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Monday, 11 February 2008

Pictures we have never seen

Romy - Colin Pantall 2007

It seems most of the images we see are on the computer screen - on blogs or websites even, if we bother to follow through the link.

We might look at an image for a few seconds - 20 seconds counts as long time if we are clicking through portfolios, a minute or more an eternity.

This leads to the view that digital images have devalued photography, made it a commodity to be viewed and discarded by the incidental viewer.

Partly that's true. The pixellated image loses so much through its digital representation - the colours and details of the image are arbitrary, dependent on the viewer's screen settings, while the super-abundance of images almost invites you to discard one picture and move on to the next one. The very nature of the computer screen is temporary and transitory. What you see is not what you get.

But it is an approximation to what you get, a rough draft, a sketch in comparison to the image on the printed page, in a magazine or a book, or the image installed in a gallery or on a wall somewhere.

And so we can talk about pictures we haven't seen, just as Pierre Bayard helps us talk about books we haven't read.

We can talk about pictures we have seen on the internet - on a secondary site, or a primary site, those we have clicked through, and those we have pondered over.

We can talk about pictures in magazines, as individual images or part of a series. Then there are pictures in books (and it depends on what kind of book it is - catalogue, monograph, art book) and those on a gallery wall. How we see the picture depends on how long we look at it and what context it appears in - as part of a solo show or a group show where the picture is at least partly defined by what surrounds it.

And ultimately it depends on how we look at a picture and how long we look at it - which also determines how well we can talk about it.

Sergei Shchukin, the Russian collector whose works form the heart of the current Russian Paintings exhibition at the Royal Academy, enjoyed looking at works for a couple of hours, opened his house to the public so they could enjoy his paintings (ultimately seized by the Soviet State).

Similarly Larry Sultan believes in the virtues on dwelling on pictures for an hour at a time - taking in the layers of meanings in the image.

Looking at an image for any length of time presupposes a level of comfort in the means of viewing - and looking at pictures on the computer screen is not a comfortable way of viewing.

So we can talk about pictures we see on the computer, but perhaps not that well - which helps to explain why words on blogs, like images on websites, have that disposable factor. And why this posting is not as coherent as I would like it to be.

Which takes us back to the book and the print - the best ways to look at pictures, preferably in your own home (because galleries tend to be hostile environments, in a sanitized sort of way). The internet can lead us to a higher form of viewing, but it can't replace it, and for that we should all be grateful.



Joerg said...

I think it all depends on one's personal approach to images. It is simply inconceivable for me to look at an image for an hour - not because I don't think there is anything to be discovered but simply because I don't think I'd need that hour. I look at images in a very, very fast way - and with books I typically revisit them often instead of looking at them for a long period.

I don't think one can generalize how people might want to look at images.

I second what you wrote about the quality of images online, of course.

colin pantall said...

One can't generalise about how one should look at images, and an hour is a long time, but the point is to spend a length of time looking at a picture.

That really sorts out what has value (as a picture/work in itself) and what doesn't - because very few pictures are worth looking at for any length of time.

Spending time on a picture also has the effect of isolating oneself from the visual noise we subject ourselves too - we can view in the visual peace and quiet that is essential to seeing what goes on in an image. It gives time for different ideas and references to emerge from the picture and the artist's intentions, as well as from our own knowledge and understanding of where the picture comes from. And that's the real value - just letting our mind wander around the subtexts and layers inherent in a great image and allowing them to emerge without interference from the next image and the one after that and the one after that and...