Visibility: Optical and Cultural

Thinking about choosing which photos to enlarge, the question of VISIBILITY emerges. There are two kinds of visibility -- optical visibility and cultural visibility. They are partly separable although, of course, the first is, in borderline cases, affected by the second.

a) Optical visiblility

i) Lighting: There is a certain proportion of frames which are underexposed or overexposed to an extent which essentially excludes them from further consideration.

ii) Scale: Contact sheets present a relatively tiny image which allows a limited grasp of the total contents of the photograph. At this size, many long shots may have to be excluded simply because it is impossible to visually identify the important content. After all, when the photographer was present in the scene and photographing, s/he had many more on-going contextual cues as to what was happening, and often snapped pictures more becasue of the knowledge that something important was happening than because s/he had a really clear view of it. Thus the problem of scale of image seen at contact sheet size often becomes a matter of framing (see below) in combination with cultural knowledge which is either entirely external to the picture or will only be clear when the picture is enlarged. This is the issue which is involved in deciding which frames from any given contact sheet to enlarge.

iii) A photograph is a discrete selection of one's visible surround. The photograph has edges which can never be widened (though they can be contracted). One might consider these edges as an "internal frame". When photographs are chosen for an exhibit, an "external frame" -- such as matting or location on a wall -- is added. One of the considerations of their presentation to new viewers (new, in the sense that they are not familiar with the images or subject matter) is how to frame them so the viewer's eye will indeed be "caught". (This is an idea which simply "comes" to me. Certainly anyone who has studied photography knows it and there must be many references to this issue. For the moment, however, I will explore it simply as a "common sense" axiom.)

Looking at contact sheets, no one photograph stands out by virtue of "external framing" . Therefore I find my eye caught by "internal framing" - the clarity of the visual edge that was created at the moment the photograph was taken. It is clear that this is a very personal sense, a personal aesthetic which may have some generally shared aspects. Anyone with disciplinary training in art and photography would surely have a number of explicit criteria in mind. (See the webpage on Visual Literacy 97/06/13).

At the time of this expedition neither MJ nor I had had such training. In addition, there was a feeling of diffidence (distrust) toward "aesthetic training" because, at least as demonstrated by too many of the "ethnographic films" of that era, "aesthetic training" diluted an "objective, documentary observational approach" with Western cultural values. We felt that "straight-forward photographing" was what was called for in the field, rather than sophisticated aesthetic compositions. This dispute, with its baggage of sloppy terminology and on-going misunderstandings across a "divide" that many scholars have since abandoned as unproductive, is still going on in some quarters. As to "aesthetic" quality, I must emphasize that Margaret Mead was adamant as to the necessity of taking photographs of as high a quality as possible, since, in some cases, the photographs take by the ethographer would be the only visual memory people of the future would have of their ancestors and their traditional culture.

Returning to the scrutiny of the contact sheets, I can surely report that some frames "grab" my attention and others do not. The danger is that I will choose the "well-framed" images, or those with a visually satisfying degree of contrast, and leave out some which have important cultural information regarding the narrative at hand, just because this information is barely visible at the contact sheet scale.

Context as "Memory Store"

(Experiment in looking at Roll 001) (96/07/17:0805)


Marek: When I look at a photoraph of Maring people doing something, I am not only familiar with the context, but my thoughts can run back and forth between all the impressions and experiences which I had among the Maring both before and after taking that photograph.,This provides me with a context for the picture which is even larger than the one event it is representing. In contrast, a non-Maring person looking at the picture has no knowledge either of the context provided by the event during which the photograph was taken or of past or future associations to which to link the image.

The problem we are addressing is the difference between a word and an image. Whereas a word can be looked up in a dictionary - it has a definitely agreed upon core meaning - images are polysemic - they have multiple possible meanings. As an example take 001:14 - the boy with the bark head-covering is standing in a typical Maring position. This is something which a viewer who had not been among the Maring, and therefore lacked a memory store of such images, couldn't tell.



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