Saturday, April 25, 2009

Unpublished Reflections Of A 584-Year-Old Camera

Fig. 1. Laurie Simmons - Big Camera, Small Camera, 1977

'One day in 1425, Filippo Brunelleschi walked out onto the Piazza del Duomo in Florence. Standing at the main doors to the cathedral, facing the baptistery across the piazza, he set up a small wooden box on a stand. He had invited various influential friends and cognoscenti to witness his experiment. One by one they stepped up to this curious device and closed one eye to stare through a small hole in one side. To a twentieth-century observer, the only interpretation of this scene could be that of a photographer demonstrating a new camera. By expanding the definition of photography perhaps more than is acceptable, Brunelleschi's box could be considered a crude camera. For a citizen of fifteenth-century Florence, the effects of looking into this device were as mind-boggling and astounding as if seeing an actual camera for the first time. Peering into the small hole, they first saw a direct monocular view of the baptistery across the way. Then, by the flip of a lever, a mirror was moved into position and a small painting of the baptistery appeared, exactly in line and proportional to the direct view. In fact, with regard to geometry and form, the two were barely distinguishable. Brunelleschi had made a sharp right-hand turn out of the Middle Ages.

That Brunelleschi's demonstration seems so obvious to us today is a measure of its intellectual achievement - the more a revolutionary discovery shifts or even shatters the world view, the more commonplace it seems to the observers of subsequent ages. What he accomplished that day must have seemed to his contemporaries to be at the very limits of knowledge, as incredible, for example, as some of the quantum physicists' descriptions of our world seem to people of today. Prior to 1424, no one had ever painted an image that way. Historians describe this event as Brunelleschi's public pronouncement of the laws of linear perspective, which he is credited with discovering. There is certainly no doubt that his new system, along with its formalization and publication by his friend Leon Alberti twelve years later, irrevocably altered the history of painting and accelerated the development of techniques of artificial image making.

Describing Brunelleschi's breakthrough simply as the discovery of the vanishing point, however, places an inordinate emphasis on the picture itself as the locale of this revolutionary change. What Brunelleschi achieved was the personification of the image, the creation of a "point of view" and its identification with a place in real space. In doing so, he elevated the position of the individual viewer to an integral part of the picture by encoding this presence as the inverse, in absentia, source of the converging perspectival lines. The picture became an opaque mirror for the viewer, and the viewer, in turn, became the embodiment of the painter, "completing the picture" as art historians like to say, with the two points of view merging in a single physical spot. The painter now says when he or she paints, "See things as I see them. ... Stand in my shoes." Consequently, the picture plane and the retina became the same surface. Of course, "Whose retina?" was the key question, as the manipulation of the viewer, an early form of behaviorism, was added to the list of artistic techniques.

In the dialogue between viewer and image, there were now three entities where formerly there had been two, or possibly even one. (One in the sense that most images, as thoroughly two-dimensional diagrammatic and/or schematic representations, were previously used as a sacred vehicle to achieve a state of union between the viewer and the divinity.) The image was to be taken to heart within the individual, with the concurrent loss of self-identity so common to religious experience, thus forming the single image of "self/deity." It was an evocation rather than a description (the picture evoked the god or goddess within, it did not describe him or her without).

With the new identification of the viewer with the painter, rather than with the sacred object, came the placement of both of them relative to a third entity, the nearby physical object(s) or subject of the painting, and along with this possibly the inauguration of the process of encroachment of the individual ego (i.e., the artist's) onto the image in the visual arts.

In the Brunelleschian world, the mechanism is perception, the image retinal. When the emphasis is on the act of seeing at a physical place, then time enters the picture as well ("if it's here, it's not there - if it's now, it's not then"). Images become "frozen moments." They become artifacts of the past. In securing a place on earth, they have accepted their own mortality.'

Bill Viola ('The Temporal Image' from Video Black: The Mortality of the Image)