Sight Unseen

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.

— Henri Bergson

“You see, but you do not observe,” Sherlock Holmes scolded Dr. Watson in A. Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia.” He added, “The distinction is clear.” Indeed it is, although it still matters what you are looking for. To prove his point, Holmes had asked Watson how many steps led up to their apartment at 221B Baker Street, which Watson was unable to answer. “Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed,” Holmes continued. He did not bother to explain why he had counted the steps to their apartment, leaving one to suspect that his “extraordinary genius for minutiae,” as Watson characterized it, might have been symptomatic of Asperger's syndrome or something similar. Holmes was determined to keep his mind uncluttered by anything but “the tools which may help him in doing his work,” which explains why he was so shockingly ignorant of literature, philosophy and politics. And so, while he might both see and observe things that most people didn’t bother to notice, Holmes only took in what might help him solve crimes.

Visual artists depend on their powers of observation no less than Sherlock Holmes, although they are presumably not so concerned with footprints, watermarks and tobacco residue, the minutiae of Holmes’ trade. The tools of their trade are light, form, texture and balance, but not in the abstract. They are as particular in their way as Holmes was in his, but not to catalog or to classify. Theirs is a world without names, a world of pure sensation. They observe what is there for all to see but that remains unobserved because people are usually looking for something else.

When I go about my daily rounds, I can be as oblivious of my surroundings as the next person. But put a camera in my hands, and suddenly I am seeing the world with new eyes. “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera,” Dorothea Langue once said. I found this to be literally true in my case, and eventually I figured out why. To look through the viewfinder of a camera is to see the world with a frame around it. It’s as simple as that. Actually, it is no longer the world I see but pieces of it: shapes, patterns, colors, the play of light and shadow on a wall, all within the camera’s frame. I mostly work with a zoom lens, so I am moving the frame in an out, bringing the elements into balance, composing a picture. Mostly I am operating on instinct or whatever you call it when the visual cortex has taken charge. I never think, “This will make a great picture” – at least not in words. Who was it that said words are slayers of the real? As Wittgenstein kept telling his colleagues, “Don’t think, look.”

Recently I read an interview with Quintan Ana Wikswo, a writer, photographer and performance artist who had just published a book of short stories entitled The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far. The collection was unusual for a work of literary fiction because it also contained some of her photographs, although not to illustrate the stories. The book was even more unusual in its manner of creation. Wikswo revealed that she suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, and a seizure had for a time robbed her of the ability to process language. “During the creation of the book, I wrote stories when my visual processing was impaired, and made photographs when I lost the capacity for language,” she told her interviewer. Wikswo noted that immediately after her language ability disappeared, her perception of colors, shapes and patterns “came alive with ferocious intensity.” Her visual experience was no longer filtered through the language center of her brain, so she was suddenly seeing the world as a newborn would, without names.

Normally, as Emerson wrote in one of his journal entries, “the world converts itself into that thing you name.” There is a sound evolutionary purpose behind this. Our Pleistocene ancestors did not want to be caught admiring the view when they should have been keeping a sharp eye out for predators. Ferocious intensity is all well and good, but it needs to be channeled into the task at hand. For Sherlock Holmes, that meant noticing the mud on a stranger’s trousers or the scratches on a watchcase. But as for beauty, that was an entirely different matter. There was the time, for example, when Watson commented on how attractive a young female client was in The Sign of Four. "Is she?” Holmes replied.  “I did not observe."

© Copyright 2004-2015 by Eric Rennie
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