Seeing Photos–Where Art
and Biology Meet
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, March 1996

Despite all the advances in photo technology, the human factor reigns supreme. More than 99 percent of the world's cameras are capable of taking publishable pictures, yet more than 99 percent of the world's photographs are capable of taking publishable pictures, yet most of the world's photographs aren't of publishable quality. At least half of the problem is due to basic human error, the kind of "little" mistakes that cause pilots to crash jumbo jets and photographers to shoot unrepeatable moments without film in their cameras.

These little mistakes show up even in workshop critique sessions. I give and repeat clear instructions to select 10 slides for projection, orient them as they should appear on the screen, initial the upper right of each mount, and stack them with the first slide at the bottom. After my staff loads the trays, it becomes apparent during the projection session that a few people have put their slides last one first or sporadically sideways or flopped. The correlation between those who make these "little mistakes" and those whose otherwise artful pictures are most often ruined by "little problems" should come as no surprise.

But attention to detail fails to explain why a 1996 camera in the hands of a meticulous PhD who studies the instruction manual won't produce as many publishable images as a 1936 camera in the hands of a person with a refined "photographic eye."

Top photographers learn to "see" pictures by trial and error after years of field experience. Certain situations worked; others failed to "come out." One's quantity of life experience seemed somehow related to the quality and consistency of their ability to produce meaningful, artistic images. Before autofocus, top photojournalists peaked in their late 30s or 40s, just as their ability to focus on the ground glass was starting to wane. Despite countless child prodigies in music, chess, skating, and ballet, there have been few in photography. The early work of talented young photographers remains conspicuously absent from top selections of images with enduring meaning.

It took me more than a decade to understand that it's often what I'm not seeing through the lens that's most important. Today's young photographers can use knowledge from the cognitive sciences to short cut my learning process and thus elevate their photographs to greater visual power than what they see directly through the lens. But there's a catch-22 here: the process can't be directly illustrated in photographs, which show us what we don't see. Nor can it be properly described in the limited words of this column.

At the heart of the problem of seeing photographs before they're made are constancy phenomena - unconscious assumptions made by our visual system that correct "little mistakes" in scenes before our eyes that might otherwise confuse our conscious perception of the world around us. Thus, we don't directly observe all of what we are about to photograph. Nor is our vision truly accurate in any sense of the word. The image in our brain is altered and idealized to help us make clear and fast decisions.

Taking photographs with hopes of looking at them as representations of the world we see clashes with the evolution of our visual system. Constancy phenomena delete information on changing perspective and light, the very things most essential to fine-tuning great photographs. Yet, changing perspective and light renders colors, shadows, contrasts, shapes, foregrounds, and relative sizes without the constancy corrections we think we see "in reality."

This isn't all bad news. If our visual system responded to every difference it is capable of detecting, we would go through life terribly confused. As with a computer search using an accurate but incorrect key word, our brain would be unable to consistently find and compare images held in memory to identify familiar people or objects before our eyes.

But photographs record much of this unwanted information. They can ruin our best intentions by producing confusing visual clutter and dreadful lighting that we simply didn't see.

An obvious question arises. Why doesn't the same eye-brain system, also simplify photographs by constancy phenomena? The answer is that photographs fail to record the broad range of visual cues that trigger constancy. In fact, our visual system does a great job of unconsciously responding to the essential nature of the object before us, such as a magazine page, rather than the absent forms that we consciously think we're seeing within the image. Understanding these processes gives clues as to how and when a photograph can show us an apparent heightened reality, often a more complete visual truth than what was actually seen before the lens.

My own attempts in this column to describe some of the biology behind the act and art of seeing have generated boxes of critical letters. Some readers especially took me to task for saying that color isn't a real property of the world "out there," but rather something created in our mind's eye. One published review accused me of "New Age hype." Hadn't I heard about Sir Isaac Newton proving that color was a property of light by splitting the colors of a white ray with one prism and bringing them back into white again with a reversed prism?

Newton himself had grave doubts about his need to assume a constant relationship between color and wavelength. He mused that he had no way of explaining how "light produceth in our minds the phantasms of colors." Experts now regard color perception as a biologically introduced tool for helping us identify the essential nature of objects in changing illumination. We see leaves as green in any color of natural light, yet our color films, designed by folks taught to take Newton literally, absolutely lock color to wavelength.

When I received letters asking for clear, simple sources to read about all this, I pointed readers toward cognitive psychologist Sir Richard Gregory's many books that describe visual constancy, as well as complex scientific papers on the retinex theory of color vision discovered by Edwin Land, the inventor of the polarizing filter and instant film. I've also cited the recent bestseller by Nobel laureate Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis. None of these make for easy bedtime reading.

The best popularly written insight into the creation of color in the mind and how perceptual constancies affect our vision has just appeared as a 1995 Book-of-the-Month Club selection. An Anthropologist on Mars (Knopf: New York), by Oliver Sacks chronicles seven case histories of neurological patients with strange perceptual disabilities, including an accomplished painter who totally lost his color vision due to a head injury. The consequences proved more serious than congenital red/green colorblindness.

When Mr. I. lost his color vision, his perceptual world changed in unpredicted ways. Instead of clearly seeing nature in black and white like an Ansel Adams print, his disturbed ability to unconsciously compare luminance and reflective values caused him to see dirty, off-color whites and disturbingly harsh contrasts. His visual system seriously confused shadows with real objects so that he swerved to avoid shadows when he tried to drive his car. He learned to seek out soft, low light where he didn't make mistakes in perception because of his lack of visual constancy information.

The world of reduced visual constancies Sacks describes is hauntingly close to that photographed by someone who has not learned "to see" pictures. Similarly, our pictures "come out" by accident, resembling what we think we saw only in fortuitous situations where the need for visual constancy adaptations of the image in our brain is largely cancelled out by even lighting, shooting parallel to the horizon, or ideal subject orientation.

Sacks brings Crick into the investigation, describes Land's work in laymen's terms, and consults Gregory on a later perceptual case. Thus, great minds come together to assess abnormal perceptual worlds that help us understand why our seemingly normal world won't photograph that way.

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