The Power of First Impressions
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, July | August 2001

If outdoor photographers share a common belief, it’s knowing a good photograph when they see one. In the field, this is often not the case. I’ve observed all too many participants in photo workshops wandering aimlessly waiting for the landscape to speak to them. During workshop projection sessions, something very special happens within the first second that the best slide of the day appears on the screen. The audience gasps aloud.

During more than twenty years of teaching, I’ve never heard participants gasp over better-than-average slides. Exceptions that prove the rule are technically flawed yet aesthetically powerful images that often draw just as loud gasps, followed by a pregnant silence.

I’ve long been fascinated by this inborn response to aesthetically composed natural beauty. Something more immediate happens than most art or photography critics will admit. They’ve vested years of their lives into honing the enlightened judgment that is supposedly at the core of their highbrow profession. That aesthetic appreciation might not require deep intellectual contemplation and scholarly historical interpretation is heresy.

Though there’s much more than meets the eye in the making of any meaningful art, acts of creation and appreciation are quite different. Appreciation includes an element of an instantaneous knowing before conceptual thought or cultural bias have a chance to take over. Those audible gasps happen with little more delay than the .55-second basic human reaction time. First perceptions are pure unconscious inference. These instant impressions, communicated to us unequivocally, once warned our ancestors that a sabre-toothed tiger was leaping out of the grass. Those who didn’t react so quickly aren't our ancestors.

We are unable to escape the immediate and decisive conclusions of our visual system, though we can choose not to act by waiting to reassess them through higher mental processes. A rocket scientist suddenly transported into a jungle filled with dangerous creatures is likely to jump at every movement, while the indigenous local guide by his side appears unfazed. Similarly, when I go out with inexperienced photographers searching for wildlife, they often react to seeing animals on distant hillsides that turn out to be stumps or rocks, while I seem unfazed. I’m having the same false perceptions of animals, but I’ve learned to ignore them at a distance until I’ve checked out other visual cues about the scene. I’m also less likely to emit an instant audible gasp when a potentially great photo is suddenly projected that I later see has a seriously out-of-focus foreground. Yet I occasionally react with a loud “Wow” to some near-misses that initially strike a deep aesthetic chord within me.

Scientists have recently become interested in the neurological basis of art, much to the consternation of those who regard the gulf between science and art as unbridgeable. When the esoteric Journal of Consciousness Studies ( printed a special issue in 1999 called “Art and Brain,” criticisms and accusations poured in from all sides, beginning with peer commentary in the same issue. A later editorial described the high level of resentment of “attempts by scientists to trespass into the humanities,” as well as for printing unwarranted social criticisms of scientific opinions about art.

By far the most controversial essay was “The Science of Art: A neurological theory of aesthetic experience,” by V.S. Ramachandran, an esteemed neuroscientist, and William Hirstein, a philosopher of the cognitive sciences. Their suggestion that measurement of a person’s galvanic skin response could be a starting point for understanding aesthetic appreciation of art was strongly criticized as a classic example of how emotional response to art cannot be reduced to neurophysiology. After all, the GSR response, which measures the electrical resistance of the skin and related sweat gland activity, indicates emotional arousal that could be negative as well as positive.

Could “something as ineffable as art really be reduced to the skin’s resistance?” Ramachandran answered no, but explained that GSR provides a starting point in the same way as an IQ test, which may not directly measure the richness of a person’s intellect, yet does provide a strong indicator that a person who rates 130 is far more likely to excel intellectually than someone who rates 70.

The GSR rating can indicate the degree of emotional activation of the brain’s limbic system produced by viewing an image. Ramachandran believes it provides a better measure than asking a subject “how much emotion he feels about what he is looking at, because the verbal response is filtered, edited, and sometimes censored by the conscious mind.”

Reading these words triggered my own dim memories of galvanic skin response being related to emotional truth in a very different way. In 1923, my mother hiked the John Muir Trail with a 19-year-old whiz kid named Leonarde Keeler. He was in the process of inventing and patenting the Keeler Polygraph, the predecessor of the modern lie detector. When I pulled out my mother’s copy of his biography, I found references to his development of a recording “psychogalvanometer” for measuring the truth of verbal statements.

How does this all relate to creating aesthetic nature photographs? Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines aesthetics as “the theory of the fine arts and people’s responses to them,” but the Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought says aesthetics can apply to “nature to the extent that we take the same attitude to it as we do to art,” focusing on “the immediate qualities of the contemplative experience itself” rather than objective information.

I see great nature photography as an aesthetic continuum from nature to art. Unless a photographer first tunes into his or her emotional response to a scene and then applies conceptual thought to how that response can best be communicated to others through a well-composed composition, the result is likely to garner a pregnant silence, rather than an audible gasp, from editors, judges, and friends alike. What someone says moments later to appease you should only be taken seriously after a polygraph test!

What I’ve come to call “workshop slides” are technically perfect images that simply bore me to death. The photographers searched “out there” for interesting objects, such as flowers, trees, rocks, and water, instead of “in here” toward a composition to reflect their own most powerful emotional response, without which a nature photograph becomes something less than the scene it depicts–a two-dimensional representation with a greatly impoverished range of visual cues.

The GSR is but one of many neural mechanisms that Ramachandran describes as related to artistic experience. He sees these as universals that cut across all cultural lines, but has also become intrigued by an ancient Sanskrit word relating to art from his own heritage that has no direct English translation. He describes rasa as “capturing the very essence of something in order to evoke a specific emotion or mood in the viewer’s brain.” The rasa of a mountain meadow is very different from a literal photograph of a flower. To capture it on film involves transcending and enhancing reality to focus attention on the essence, rather than the objects, in a way that just feels right the moment we see it.

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