the opposite-of-abstract (represented?) can bring a deeper understanding of both.

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