chapter
46 Pages

Photography and the anatomy of sight

ByREBEKAH MODRAK

Through much of modern history, the act of seeing was considered to be purely mechanical and the eye was understood as a passive vehicle of image production. Experiments by Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) further demonstrated that even an eye detached from the rest of the body will form images. Descartes removed an eye from a human corpse. When holding an object in front of the eyeball, an inverted and reversed image of the object appeared on a sheet of paper held behind the eye. This discovery-that an eye unattached to the human body and brain can project an image-reinforced the notion that seeing is a purely physical act. In the late 1830s, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), inventor of the calotype, the first paper negative process, defined photography as the pencil of nature, because he understood the camera to be that disembodied eye, mechanically reproducing whatever fell before its lens. Seeing photographically is still often considered in these passive terms. Some photographers wait for an event to occur, for the “right” moment to photograph. In the 1970s, Susan Sontag, author of the influential book On Photography, described the act of photographing as “essentially an act of non-intervention.”1 She stated:

Though opting to take the photograph could be considered an active choice, a conscious act, Sontag observed that people simply snap pictures without thinking about their responsibility to a situation. We often view the world as a series of fixed images, rather than as a series of dynamic unfolding events of our own making. These centripetal theories, wherein images advanced toward the eye, had an early centrifugal counterpart, in which radiance flew from the eye. Early Greek philosophers such as Plato and Euclid believed that, in order to see, light particles were projected out of the eyes onto objects. The eye actively creates the image. Despite the fantastic pyrotechnics implied in this proposal, Plato’s active theory of vision is close to our contemporary understanding in which seeing is a matter of choice, of actively seeking images with our eyes and brain.