A Peculiar Discovery

Since the age of twelve, I have in various ways been struggling to depict “reality”. At first it was drawing that caught my attention, but after I realised the impossibility of drawing each leaf of the birch in front of me, I more or less gave up. A couple of years later, I turned to photography, but soon figured out that being able to depict every leaf of the tree did not automatically result in satisfaction. I explored motion blur, shallow depth of field, nylon stockings over the lens and a myriad of photographic do’s and don’ts. After ten years of photographing and printing in my darkroom, I returned to drawing and painting. Once more, I struggled to depict the motif in front of me. I succeeded quite well in painting surfaces, but I lacked a general understanding of the other facets of painting. I returned to photography with the aim of becoming an image editor.

Drawing, photographing, painting and image editing. All of these techniques require me to manage different skills and approaches. Through teaching image editing though, I have arrived at the conclusion that the hardest part in mastering any of these accomplishments is not about learning the technique itself, but learning to see. What then, is seeing?

We are fixated on the notion that what our eyes look at, is equal to what we see. This might stem from a somewhat unfortunate discovery made almost 400 years ago. Unfortunate in the sense that it still today seems to have too much influence on how we think of vision. The French philosopher René Descartes, made the peculiar discovery that an eye from a human corpse, held in front of a paper, projected an upside-down image of what it was “looking” at.The discovery that an eye, no longer connected to a body, could form an image introduced the notion of the eye as passive and that seeing was a purely physical act. Although we today have considerable evidence that perception is not purely passive, seeing photographically is often considered in these passive terms.¹

In the 1660s, just over a decade after Descartes death (1650), French physicist and priest, Edme Mariotte discovered the blind spot of our eyes. His experiment did not involve corpses’ eyes, but was proved and presented to the royal court by placing a small coin in the field of the blind spot of each of them so that they could experience how the coin seemed to disappear. What was not known at the time was the biological circumstances as to why this blind spot occurred in our field of vision. I ask myself what our notion on vision and seeing would be, had Mariotte’s discovery of the blind spot foregone Descartes’ experiments with the eyeball. Would our understanding of vision have been different today?

Descartes described how he “carefully cut away the three surrounding membranes at the back…”² What Descartes missed by cutting away these membranes at the back of the eye, was the cause of the blind spot; the optic disc where the retina of the eye meets the optic nerve. As this area of our eyes is insensitive to light, it does not detect any visual information. In theory, this means that we ought to havea big “hole” in our fields of vision – about the size of an orange held at an arm’s length.³ But we do not experience any such hole.

Among experts there are today, there are different theories on how this absence is filled, however there is substantial evidence of our perception not being purely passive. This means that what we see is not only what we look at. Rather than just taking in what is around us, we are part in making our field of vision. Not only do our brains fill in the blind spot, it is also assumed that we do not even pay attention to all the information actually received by the retina, but that only what was not expected is registered – the rest is replaced by simulations.

One way of understanding this could be through research done using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which found that the difference between actually looking at a photograph of a place or a face, or with eyes closed, forms a mental image of this place or face, creating very similar patterns of responses in our brains.⁴ Findings like these have strengthened the evidence of imagery and perception sharing mutual processing mechanisms and could imply that a lot of what we see, really is built on simulations.

These simulations are formed by our experiences. Our brains have evolved mechanisms for finding patterns of repetition that turns into recognitions, which generates predictions about the world. This is what makes it possible for us to interpret sentences where several of the letters are missing:

W at  ar    ou  rea  in ?

Our brains fill in the missing letters, we put an “h” after W because in the statistics of past experience, it has been useful. But we do not put an “h” before the “o” because that has not been useful to us in the past.⁵

Just as we nowadays are quite well informed on how our perception is influenced by social class⁶ and gender⁷, I think we need to be more aware of that our brains work in the same way when looking at images, but with the difference that we will not all “read” the same thing, we can even read different things on different occasions. This, I find is the strength of art. Be it photography, sculptures or paintings, a good artwork of any kind, acts upon me as how Luc Tuymans describes a good painting; “[it] denounces its own ties so that you are unable to remember it correctly. Thus, it generates other images”⁸.

1.Rebekah Modrak and Bill Anthes, Reframing Photography : Theory and Practice(London: Routledge, 2011).
2. René Descartes, Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings, ed. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge : Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988).
3. Teju Cole, Blind Spot, ed. Siri Hustvedt, First edition. ed. (New York : Random House, 2017).
4. Deborah  Halber, “Brain Imaging Distinguishes between Seeing and Imagining,” MIT News, http://news.mit.edu/2000/faces-1108.
5. Beau Lotto, “Optical Illusions Show How We See,” https://www.ted.com/talks/beau_lotto_optical_illusions_show_how_we_see/transcript.
6. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, vol. 1 (Penguin uK, 2008).
7. Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).
8. Luc Tuymans, Luc Tuymans, ed. Ulrich Loock (London: London : Phaidon, 1996).