Thursday, August 23, 2012

Center of the Perception

After the Prime Location– the Center of Perspective– has been selected the second dimension of editing that a photographer normally enters into is the direction into the universe that the camera is aimed. Before this choice is made, the camera is free to rotate in any direction, pivoting about the center of perspective. This pointing in space is the axis, or vector, that further defines the image to be created. Just as the location of the center of perspective is a choice of one spatial point out of the infinititude of possible points, the direction that the camera is ultimately to look must be a single choice out of equally infinite possible directions.

Direction of View, A
And as the point of perspective defines the center of the photographer's perception, so the direction of view of the camera will define the center of the final image, or the center of interest for the final observer of the photograph (this is part of the "what?" dimension of editing). While the point of perspective is the place the photographer is looking from, the direction of aim (direction of view) is the point infinitely far away that the viewer of the photograph will be looking toward. This is not to say that the major point of interest for the photograph's viewer is always the geometric center of the image, as that is rarely the case in reality. But it is to say that this is the cardinal reference point for the viewer– the point to which all items of interest in the image are referenced or related.

One could think of the point of perspective as the center of the perceiver (or the camera), and the direction of view as the center of the perception (the image).

Direction of View, B
 There are two rotational dimensions that comprise the camera's aiming direction. These are commonly called the elevation and the azimuth. The elevation is fairly obvious– this is how high above (or how far below) the horizon the camera is pointed. The azimuth, while not quite so obvious, is basically what "compass direction" the camera is pointed toward.

The three photos to the right may not be all that interesting from a visual standpoint, but they will serve to illustrate the issue at hand. Even though the camera's entrance pupil is at exactly the same place for each shot, pointing the camera in a slightly different direction drastically changes the composition and substance of the shot. And even much more subtle changes in the camera's direction than I have used here can still dramatically change the look and feel of the final photograph.

There is another part of this rotational editing that generally occurs at the same time as the direction of view. But unlike choosing the direction that the camera is aimed, this choice is nearly always by default. This is the orientation of the camera, or the angle of rotation between the bottom edge of the image and some reference plane in the universe (for instance, the surface of the earth).
Direction of View, C

Nearly always, the photographer leaves this to the conventional choice and doesn't even think about it. That, in itself, is a choice. Convention would declare that the bottom edge of the image should be parallel to the horizon– and that "down" in the image should conform to "down" in the real world. But there is nothing that says this orientation is the only useful, significant, or valuable orientation possible. It's just the most obvious. In fact, if this orientation is actually allowed to be anything within the 360 degrees of rotation, whole new possibilities of creativity begin to reveal themselves.

We saw previously that the point of perspective is defined by its location in space, and this location is  composed of three translational dimensions– how high, how far left or right, and how far forward or backward (or as the mathematician has it: the X, Y, and Z).

Interestingly, the vectors that define the aiming of the camera are also three dimensional. There is the single rotational dimension of the image's orientation, and then there are the two rotational dimensions (elevation and azimuth) that define the camera's pointing direction. These two sets of three dimensions (three translational and three rotational) comprise the complete complement of what the physicist or mathematician considers the six spatial "degrees of freedom."  These "degrees of freedom" are what give the photographer the freedom to choose any possible shot from the limitless possibilities.

Use your freedoms wisely and don't simply settle for the obvious. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Center of the Universe

I wrote previously that editing is one of the fundamental tools, maybe THE fundamental tool, of photography. The photographer starts with an external, previously created universe and then begins a process of decisions culminating in either inclusion or exclusion of various components of that reality. These decisions can be incredibly detailed and complex, but for the most part they tend to fall into three primary dimensions of choice.

Often the first dimension of decision that a photographer makes is one that I would call the point of perspective, or the point of view, or maybe the center of the photograph's universe. This has to do with the photographer's location, or more precisely, the location of the center of the camera's entrance pupil.

It has been said that "the eyes are the windows of the soul," and similarly, you can think of the entrance pupil of the camera as the window of the "soul of the photograph." If you look into the front of a camera's lens, you will see a dark hole right in the middle– the entrance pupil– the gate through which all light that ends up producing the photograph is channeled. And for the photographer, the camera's pupil becomes an extension of his own anatomical pupil. In this article, I will use the two interchangeably: the photographer's own pupil, and the entrance pupil of the camera.

When you open your eyes and look out into the universe, in a sense, you are at the geometric center of everything you perceive. For better or for worse, you ARE the center of your own perceptions. Your perception of the universe is limited by your own location. The way everything looks to you is based upon where you stand– your location in space. The visual relationship of various objects outside of you is a function not only of their geometric relationship to each other in space, but even more so of your geometric relationship to them.

Center of Perspective
at first location
(three poles aligned)
© Bill Brockmeier

Center of Perspective
farther to the right
© Bill Brockmeier
Center of Perspective
slightly to the right
© Bill Brockmeier
The phenomenon of parallax is the prime example of this principle. If three objects are aligned with each other, and you view them directly from the front, the one in front and the one in back appears neither to the right nor to the left of the one in between ("first location" in photo above). But if you move off to the right of them, the one in front now appears to be to the left of the middle one (tall white pole), and the rear (crossing sign) appears to the right.  And if you move even farther to the right, they appear separated even more. Although the three objects appear to be moving in relationship with one another, they are actually fixed in space– it is your own motion which has caused the apparent motion of the objects.

Center of Perspective
at street level
Center of Perspective
three floors above street level
How things appear is largely based upon where you stand– what your point of perspective is. And it is the same with a photograph. How things appear in the photograph is largely based upon where the camera (and most importantly, its entrance pupil) is located.

The apparent geometric relationships of the objects in a photograph are formed and then secured by the location that the photographer chooses for the camera. And this location not only affects where they seem to be in respect to each other, but their relative sizes as well. It should be obvious that the closer the camera is to an object the larger it appears, and vice versa.

So, where the photographer chooses to set up his camera is the first decision of editing that must be made. This will drive a stake in the universe at the center of perspective for the image. The infinitude of other possibilities for the arrangement of objects in the universe has been excluded, and this singular point in space now begins to define the potential image.

Two other dimensions of editing will be explored in following articles...

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Editor's Knife

Photography, for the most part, is not an art based on creation ex nihilo, out of the void, but it relies instead on working with something that came before– something that already exists.  Down at the very ground level the photographer's task is that of an editor. The ever present questions before the photographer are— "what do I leave out of the image?" and "what do I incorporate into the image?"

The media– the raw materials and components– from which the photographic artist composes her "work" is the physical universe itself. The environment, the surroundings, the ambience in which she is immersed is the canvas and pallette and pigments that she will use to paint her creations. But maybe more to the point, and a better analogy perhaps, is to liken the photographer to a sculptor, whose work it is to take an existing mass of stone, imagine within it the art she desires to express, and then cut away everything from outside that does not match that artistic vision.

Unfinished Slave ("Blockhead Slave")
by Michelangelo Buonarroti,
housed in the Accademia in Florence
Near the top of nearly everyone's lists of remarkable artists is the Italian sculptor (and painter and poet and architect and engineer) Michelangelo Buonarroti. His work is extraordinary not only because of the virtuosic technical skill he enjoyed, but maybe even more so because of his profound and penetrating grasp of the creative purpose and process. One of his enduring perspectives on this process is his statement that the most significant sculpting is about understanding the art– the figure– that already exists within the physical stone. He wrote:

"In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."

According to Michelangelo the sculptor must strive to see the figure hidden within the stone, and in the same way the photographer must work to see the image that lies beyond a surface view of the world. And then, just as the sculptor must be an editor of rock, chiseling off, chipping away, and grinding down the original raw surfaces, the photographer must be at work selecting a specific place to shoot, a unique direction to aim the lens, a singular cropping for the final print. The decisions to be made by the photographer are manifold, and laying out the whole spectrum of them deserves an article of its own.

It mostly comes down to the need to use the "knife." The photographer must cut keenly between what exists in the physical universe that belongs in his image, and what does not. There is an infinite amount of material that must be eliminated from the potential image, with only a trace– just a whiff– of the universe left. Ruthless decisions must be made. It's either in or it's out.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Ferment

We just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York City. The opportunity to stay in an apartment in Midtown Manhattan was just too tempting to pass up. While there, we took the liberty to experience some of the unique possibilities only available in this City Of All Cities.

If I could describe our time there in just a few words, the first things that pop into my mind are very sensory-based: rusty, noisy, filthy, stinky. If you have a soft spot in your heart for NYC you might be offended by this estimation, and I apologize if I have touched a nerve. My point here is not to offend, but simply to report my honest human perception of the place.

Peeling Paint in 53rd Street Station
© 2012, Bill Brockmeier
But this is clearly not all of what the city holds. If that were the case, it would not be possible for a landlord to rent out a fifth-floor, walk-up, single bedroom, spartanly appointed flat of only 360 square feet for a few thousand dollars per month (as is the case for the apartment we called our home-base for four days). There are literally millions, maybe tens of millions or even hundreds of millions, of people who would love for the chance to live in this city. There must be something more here than the visceral description I used above.

I was amazed at the incongruity that seemed to present itself around every turn. Walking along a street in Midtown, we passed under an overhead bridge that was constructed who-knows-when, and covered in thick rust that was busily exfoliating onto the street and sidewalks and pedestrians below. Talk about infrastructure that needs more than a face-lift! And just turning the corner we would be treated to the astounding sculptural sight of an architectural wonder rising majestically high above us.

Then, we used the extensive subway system to make our way to a new location in the city and were frequently treated to a barrage of olfactory overloads. Though the puddles of urine and deposits of feces were invisible to the eyes, they were plainly "visible" to the nose! After arriving at our stop, we hurriedly walked up the stairs to the street above, while a finely appointed young woman rushed down the stairs next to us, trailing in her wake wisps of the incredible fragrance of the lavish perfume she was wearing.

One World Trade Center Under Construction
© 2012, Bill Brockmeier
These contrasts were jarring and continual. Living far out in the Texas Hill Country had not adequately prepared me for the roller-coaster ride of the senses that awaited me in Manhattan.

All of this reminds me of something that my Dad said to me not long ago. I was having lunch with him and my Mom and as we sat down to eat he said "Would you like some of this cheese? It's pretty good!" I asked what it was and he said that it was a really nice Liederkranz, similar in some respects to the German Limburger. I respectfully declined, and he said to me "Ohhhh, just get beyond the fragrance of it, and the taste is just wonderful!" He finally talked me into it, yet even after tasting it, the smell was still too much for me. But he sure was enjoying it.

I recently finished writing an extensive essay titled "God of the Compost" which features the bewildering ways that decay, rot, and decomposition can ultimately give rise to a host of marvelous products. Probably the single best word to use for these sorts of highly useful processes is "fermentation." I think this is at least part of what is at work in New York City, and why so many are willing to put up with the assault on their sensitivities. The smell of decay is certainly not appealing, but the resulting mature wine can be a feast for the palate!


Note: if there is enough interest in the essay I mentioned above (please leave a comment here) I may publish it somewhere on this blog...Thanks!