"I see," said the blind man, and he did. So powerful is the sense of vision, so strongly does it motivate, affect and determine the quality of the many avenues of our relationships with all that surrounds us, that its central force, that of imagery - and therefore imagination - has become a potent metaphor for understanding. It often goes beyond that which is empirically observable.
I have recently discovered, through the pleasure of reading Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses, that more than two-thirds of the body's sense receptors are concentrated about the eyes. This vastly disproportionate sensual imbalance has profound consequences for the ways in which we perceive, learn, think, express and behave.
Our language is filled with visual expression. "Seeing is believing" even in a time of digitized and manipulated imagery. It is extraordinarily rare for credible evidence to be that of an ear-witness rather than an eye-witness. We have "visions of the future," visions even of the past, and sometimes simply "visions." If we can "see the "writing on the wall" we may be credited with being "visionaries" or discredited for being "myopic" or "blind." Depending upon "looks" and grooming, one can be either a "vision" or a "sight." Beauty, the absence thereof, and so much else, is "in the eye of the beholder." The "mind's eye" is frequently credited as being the source of imagination or "insight."
The eye, however, is best enabled when its attendant mind is well trained.
For the past two summers, I have been conducting an experiment on initially unsuspecting students to see whether we can effectively pierce the veil between left-brain-dedicated empiricism and right-brain-intuitive imagination. My thought was to discover, in an exuberantly unscientific way, whether both hemispheres could comfortably and quickly combine to produce results of technique informed by fantasy. The experiment was modestly disguised behind the title "Arts 20 - Creative Arts Workshop: Photography."
I knew that from the first day of class I would likely be facing at least two problems. The first was that Golden Gate University especially attracts students interested in a highly practical education, and who therefore have an exceptionally strong empirical orientation. The second is a largely cultural, gender-related problem in which, very generally speaking, men appear to be less intimidated by machinery and women appear to be less intimidated by the invitation to employ fantasy and imagination. I am informed that the world's oldest and one of its most distinguished photographic organizations, The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, has a membership that is 87% male, and that at least part of this most regrettable disparity is owed to the traditional emphasis on mechanics.
On the first day of class I was warned by a woman student that I would have a difficult time overcoming her devoted orientation to logical reasoning. My reward came a few weeks later when she told me, with more than a hint of pride in a new accomplishment, that her family and friends now thought her "weird"!
As a medium of communication and artistic expression, photography is caught in its own peculiar paradox: its dependence upon complex machinery suggests that the machinery is the chief determinant of the images produced by the medium. This falsehood is partly the result of our historic reliance, since the Renaissance, on technique and machinery. It is blatantly reinforced by the manufacturers of that machinery, perhaps more so in photography than in other expressive medium.
It's difficult to imagine attributing the excellence of an outstanding chef's cuisine to the features of his stove, and useful to remember that creative writing is not, and never has been, the product of the computer or its software. I am chilled by "I love your work. What kind of camera did you use?" as Truman Capote would undoubtedly have been by "I enjoyed your book. What kind of typewriter did you use?" To Kodak's exhortation of "You push the button, we do the rest" as well as to a more recent lens advertisement that promises "Every frame a masterpiece" the sage response should be: "Of what use are lens and light, to those who lack in mind and sight?"
Arts 20 has a purpose; indeed it has several. Among them, and arising out of my own satisfyingly multidisciplinary education, is the desire to promote the medium of photography as a worthwhile learning experience along a broad avenue that leads to the performance of a rather richer exercise than making pretty pictures. It is an exercise in re-establishing a consciousness of the unity of knowledge and bringing to bear all the experience, imagination, training and education that each participant carries in the uniqueness of his or her own life. But if the proximate product appears to be the manufacture of aesthetic, communicative images, then the ultimate product is the process by which we combine the riches of imagination with the virtuosity (technical skills) of execution. It is in the exercise of this process that we have the potential of creating not only the best artists, but also the best of our scientists, lawyers, teachers, businesspeople and citizens.
© Raphael Shevelev. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint is granted provided the article, copyright and byline are printed intact, with all links visible and made live if distributed in electronic form. This article was originally published in Connections.
Raphael Shevelev is a California based fine art photographer, digital artist and writer on photography and the creative process. He is known for the wide and experimental range of his art, and an aesthetic that emphasizes strong design, metaphor and story. His photographic images can be seen and purchased at www.raphaelshevelev.com/galleries.