Grand Illusions
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, June 1998

No photograph is truly successful unless it triggers strong emotion. To make this happen, your viewer's attention must focus on the intended subject. And yet that subject isn't really there. All photographs are illusions. You're not looking at riders beneath a giant sand dune on this page. It's only paper and ink.

One of the more famous visual illusions shown in psychology books appears to be either a vase or a pair of faces. A person not familiar with the illusion sees only one aspect at first. When the other aspect is seen, the first one disappears. Though it becomes ever easier to go back and forth between the two apparent realities, no amount of familiarity will allow both subjects to be seen at the same time. Neuroscientists have proven that the different aspects are processed by different regions of the brain.

The vase and the faces are created in our imagination, based on the limited information on the paper in front of us matched to stored memories of similar real objects. As with all perceptions, we see only what we are prepared to see. If we just had been looking at a still-life photograph with a vase, we would be far more likely to first see a vase. If, however, we had been thumbing through a book of portraits, we might be more likely to first see the faces.

A photograph that conveys the beauty of a vase needs to be composed so a viewer will not imagine faces instead and thus lose the emotional power of the shape of the vase. The more illusions the better in a photograph intended to convey mystery.

So it is for all visual arts. Illusions are created in the mind of each human being as the result of viewing a physical art object first imagined in the mind of another. Some people may love a particular photograph, while others loathe the same image as it downloads negative perceptions from their life experience. Still others withhold emotional involvement and say "That doesn't do anything for me!"

All these responses relate to our unconscious assumption that a photograph represents more than a straight depiction of the world out there. Meaningful photographs ooze human endeavor to symbolize the meaning of our world and our lives upon it. Images that hold the most power for us tend to focus on loved ones, leaders, tragedy, or beauty.

This illusory emotional content depends on us not questioning a photograph's technical quality or validity. When our attention is drawn to technical aspects, we disconnect from emotional content as surely as we stop seeing the vase when we see the faces. As we see a nature photograph to be unsharp or manipulated, our brains shift gears.

Loss of emotional power is also related to the viewer's life experience and the context in which the photograph is presented. Imagine the difference in your emotional response to the same image appearing in National Geographic compared to The National Enquirer captioned "Bigfoot in the wilds of British Columbia."

We photographers truly see images differently than the rest of the public because we tend to view all photographs with a more technical eye that reduces our emotional connection. More of our life experiences have been devoted to looking critically at photographs. This suggests why books and magazines with images chosen by editorial committee tend to have a flatter emotional response than ones where selections are made by a single, competent eye. Images that pass muster through a group of individuals with differing emotional and technical receptors in their minds are either so astounding that they hold universal appeal or so banal that they offend no one.

We cannot escape seeing illusions because perception is not a democratic process. We jump to unconscious conclusions. Even after illusions are explained to us, understanding won't take them all away. Were it otherwise, we would be unable to enjoy photographs. The more we understood them, the less illusory reality they would hold.

The illusion that a wild animal inhabits an image before our eyes is not destroyed by our knowing that the photograph is an illusion, or briefly noting that it is slightly off-color or unsharp. That understanding allows me to prevent getting stuck on the technical side of viewing or creating images by consciously tuning in to their emotional and illusory potential. When I'm in the field and something stirs within me, I need to assess the technical side before pushing the shutter release, but if I simply take a photograph at this stage, it is rarely inspired. Only by consciously switching gears back to my intuitive emotional response can I begin to visualize the illusory power an image could have in the foreign language of film.

I start by asking myself what drew me to want to take a photograph. Almost always, these particular things are a lesser part of the scene before my eyes. When I stood before a great sand dune on the ancient Silk Road in western China in 1980, I was unaware of the central fovea of my eyes darting back and forth between a sand dune and a meadow. Yet I clearly sensed my emotional attraction to these subjects and realized that they would lose context and scale in a photograph that included extraneous subject matter. I decided to focus tightly on the dune with only a narrow strip of meadow to hint at its contrasting presence. Even a moderate amount of meadow in the foreground would have taken on added importance in two dimensions and overwhelmed the giant dune.

About fifty percent of the time, a first concept such as this produces my best photograph. When conditions allow, I patiently shoot many more concepts of a subject that has potential. Though the majority of these later compositions do not work as well, one of them often turns out to be far more evocative. So it was when I waited to see if two riders in the distance would come close enough to the dune to give it scale.

Many people who saw this photograph in a 1981 National Geographic told me that at first glance it created a whole different scene in their minds. It seemed to be a snowfield or a small bluff of sand until spotting the tiny riders created an illusory jump in their perception. Only then did they feel an emotional response to a new and a different illusion.

The lesson of multiple illusions is that emotional content is not inherent in a photograph. Like Narcissus, each of us imparts the illusory power of our own being onto the inanimate surface before our eyes.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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