A picture of a fox... or some general thoughts on vision.
Being in a forest and mostly with a photo camera, I have felt many times over that it was not I who was looking at the surroundings while my expectations to see a wild animal had fulfilled. On certain days before seeing an animal, I felt that it was rather the unseen animals were looking at me. It’s like playing hide and seek. Probably it was like that, but on the other hand, sometimes there is a point at which you see it, but one no longer knows who sees and who is seen, who is taking a picture of wild animal and who is photographed. A weird question and a fox which I met on my last trip to the neighboring forest made me to rethink what was read a long time ago about Visible and Invisible or Eye and Mind (Maurice Merleau Ponty). On the other hand, this short blog entry is my intention to understand the connection between a wild animal (in a fox case) as the object of photo-action and a human being who is equipped with a photo camera. Is a photo taken could be called a result of this meeting as capture of what is hiding? How does it feel to see what is unseen? And finally, what makes you to wait for a weekend and is keeping you back to seek?
M. M. Ponty discusses how Cézanne gave up a classic artistic elements such as pictorial arrangements, single view perspective, color manifestation, composition. Cezanne intention was to get a lived perspective to capture all the elements that an eye can observe. He wanted to see and sense the objects he was painting, rather than think about them. Cezanne believed that while he was painting, he was capturing a moment in time that once passed, could not come back. Of course, one may say that Cezanne is essentially a classicist painter and painting is a sort of activity which requires more concentration, patience or effort than a simple using of tool to produce moment pictures. But that’s the point. A photo camera is perfectly suitable and helpful to record the normal, real or let’s say more factual vision of the world than any other alternative medium. Possibly the invention of photography and of course an intention to use all the scientific perspective could be interpreted as death of painting in the nineteenth century. Though it is another topic. What I am trying to say, is that a nature photographer in general has much in common with a painter in Cezanne‘s manner. Nature Photographer‘s intention is the same - to capture a moment in time, let it be a fox or an old oak tree, a bird or a golden sunset over the farmland. As for Cezanne who would take hours sometimes to put down a single stroke because each stroke needed to contain the air, the light, the object, the composition, a photographer would share the same feelings to express the same character, the outline or the style.
Let‘s go back to M. M. Ponty and his famous passage on painter and a visible spectacle he paints. Precisely this example of reverse role of painter and his subject made me think about it on my travels to the forest. A weird feeling comes when you see a fox while waiting for her in a bush. Likewise the painter feels who is discussed by M. M. Ponty having in mind Cezanne and other painters of that time. According to M. M. Ponty, every painter while he is painting practices a magical theory of vision. The actions most proper to him – gestures, those tracking’s of which he alone is capable and which will be revelations to others because they do not lack what he lacks – to him seem to emanate from the things themselves like figures emanating from the constellations. That is why so many painters have said that things look at them. The same feelings appear while you sit in a bush or walk through the forest and seek. Am I seen by unseen? Of course, while sitting in a bush you may expect to find a fox, or a deer, another mammal animal, a bird, or even it can be an old oak which is absorbing your look. You feel kind of wrapped in by the forest itself because you seek for something which is unseen. And then you suddenly push a magical button of your photo camera with a fox in a focus. That is a similar gesture of that painter who can sit on a hill for hours in front of the trees waiting for the right stroke. Afterwards, you disappear. Only a fox is left. In a tree case, an oak tree is left, or in a flying bird case – thats your bird. This is a moment when you are directed to your object of intention - the Other - the unseen. This moment you feel like it was not I who was looking at the fox. It was rather the fox that were looking at me. Is it possible?
Kids while playing hide and seek after a while cannot stand up the absence of a hiding fellow. That is understandable because when you seek someone you should find and reverse. When I touch the things in a process of manipulating them there is a necessary consequence – to touch the thing is to be touched by it; to feel the thing is to feel its touch on my hands; the same goes with hearing and observation is not an exception. Patients and effort is the key to find where is your fellow hiding, we may speak about the strategy, attention, circumstances ect. But the action of seeking requires discovering. If a friend refuses to change roles than the kid comes angry and the game is over. This weird feeling of reversibility in M. M. Ponty‘s philosophy would invite us to direct our attention to the problem of so called unreflective level of perceptual experience and at the same time to other accounts such as Flesh, Chiasm etc. Anyway, I would like to skip this invitation by leaving aside a conception of perception and other accounts. We may stay with the idea of double sensations which could reveal another part of this weird feeling experience - anonymous (or unreflecting) experience of oneself at the moment you see the unseen.
Those previously mentioned double sensations of touching and being touched could help us to understand what is feeling of seeing and being seen. Isn’t true that what is seen can be touch, and what is touched can be seen? Let‘s change this example by saying I touch my left hand with a right one. What do I feel? In general, I feel both, touching and being touched. When my actions are intentionally directed to the object desired, in this case, touching a left hand reveals its warm appearance, but at the same time I anonymously feel the cold of the right one. Likewise my gaze is intentionally directed towards a fox, I anonymously have an experience of my own presence. The difference is that a meeting with a fox it’s a meeting with the Other. In other words, I become anonymously unseen for myself and my vision of fox presupposes this being seen. The fox as an external object of my focus see a photographer in a manner comparable to that in which the mirror sees the photographer that is the fox like the mirror let him become visible. It reveals a possibility to experience visible for me something that otherwise would remain invisible – my bodily externality, first of all – I do not reflect my fingers pushing a button like the previously mentioned painter who does not feel his gestures. Therefore, I am sure of my actions and that my fingers will push it on the right moment. Of course, it depends on my experience of using a photo camera. All other my bodily appearances are reflected anonymously as well, as the position of body, the same goes with an experience of a surrounding world and the past memories or future expectations.
Here than is the answer to the question of possibility to be seen by a fox (or a tree; a bird, etc.). The anonymity of the body is infected with the germ of Mineness from the very start and this is so because I am always on the same side of my body - a fact which grounds our existence from the birth. This weird feeling could not be understood as a lack of self-awareness or some trance condition. In the presence of the fox if I am sensitive to it I can experience my being seen as I experience my being seen in the presence of an Other. The fox will immediately react to any my uncertain movement, or a lack of empathy to surrounding environment. Only in this case the fox can function as the mirror that lets me experience my own vision. Of course, foxes do not have a reflecting surfaces and mirrors do not see as we do. We say it metaphorically.
In other words, let‘s say the Oher is, indeed, my mirror but I cannot see through the eyes I see in the mirror. As M. M. Ponty would say, this seeing of me is something I experience in an analogous apperception. My left hand is always in the verge of touching my right hand touching the things, but never reach coincidence. Likewise, I do not hear myself as I hear the others, the sonorous existence of my voice is for me as it were poorly exhibited; I have rather an echo of its articulated existence, it vibrated through my head rather than outside. I am always on the same side of my body in any action of seeing, or touching, hearing etc.
It can be added that it is not accident that more completely than that the most important attributes to get a worth attention picture - lights, shadows, reflections - the mirror image anticipates within things the labor of vision. Like all other technical objects, such as tools and signs, the mirror has sprung up along the open circuit between seeing and the visible body. Every technique is a technique of a body. The mirror emerges because I am visible see-er, because there is a reflexivity of the sensible, the mirror translates and reproduces that reflexivity. In it, my externality becomes complete. Everything that is most secret about me passes into that face, that flat closed being of which I was already dimly aware from having seen my reflections mirrored in a water of a swamp near the bushes.
This reversible connection between a photographer and a fox reveals that at this weird moment when you find what is hiding, you become seen and at the same time unseen for itself, at least indirectly. The experience of fox lets a photographer to catch it how it shows to him, there is no links to production or judgement. The fox like the mirror lets me experience my own vision.
According to M. M. Ponty, a painter is the only one who has a privilege to see without judgment. On the other hand, I think that nowadays a photographer has this privilege as well. His purpose is to catch or reveal what is seen from the clutches of predatory time that the flow of it wouldn’t swallow everything what is visible. In this sense, there is no place to talk about other sort of humans who are holding in hands a gun instead of photo camera. There is no place for selection or evaluation and there would not be a place to speak about mirror as an experience of my own vision, but only a perversion of image. We say that a human being is born at the moment when something that was only virtually visible within a mother’s body becomes at once visible for us and for itself. The photographer’s vision is an ongoing birth. That keeps you back to the forest. As Darwin Wiggett speaks about developing your vision in an article for nature photography, I would advise in the same manner for you and for myself to shoot for yourself. If the end result really pleases your eye you have succeeded and the success will be noticed in a stock photography as well.
p.s. if someone is interesting in further readings of Merleau Maurice Ponty, than it would be suggested to take these books: Eye and Mind; Visible and Invisible. There is a worth attention study on composition of Cezanne art by Arle Loran. He used photography of the same places which were painted by Cezanne as a material for his research.
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Photo credits: Helgardas.