Do I perceive what I see?

Through most of our education process we learn our eyes are the organ of sight.  We study cut-away diagrams of the eyeball with rays of light passing through the cornea and lens to fall on the retina in the back, usually showing an upside down version of the subject we are looking at.  Classic optics – Isaac Newton would be comfortable with such a diagram.  Yet in all our classes we seem to learn only half the process.

The retina responds to light hitting it by generating a multitude of signals that pass down the optic nerve to the brain.  Here they are processed and the final information connected to other information stored in other parts of the brain and we suddenly get a realization – “Oh, a flower.”

There are ongoing philosophical conversations about what’s happening to our reality in the very short duration between pointing our eyes at something and getting the realization of what it is but that’s a different discussion from this one.  I’m more interested in the pattern recognition ability of our visual system.  Just how much information do we need in order for that final realization to take place?

ISO 100, 50mm, 1/400 sec., f/2.5

For example, in the image above, the near flower is easily recognized – it is in focus, is it closest to the viewer, and it corresponds to a shape we’re used to seeing this time of year.  Behind the near flower is a purple blob – what is that?  Most people will also recognize this as a flower, one very much like the first one.  Even though blurred it retains a similar shape, has similar coloration in the middle, and an indistinct yet present stem is apparent beneath it.

What about that far purple blob?  Again, most people would connect it with the first two and declare it to also be a flower yet it has none of the characteristics of the first two.  The shape is different, the color more uniform, there are no secondary features like the stem.  Is it a flower or not?  More interesting to me, how much more information does the average viewer need to draw a conclusion?  Hard to say, probably different for each person.  Nonetheless, most people will call it a flower simply because it is proximate to the other two.

So what is this?  If you never saw the first image what would you recognize it as?  There is no defining structure, just blurred colors.  The blur itself seems to have a structure but is it relevant to the subject or just an artifact of the processing?

As it turns out, it also is a flower whose image has been changed with an editing tool.

Artists either show us things we’ve never seen before or show us things we see everyday but in a new way.  But is it art if we don’t recognize it as something?  The Impressionists departed from the Classical way of painting by using paint as their tool for details instead of drawing.  The Cubists continued the journey away from Classical painting by deconstructing subjects into more basic forms.  Yet even Picasso’s Cubist portraits of women can be identified as women.

If we are unable to perceive something we see, something that has been created by an artist to show us a new or different view of reality, has the artist failed or succeeded?  Is art just for seeing?  Or is perception an equally important factor in appreciating that your reality has been jolted?

How much information does the artist need to supply in their work in order to enable perception (assuming it is important)?  It seems to me this is a vague transition – too much information and the image is documentary; too little information and the image is abstract to the point of being unintelligible.  Somewhere in between, lying in a grey area, resides the “just-right” amount of information that will attract seeing as well as satisfy perception.

I pursue detail in my landscapes and other images because I believe all that information is important to appreciate the photograph.  Yet other photographers have different opinions and approaches.  My challenge is to explore how to present an image that is attractive and perceptual without excessive detail, a way to tell the story without all the words and phrases.


2 thoughts on “Do I perceive what I see?

  1. “If we are unable to perceive something we see, something that has been created by an artist to show us a new or different view of reality, has the artist failed or succeeded? Is art just for seeing? Or is perception an equally important factor in appreciating that your reality has been jolted?”
    That’s my favourite part..I think the artist would have succeeded because it opens our eyes (and minds) up to something *new* in a sense..if that makes sense 🙂
    and the “flower” (2nd from last photo) I would assume is just a colour prism 😛


    • I agree opening the mind is a good thing but I’m wondering if there’s a point where a viewer might just give up. Even when I’m receptive to new visual experiences when I can’t connect what I see to something I understand I lose interest pretty fast. Unless the experiential is all that’s intended or where it becomes a path to some other perception. And how does the artist communicate that?


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