A combination of arts and senses in the appreciation: the feeling of weight; the design, composition and balance of visual elements; the subtle sound of the movement and even the sensation of temperature when you pick it up. Yet I doubt few will home in on any single one of these elements – but if you did, and only looked at the design for typography or prose, for instance, you might find quite a lot lacking…
I have a little hypothesis which I think many of you will appreciate. It’s somewhat off topic, so those of you expecting a how-to or review may want to skip today’s post. The creative person is not limited to one field: often, they have interests in other subject matter, and will try to apply themselves in a similar fashion. Musicians who enjoy photography or painting; chefs who sing; singers who cook. And often one tends to be not only good at the other, but there’s also a translation of style of sorts between the different disciplines, too. I can’t cook, or play music, but I do appreciate those two skills and can comment to some degree, in the same way that I can comment on design work which I do in addition to photography. And like my photography, people have noted my design work tends to be balanced, precise, and structured, but not necessarily simple…
The first piece of the puzzle is realising that all of our senses are continuous, dynamic inputs: our brains adapt very quickly to static situations or stimuli unless they are extreme. If we did not do so, we’d be overcome by pretty much everything and unable to function. A good example is this: any chair is fairly comfortable and you don’t really notice the shape of it unless there are significant pressure points; you may not notice major changes to a place you’ve only briefly visited twice, but you’ll notice the smallest change to a familiar environment you see every day. We can live in a place for a few months and get used to significant temperature shifts; 15C might mean t-shirt and shorts weather to somebody living in Canada, but it’s down jackets and gloves for a tropical person. long story short: humans can acclimatise.
This also means that anything designed to stimulate us – food, music, art, designed objects – must necessarily be dynamic. That dynamic can be achieved by motion (e.g. video, cinema) or change in pitch (e.g. music) or change in texture (food, haptic objects) or taste/smell. There are of course also other sensations which underpin this, like pressure, temperature, wet/dry etc. We only really notice absolutes because of the changes: without the delta, we can never have that sensation of expectation nor can we hit limits and define hard stops. Change is necessary for both sensory input and calibration.
In a photograph, this change is achieved when your eyes scan through an image; our eyes are never really static, and can only take in a very small portion of the entire visual field at simultaneously. We must scan the entire area of interest and rely on persistence of vision and some sophisticated mental processing to make up for the discontinuities. When we shift our conscious observation from one portion of the image to another, luminance, hue and spatial frequency of information all vary depending on the subject under our immediate focus; this creates change. The more abrupt the shift in these parameters, the greater contrast we perceive, and the more that portion of the image stands out. Consider this: a plain grey background is going to be far less interesting than an area within it that abruptly transitions from black to white; we’re going to notice the zebra. But if the whole image is full of zebras, then yet another single transition isn’t going to stand out.
Still with me? Good. I’m going to now introduce approach to the concept of balance. I’ve written about this previously, but looking at it from the viewpoint of masses and a set of visual scales, if you will. This time, I’m thinking of balance as a change that’s countered by another change of equal magnitude. This means, if you have a sudden shift towards one luminance or color, you need to have an equally prominent shift in the opposite direction before you run out of observational latitude, i.e. before you run out of image. If there’s no reverse shift, then you’re going to land up feeling thrown off.
This may be easier to understand from the concept of food and music: if you’ve got a very sour primary element in your dish, you’re going to need something sweet to counteract it. The thing with food of course is that you cannot completely neutralise something by the addition of something opposite – unlike, say, black and white adding to grey. Both sour and sweet will continue to persist in the same mouthful of food at the same time, but the sensation of out tongues simultaneously experiencing both is enough to keep us from feeling one taste is too dominant over the other. In music, if we’ve got a track with a very loud element on the right side, we’re going to feel disoriented unless there’s something equally dominant on the left: but much as with food, the two don’t cancel out to get quiet: you just get something uniformly loud, without that contrast creating an uncomfortable sensation. In fact, very few stimuli cancel each other precisely: even heat and cold. If you touch an object composed of alternating warm and cool elements – your body will get rather confused and think you are about to be burned precisely because of the perceived change in temperature.
Of course, an interesting overall experience can be built up by the use of many layers of stimuli that don’t quite fully counteract, but rather hold each other in tension; I’m thinking of something along the lines of a ship’s rigging or a symphony or a morsel of food that has warm/cold/salty/sweet/wet/dry/hard/soft elements in it. It is precisely that huge variety of stimuli that keeps our brains engaged and attempting to parse what’s going on. However, the more simultaneous stimuli in any – object, I guess – the more of a challenge it is going to be for the audience to appreciate the arrangement and individual elements. Not only is the whole thing providing an experience that’s far greater than the sum of its constituent sensations, but we may not even have the time to process all of that stimuli fully before it fades and transitions into something else – you can’t hold ice cream in your mouth for long before it melts and offers a different sensation, for instance.
In the same way that it requires some experience to understand and identify all of the individual flavour elements in a complex glass of wine in that inhalation and sip, some experience is required to fully read an image or understand a piece of music or artwork. It is for that reason that the credibility of the person commenting is quite important – the opinion of the critic is limited by his or her experience and exposure. You cannot identify a flavour as aniseed if you’ve never tasted it before; the validity of the opinion is limited to like or dislike. Such credibility can be given either through the critic’s ability to deliberately and consistently produce their own work in the same genre, or their ability to explain their opinions; certainly not by how loud they can shout online. The more complex the work or product, the more experience it’s going to require to appreciate; and the smaller the potential audience pool becomes. In some ways, this is inescapable for the artist who is producing at an extremely high level: they have to wait for everybody else to catch up. It’s like having a racing car that’s faster than anything before, but which nobody has the skill to control – until they practice with it first…
Of all the creative arts – and I use this term in the broadest and most general possible sense, including the culinary arts, music, architecture, writing, music, the visual arts, the production arts, design, engineering, even coding and performing and public speaking – and no doubt more – the easiest and hardest simultaneously are the ones that only engage a single sense at a time. Music must stand on hearing alone; a piece has to work without a live performance (that will be variable anyway) – but a meal has visual, olfactory, taste, temperature, and even sound that goes with the ambience of the location in which it’s consumed. You have a lot less latitude to get something wrong when there isn’t something else to cover it up: it’s possible that meal tastes so good you don’t mind it has to be eaten next to an open drain at a roadside hawker somewhere in Asia (that’s pretty common, actually). But if there’s one discordant note in a piano concerto, it’s going to be rather obvious. By the same token, if the composition and execution are sublime – it’s almost as though that single sense can take over for everything else. A good photograph evokes far more emotion than the literal and immediate visuals; it triggers elements of our own memory that may well rouse smells, temperatures, sounds, emotions (this of course is not predictable as it is dependent on the memory of the audience). It almost allows us to punch far above the weight of the composition: two or more sensory experiences for the price of one. It’s also somewhat easier to control in execution. The more I think about it, the more I think this is what makes photography so appealing…MT
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