Thursday, 7 December 2017

Cambrian Specs

If you're a regular reader of Mike Johnston's TOP blog you've probably noticed how, over the years, his posts have alternated unevenly between obsessive examinations of photographic gear and jeremiads about not obsessing about photographic gear. It's all about the pictures, you gearheads! No, wait, it's all about the best standard prime lens money can buy! At the moment, Gear Mike seems to have the upper hand over Picture Mike (a cynic might say that this, realistically, probably does return better reader figures) so a recent post about how the pleasure of seeing precedes photography stood out all the more. He concluded that "these things remind me that before photography comes the joy and the wonder of simply seeing. It's one of the reasons for photography in the first place." Well, yep and amen.

I was going to make some idiotic comment there* about the superiority of "Eyes 1.0", but realised that would make me sound like a creationist. In evolutionary release-number terms, we must really be on Eyes version X.Y, where "X" is a very large number, and "Y" is an even larger number. Technically, we may even still be in the beta phase. Eyes have come a long way since the Cambrian, 500 million years ago, but are still far from perfect. I have recently come to realise that my phone screen is not blurry, and I may have to start using reading-glasses soon. Like Apple devices, eyes look great, but lack the necessary ports for essential peripherals. What was that about a blind watchmaker?

Of course, seeing may primarily involve Eyes X.Y, but it also requires Nervous System X.Y, Vascular System X.Y, and so on. The joy of seeing is a whole body experience that situates us convincingly and quite often ecstatically in the world. It also makes extensive use of whatever the latest release of one's own emotional and aesthetic firmware might be. Which is problematic; a lot of us, it seems, fail to regularly update that firmware, and may even still be using a very early version indeed. What else can explain the popularity of videos of cats on social media?

I suppose the point is not just that eyes make cameras look a little simple, but that "photography" is not so much a way of seeing as a way of making things to look at. Although I have a long-standing sympathy for those who argue that using a camera to make pictures is more than a mechanical process – well, of course it is – it isn't much more than that, when compared to whole-body input-and-output experiences like painting or drawing. If you have ever tried to draw a convincing likeness of a person (never mind one that seems to offers insight into the personality of both the sitter and the drawer) you will know how mechanical and – crucially – external to your "whole self" the skill-set of photography really is. Although it is equally true that, if you have ever despaired of the ability of your eyes, brain, nerves, muscles and tendons to make sufficiently satisfying marks on paper to create such a likeness, you may well have fallen back on the mechanical almost-perfection of a photograph; not as an end, but as an aid.

Which, I suppose, is why I'm increasingly interested in picture-making from photographic elements, rather than in photographs as an end in themselves. Whatever anyone else makes of the resulting images, it's just so much more satisfying to do, and consistently and reliably takes me into a similar place to Mike Johnston's "joy and the wonder of simply seeing".

* A number of my comments on TOP have ended up as a "Featured Comment", which would be gratifying, except that it has the annoying side-effect of removing any link back to this blog! I mean, why else would I be making a comment, other than a transparent attempt to attract new readers?


Anonymous said...

I believe one should just regard photography as another visual medium, along with drawing and painting. I agree that the latter two require far more mastership than photography, but if you don't know what to say with your pictures then the results will be nothing more than void exercises in technical proficiency, regardless of the medium. And this is my constant struggle with my projects: To distill something with the pictures, something for which I'm lacking the words. This is probably meant with "seeing" - more in terms of "I see" as in "I understand", or "I feel" than just visual perception. But probably I'm just lacking that perfect standard prime.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


Go for the lens! No, wait, go for the pictures!! ;)

It's the dilemma of photography in a nutshell -- art medium, or enjoyable hobby for those with cash to spare? TOP is its perfect expression, and I don't mean to put Mike down for it.


Julian Behrisch Elce said...

"...eyes look great..."! That was a hidden gem! I remember my 1st year psych course on vision, in which I learned that our vision system only vaguely resembles the functioning of a camera. Your interest in assembled images resonates with what I recall from that course, which was that our eyes scan all over, sending elements to our brain, which puts those together into what we think is a direct representation of reality. Actual scientists will hopefully correct me.

I frequently read, greatly enjoy, and am enriched by your blog and pictures. Thanks!

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Julian, for this comment, which is both apposite and very encouraging -- it's always good when a regular reader break cover!


Andrew Sharp said...

Julian is right that whilst the eye is like a camera in that it focuses an image on a screen the similarity ends there. In fact, as an optical instrument it's not particularly good but it is connected to a wonderful image processing system that seems to work by first of all guessing what's forming the image and then checking to see the differences between what information you'd expect to be coming in, if this guess was correct, and what actually is. In this way the initial guess is refined until it forms the best match that you brain can be bothered to make. i.e if you stir in the night you might well think there's someone in the room until, after a while, you realise that it's only clothes hanging on the back of a chair. They call this predictive processing.

One of the things it means, however, is that as your knowledge of the world increases the guesses can become more subtle and you really do see the world in a different way.

A few years back our doorbell rang during a particularly dull World Cup football match. It was a pair of Jehovah's witnesses. Not really letting them get a word in edgeways I discussed the design of digital cameras saying "You've got the sensor at the back and a load of wires that take the signal to the memory card. Now, if you wanted to make a really good camera would you put these wires in front of the sensor so that light had to pass through them before it could be detected?" "Of course not" they said, only for me to tease them by pointing out that this was precisely what went on in the eye. Design maybe, but not particularly intelligent.

Starting with a patch of light sensitive cells, moving on through a cup of light sensitive cells, putting a clear membrane over the front to help focus an image etc. etc. each of these little incremental changes offer an advantage over the previous version and it's been estimated that you can easily get from the light sensitive patch to a fully functioning eye as we know it in fewer than 200,000 generations.

Andy (Science Guy)

Mike C. said...


Thanks for that Science Man intervention!

Teasing Jehovah's Witnesses is a moral duty, obviously, keep it up. But do keep one step back -- some of them are handy with their fists of divine retribution, I'm told, and you don't want to end up with a blackened light sensitive patch...



I've been shooting for 3 years with a Canon EOSM and a 22mm/2 lens. Because I can't afford to do more. Photography is not about the tool. You can have the most big expensive camera and the 20 lenses that go with it and still have nothing to say.

Mike C. said...


I (think) I agree with the point you're making, though I also think you'll find "photography" is hard to do with a pencil...




A compact camera is not a pencil ! ;-). From the beginning, with my first serie shot in 1995/1996, I've learned to deal with the equipment I had to shoot with and to concentrate much more on the meaning of my photography. I've never touch a 4x5 inches camera (except for my exam at school), I managed to buy a 6x7 Mamiya more than 10 years after starting photography and now I shoot with this compact camera. And talking about pencil, I don't think that Victor Hugo needed expensive pen and notebook to be the good writer he was. In another field, the painter Séraphine de Senlis ( who was a maid, had to paint with what she could find, being unable to buy proper paints. If Technics is important to know, you realize that you can do a lot with little without loosing quality. My only frustration would be that I cannot enlarge my pictures as big as I would like sometimes but here again, it's a question of ego. I don't need to do huge prints to be eloquent. :-)

Mike C. said...

Sorry, Frederick, I was being ironic. What I meant was, yes, of course excellent work is possible with the humblest kit (I am a strong advocate of that myself), but that "photography" of any kind *does* require the use of a camera, and is therefore by definition also about the tool. Self-evidently, a sketch made with a pencil is not a photograph.



Mike, Sorry for misunderstanding then ! ;-) ahahahaha. It seams that I am not that eloquent ! ;-)

Mike C. said...

No problem, Frederick, and thanks for taking the trouble to comment! The overuse of irony is just one of the ways we British contrive to be misunderstood in this world...


FRÉDÉRICK CARNET said...'re British...I should have worry as a French (based in Germany), I am even worse : cynical... ;-)

Martyn Cornell said...

The eye-brain combination is so much more than a camera, of course: take the Hermann grid illusion, where the brain constructs illusory grey patches at the intersections of a grid of white lines on a black background. The latest theory (I learnt this week from trying to help my daughter understand her psychology degree homework) is that the illusion is created by the way the brain enhances edges, making them appear more "contrasty": the white areas in the intersections don't benefit from this artificial boost in contrast and thus appear darker than the white areas nexrt to the straight edges.

Mike C. said...


Interesting... Though it does sound suspiciously like someone comparing the brain to an image processot like PhotoShop (cf. "unsharp mask")!