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Photographic Image Arts Masthead

Adventures in Art, Photography & Design


Five unstructured and unrepentant ruminations on art, vision, signs, symbols, graphic depiction and photographic imagery.


In many ways, (but not all ways), art has something to do with the senses. One can think of art based on visual imagery, (illusionistic, or representational art), and a large proportion of photography, including scientific and medical imaging, as extensions of the sense of vision. However, much art based on photography, (such as photorealism, Andy Warhol's and Cindy Sherman's work, etc.), occupy a more conceptual realm and are less directly engaged in the process of human vision itself. Graphic designers, on the other hand, are charged with evoking feeling and communicating meaning in their work, and often employ photographic imagery toward this end.

Think of the famous posterized image of Che—the most reproduced graphic image in human history, and ironically, as an image of a Communist Revolutionary hero, one of the most commodified and commercially exploited images of all time. This image has endured as a symbol of rebellion, (on posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs and more recently mouse pads and hoodies), for decades, across cultures, and across the globe. But the fact that the original photograph—a document, as in a documentary photograph—of Che was modified and turned into a graphic image... then the graphic image itself went on to achieve status as a global symbol of rebellion... then later as a meme for the total capitalist exploitation of public domain imagery in the form of endless chotchkes... demonstrates how visual images, when turned into graphic images, can take on radically different characteristics and meanings.

In graphic design, images are used to spark or guide emotions and also function as a target, (or vessel), for the projection of meaning by the viewer. If a straightforward photograph is an extension of the sense of vision, and a graphic derived from that same photograph is no longer referencing the sensory realm, but rather a realm of concept and communication, (and often commerce), can we say that graphics based on photography are literally senseless? By this I mean: removed from the context of direct or extended sensual apprehension and relocated to the realm of language? How does vision differ from a visual language?

As mentioned earlier, visual languages, in particular, the varieties of symbolic graphics and their meanings, like oral and written languages, are based on regional agreements. A graphic image that symbolizes something here, may symbolize something entirely different there. It's only when specific graphic images or symbols become memes that they spread globally, and for a time, seem to mean the same thing worldwide.

The most obvious example of leveraging the power of the latter effect are corporations building global brands. They invest huge sums into developing their logos, just for starters, knowing that, if one is a multi-billion dollar entity, even a 1-2% lift in brand recognition can translate into millions of dollars in additional revenue, per year. If effective, the investment in design and branding pays itself off in the first year. Successful corporate logos and trademarks transcend local language differences. The Oakley, Nike or Harley-Davidson logo is recognized just as easily in Dubai or Shanghai as it is in Yuma or Peoria.

Retinal Extravaganza

Experiments in pure vision have found their way into the world of fine art, (Duchamp), neurobiology, (optical illusions), and graphic design ('60's op art). Optical illusions can be entertaining and they can be downright bizarre. The more eerie or spectacular variants can be considered a form of retinal extravaganza.

Of course, other forms of retinal extravaganza include fireworks, concert light shows and film special effects. Eye candy such as masks, costumes and parades have a long history. But think also of the eye-popping qualities of palaces, cathedrals and skyscrapers, all structures designed to impress the eye and impose their sheer presence upon the viewer.

Interestingly, another form of retinal extravaganza is the sensory deprivation tank. It has been found that individuals deprived of common sensory input, (light, sound, weight, etc.) begin to hallucinate and exhibit signs of psychosis, sometimes within a mere 15 minutes.

The ingestion of psychoactive or hallucinogenic drugs can also create similar effects, including vivid visual and auditory hallucinations. For some American Indians, such substances are a part of their spiritual life—a sacrament. Among some artists, experimenting with their mental and visual states is common practice. In the words of Arthur Rimbaud, "The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences."

In the '60's, such activity spawned a compelling and wide ranging set of psychedelic art. Poster and comic art were taking to new highs, (pun intended), by artists such as Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin. It also produced a great interest in psychosis in art, and made counterculture superstars out of the artists like schizophrenic Louis Wain.

Perhaps the most well known example of the retinal extravaganza in film is the "star gate" sequence from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. This was produced in the late '60's, when film special effects were still quite primitive, thus, the effects employed were entirely optical, yet highly controlled. Nonetheless, they are spectacular, and made an impression even upon those who had never experienced a light show before.

Cornea and Cortex

It is clear that there is a substantial difference between art and design directed toward the cornea, (visual sensory apparatus), vs. work directed at the cortex, (agreement-modulated conceptual or visual-language work), that requires being "read" and interpreted by the viewer.

Despite the fact that Duchamp produced his kinesthetic work, (what we could today call "op art"), he had developed a distain for what he called "retinal art". His body of work is instrumental in the development of artwork involving chance operations, (i.e., John Cage, Merce Cunningham, William Burroughs), and conceptual art later in the 20th Century, and yet Duchamp never lost sight of the fact that we "look at" and "see" art, as is evidenced by his inclusion of perspective elements in his Large Glass and the full title of his other glass work, To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour. His interest in optical mechanisms is also reflected in the enforced viewer perspective, of his late work, Etant Donnes.

The complexity of Duchamp and his work, however, like Leonardo and Durer before him, are rare. Most artists are either oriented toward the cornea or the cortex. Even spirituality in art has tended to produce work that is oriented toward one or the other.

Vapid Eye Movement

Vision, imagery, dreaming... at times, most people have very vivid dreams. "Experts" claim that one does not dream in color, but I do. "Experts" claim that one cannot dream about being killed, and survive it, but I have. "Experts" claim that lucid dreaming is rare, but it is not really that rare. I can only conclude that dream experts don't know what they are talking about, or that they only study really dull people. (Who, after all, has the time to volunteer for clinical trials?)

Since we can't "record" our dreams to share with others, (at least not yet), I cannot speak for anyone else, but the visuals in my dreams are very vivid, very detailed. (I should say as detaied as they could possibly be. If, in a dream, I look at something closely, it is seen in as much detail as if I were awake, looking at the same object.). My dreams are in color, and sometimes quite violent. Although dreams are usually very fluid, (i.e., locations, people and/or situations changing or morphing inexplicably), many of my dreams have been long, detailed and coherent, as if I am inside a two-hour movie.

Like many others, I have had dreams that have been remarkably prescient. I have solved complex problems of every nature in my dreams. It is very common for me to wake up and to "know exactly what I should do". None of these things are surprising. Many people experience similar things while dreaming.

For the purposes of these ruminations, however, I can say a few things about dream imagery, at least from my own experience. Dream imagery may not be as generally stable as waking imagery, but it is fundamentally no different than waking imagery. If, in a dream, I pick something up and look at it closely, the level of detail present is no different than if I were examining a similar object in a waking state. The same is true with observing someone or witnessing an action in a dream. I have dreamed images of crashing jetliners on several occasions that are realistic in every horrific detail. (Yet, I have no fear of flying and in fact, enjoy the sensation of flight.)

Some of the things we dream are inexplicable. I have had very detailed conversations with my father, who died years ago, and on at least a handful of occasions, have had at least two of my cats speak to me in dreams very clearly, and express thoughts that, in a waking state, seemed perfectly natural. I have seen things in my dreams that are quite spectacular, but in no way has the dream imagery that I can remember been in any way deficient or inferior to the way I see in "real life".

Based on the last few decades of research into vision and consciousness, this should not be much of a surprise. We know that all of our connections to the "real world" are highly tenuous, and highly modulated by our nervous systems and our minds. Every sensation we experience, seeing, feeling, hearing, etc., are sent as massive streams of coded electro-chemical signals that somehow are re-organized, analyzed and interpreted as images, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings that appear to correlate with "reality". But, in reality, we never directly experience reality. The reality we experience is constructed inside our heads. Therefore, the images, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings that we experience in dreams are really no different in character or composition to what we experience in a waking state.

It is not that uncommon for artists to "dream" artworks, then to wake up and produce what they "saw" in their dream... or for composers, filmmakers or writers to do the same. Dreams are a source of artistic inspiration, but they are also engines of problem solving, the products of our restless imaginations.