Hiryczuk/Van Oevelen, Sceneries | Man Reading by a Window, 2007

Hiryczuk/Van Oevelen, Sceneries | Man Reading by a Window, 2007

The Machinations of Photography
The title of this post is borrowed from the subtitle of the essay ‘A. and Pangeometry’, written in 1925 by El Lissitzky. It underlines the mutual relation beween art and perception but also his personal conviction that art has the power to challenge our visual habits. Click to read the integral text.

Photography is generally understood as a means to produce images of reality. The analogy between the optical functioning of the photographic lens and our human eye even makes us believe that photography generates an accurate representation of what we see. But photography is a ‘medium’ and, as such, it mediates between the reality it represents and the other reality it – by this very process – engenders. Photography moreover is not only a machinery that produces images for us to look at, it also produces a specific way of looking.

Over the centuries there have been many developments in the way reality is visually represented. In the West the Renaissance eventually brought us the sophisticated system of central perspective. This system was not invented at once but went through different stages, each one adding a piece to the puzzle of ‘accurate’ visual reproduction. Da Vinci describes perspective as “nothing else than seeing a place behind a plane of glass, quite transparent, on the surface of which the objects behind that glass are to be drawn. These can be traced in pyramids to the point in the eye, and these pyramids are intersected on the glass plane”. In this perspectival drawing system three crucial elements make their apparition. The first one is the beholder’s ‘point of view’ formed at the tip of the visual pyramid. The second is the ‘vanishing point’ situated behind the glass, at the tip of the opposite pyramid, where all lines coincide in the far distance. The third is the ‘picture plane’ which forms the image and from which the two visual pyramids emanate in opposite directions. For the first time in history the invention of the point of view accords a central place to the beholder. By subordinating the entire spatial arrangement to this single ‘point in the eye’, central perspective captures the gaze. The image takes the appearance of a theatrical stage to be looked at from a fixed position by an immovable eye.

What happened in painting at that time can be understood as a blueprint for the configuration of the photographic – lens-based – image centuries later. In our digital age this system has been perfected by computer software, able to perform corrections to the lens curvature or render reality in 3D by applying complex algorithms. But despite this technological evolution the photographic image remains the result of a representation method based on a fixed point of view corresponding to a fixed vanishing point. One could even boldly say that the photographic operation is a construction still very similar, albeit in miniature, to the first perspective machines from the Renaissance.

Hiryczuk/Van Oevelen, The Master of Perspective, 2011

Hiryczuk/Van Oevelen, The Master of Perspective, 2011

[1] In his treatise on painting entitled ‘Della Pittura’ from 1435, the architect and artist Alberti deals with the geometrical aspects of vision. He was the first to transform Euclids ‘cone of vision’ into a ‘visual pyramid’ and introduced the new constructive element of ‘the picture plane’. Later in the text he refers to it as an open window.

In our work entitled ‘The Master of Perspective’ we stage a well-known perspectival diagram showing the correlation between the viewer’s eye and the vanishing point located on the horizon. The Renaissance architect Alberti introduced this technique of the ‘construzione leggitima’ to create the effect of three-dimensional space on a flat surface. [1] In the photo this effect seems to be reversed. The visual rays originating – as yellow ropes – from the eye of the ‘Master’, gradually loose their physical properties as they recede towards the horizon and converge in a ‘punctus centricus’. The flat lines of Alberti’s diagram superimposed on the ‘deep space’ of the vista, uncover and enhance at the same time the artificial and illusionary character of the central perspective.

Imaginary Space versus Optical Space
[2] In his essay El Lissitzky muses: “It is generally accepted that perspective representation is the clear, objective, obvious way to represent space. It is said that, after all, the camera also works perspectivally and at the same time one is forgetting that the Chinese once built the object-lens with concave instead of convex lenses as we have, and so would also have produced an objective and mechanical image of the world, yet quite a different one”.

Both the perspectival system used in painting and the optical perspective of the photographic lens should be considered in terms of visual illusions. This proposition opens new possibilities for representing reality that are not based on the principles of a fixed viewpoint. In his fascinating essay “A. and Pangeometry” from 1925, El Lissitzky formulates his concern with the fact that “perspective defined space and made it finite, then enclosed it”. In his art he was looking for ways to “create a new expression of space”, defining his task of “forming imaginary spaces by means of a material object”. [2] He was interested in constructing a multi-dimensional space, which would “produce an effect on us through the apparatus of our senses”. El Lissitzky described Suprematism as a new kind of representation that “created the ultimate illusion of irrational space, with its infinite extensibility into the background and the foreground”. [3] El Lissitszky’s version of Suprematism – by the extensive use of parallel perspective – shared visual characteristics with the axonometric representation of space in early Chinese and Japanese art. In the words of architecture theorist Difford on El Lissitszky’s Proun paintings: “axonometry removes the vanishing point to infinity and thereby takes it out of the picture”.

Hiryczuk/Van Oevelen, Field Experiment I, 2011

[3] El Lissitzky uses the term of ‘irrational space’ to describe a space where “the distances are measured only by the intensity and the position of the strictly-defined colour-areas”.

In axonometric perspective the beholder doesn’t look at the scene ‘before’ him as in linear perspective but he finds himself included in it. As sinologist Joseph Needham imaginatively points out: “with the Chinese style the ground surface starts from the distance and slips past under the spectator’s feet to a goal infinitely beyond, i.e. below and perhaps behind him”. Art historian George Rowley also compares the Western and Chinese approaches towards the representation of space in his book ‘Principles of Chinese Painting’: “We [the West] restricted space to a single vista as though seen through an open door; they [the Chinese] suggested the unlimited space of nature as though they had stepped through that door and had known the breath-taking experience of space extending in every direction and infinitely into the sky”. Axonometric perspective has another unique quality as architect Claude Bragdon wrote in his legendary book ‘The Frozen Fountain’ in 1932: ‘[Axonometric] perspective, less faithful to appearance, is more faithful to fact; it shows things nearly as they are known to the mind. Parallel lines are really parallel, […] the size of everything remains constant because all things are represented as being the same distance away and the eye of the spectator everywhere at once. [4] When we imagine a thing, or strive to visualize it in the mind or memory, we do it in this way, without the distortion of ordinary perspective. [Axonometric] perspective is therefore more intellectual, more archetypal, it more truly renders the mental image – the thing seen by the mind’s eye”.

Hiryzuk/Van Oevelen, Sceneries | Girl Making a Model of a Landscape, 2005

Hiryzuk/Van Oevelen, Sceneries | Girl Making a Model of a Landscape, 2005

[4] Needham cites art historian Benjamin March who points to the paradox of parallelism in linear perspective: “while the European system depended tacitly on the non-Euclidean postulate that parallel lines meet at infinity, the Chinese (…) remained faithful to the postulate that parallel lines never meet at all, even in pictures”.

In our own work we have employed axonometry in a series of five photographs entitled ‘Sceneries’. These works show self-absorbed figures engaged in different activities: a man reading, a girl making a miniature landscape and children unfolding a map. For this series we created decors based on axonometric principles using a view camera as a reversed perspective machine. By fixing an axonometric drawing on the ground glass we were able to project and build a spatial anamorphosis in front of our camera. These pseudo-perspective structures allowed us to create photographs with parallel sight lines and hence without vanishing point, reminiscent of Japanese wood-block prints. Here the gaze of the beholder is no longer ‘captured’ by a vanishing point but is allowed to move freely through the image.

Optical Tactility and Haptic Vision

Seeing happens in the plane of the sensory in which the whole body is involved. Especially when we consider the visual experience of space, we need to explore how the experience of looking expands the ‘bodily’ properties of vision. In his book ‘Mimesis and Alterity’ anthropologist Michael Taussig insists “on breaking away from the tyranny of the visual notion of image […] to emphasize the bodily impact of imaging. […] You move into the interior of images, just as images move into you”. Similarly Duchamp stated in 1975 that: “The painting should not be exclusively retinal or visual”. As described by artist-theorist Ursula Berlot in ‘Duchamp and the notion of Optical Tactility’ Duchamp’s “emphasis on the non-retinal experience of art can be comprehended as an initiative for searching the new forms of perceptual or sensual dimensions in the constitution of an artwork. The idea is manifested in his artwork as a constant aspiration to span the perceptional experience into a domain of discernable crossings between the visual and the non-visual, the sensible and the intelligible”. This line of thought can further be found in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ in which Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari define ‘smooth space’ as a ‘tactile’, or rather ‘haptic’ space, as distinguished from optical space. They state: “‘haptic’ is a better word than ‘tactile’ since it does not establish an opposition between two sense organs but rather invites the assumption that the eye itself may fulfil this non-optical function”.

Hiryczuk/Van Oevelen, Field Experiment II, 2011

Hiryczuk/Van Oevelen, Field Experiment II, 2011

A question then arises: Can photography escape the exclusively retinal or optical? And which characteristics would have such a ‘haptic’ photographic vision? If we follow Deleuze and Guattari this haptic quality could be related to close vision: “Where there is close vision, space is not visual, or rather the eye itself has a haptic, nonoptical function: no line separates earth from sky, which are of the same substance; there is neither horizon nor background nor perspective nor limit nor outline nor form nor centre; there is no intermediary distance, or all distance is intermediary”. When we take into account some of these properties we could advance that Chinese and Japanese art have developed similar visual features that may facilitate such a ‘haptic’ vision. According to Rowley: “Because of our inclination towards reason, science and the expression of human emotion, it was inevitable that Western painting should depend on forms. […] In China the emphasis on intuition, imagination and the moods of nature led to the importance of the mysterious, the intangible and the elusively expressive. Both East and West sought reality, but in one, the universal truth was to be captured in the forms, and in the other, the mysterious resided in the forms and something behind the forms”.

The Japanese Detached Gaze
[5] This term bears resemblance with another Japanese term ‘riken no ken’. It means literally ‘the seeing of detached perception’. It was developed by Noh playwright Zeami Motokiyo in his treatise on theatre ‘Fushikaden’ from 1406.

In Japan a disposition toward a non-optical quality of vision can be found in the term bon yari shite, which means ‘watching with a detached gaze’, ‘looking in an unprejudiced way’ or literally ‘looking without seeing or perceiving’. [5] For centuries it has been used in the art of garden making as an important empirical method both to design and to perceive the garden space to it’s fullest extend. It encourages the beholder to look in a wandering and open-minded way in order to experience the subtle phenomena of nature. This form of ‘detached gaze’ should not be confused with the Cartesian notion of ‘detached perception’ used in the West to define a purely rational spectatorship, an objective point from which one can freely inspect the world in order to acquire scientific knowledge. Rather this Japanese ‘detachment’ is akin to Heidegger’s interpretation of the Kantian notion of ‘disinterest’ as “a state in which the artist lets the being manifest itself in its Being rather than immediately grasping it”. It is also related to the Chinese appreciation, in Rowley’s words, of the “law of reversed effort according to which the attention must not be too firmly fixed”. This kind of detachment not only resides in the absence of a fixed viewpoint but maybe even in the absence of the process of identification altogether. Architect and theorist Andrej Radman states in his book ‘Gibsonism’: “experience first happens, as it were, without me; it is only afterwards that I am able to claim it as ‘mine’”.

As we found out, this way of looking is deeply anchored in the Japanese visual sensibility and it silts through different aspects of present day culture including contemporary photography. We can find examples of a detached gaze amongst others in the work of Shoji Ueda. Some photographs in his book ‘Photography and Me’ show figures in a dune landscape from an oblique vantage point, often excluding the horizon and extending our field of vision to the peripheral. Indeed the protagonists are placed to the extreme left and right edges of the image, whereas the centre of the image is left ‘empty’ forming an abstract, undefined space. Another photographer who, in our opinion, instigates a detached gaze with his work is Toshio Shibata. His photographs display landscapes at the intersection of the natural and the built environment in a highly disorienting manner. Here the vantage point is at times extremely steep resulting in images almost flat in appearance, but giving at the same time a vertiginous feeling as if looking down from a weightless position in space. The theoretically paradoxal communion of the optical perspective of photography and the haptic bodily experience of vision is here at work, for the viewer to be experienced. Shibata describes his working process as “borrowing a landscape”: his photographs “are not images of the landscape but images from the landscape”. For Shibata it is essential that his images are instantly recognizable as belonging to reality, while creating a world of their own.

Hiryczuk/Van Oevelen, Shadow-Light-Reflection | Sequoia, 2013

Hiryczuk/Van Oevelen, Shadow-Light-Reflection | Sequoia, 2013

We believe haptic vision could also reside in the use of visual sequences or multi-perspectives. As we stated previously, our ‘natural’ visual experience is not based on a fixed vantage point but is deeply connected to our movement in space and time. According to psychologist J.J. Gibson “we can understand the perception of the environment only when we consider changes in the observer’s point of view”. In our recent work entitled Shadow-Light-Reflection we experiment with photographic sequences to reconstruct a landscape – for instance a cedar forest or a group of wild mimosa trees – from a multiplicity of viewpoints. In this series, consisting of diptychs and quadtychs, nature is not shown in an epic way, as a vista from a great distance: there is no horizon; an intermingling of branches, flowers and leaves engulfs the viewer. Unlike the famous sequences of Muybridge, showing different temporal stages of movement as slices of time, these photographic sequences, in reverse, create an arrangement of images as the extension of a single event in space. Here the position of the beholder no longer matches a single camera viewpoint but is, as it were, multiplied. The spatial relation between the different images functions, like in cinema, within the notion of the ‘hors-champ’ (or ‘out-of-field’). This refers to the capacity of certain images to create a sense of space-time, beyond what is immediately shown. The diverging viewpoints create a ‘moving focus’ causing the viewer to ‘scan’ the topography of the landscape and sense the space beyond the photographic frames.

We could say that haptic vision is only possible when we no longer consider photography as a re-presentation but as a presentation, as a model for reality. Such an attitude towards photography is needed if we wish to expand our perceptible experience and look at the world anew, with a detached gaze.

Hiryczuk/Van Oevelen, Shadow-Light-Refelection | Mimosa II, 2015

Hiryczuk/Van Oevelen, Shadow-Light-Refelection | Mimosa II, 2015

Berlot, Ursula (2011), ‘Duchamp and the Notion of Optical Tactility’, Art, Emotion and Value – 5th Mediterranean Congress of Aesthetics, http://www.um.es/vmca/proceedings/docs/41.Ursula-Berlot.pdf, accessed 20 August 2017
Bois, Yve-Alain (1981), ‘Metamorphosis of Axonometry’, Daidalos, No.1, 1981.
Bragdon, Claude (1932), ‘The Frozen Fountain’, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, pp. 61.
Difford, Richard J. (1997), ‘Proun: an Exercise in the Illusion of Four-Dimensional Space, The Journal of Architecture’, Vol. II.
El Lissitzky (1925), ‘A. and Pangeometry’, Europa Almanach, Potsdam: Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag, pp.103-113.
Gibson, James J. (1978), ‘The Ecological Approach to the Visual Perception of Pictures’, Leonardo, Vol. II, Pergamon Press Ltd.
March, Benjamin (1927), ‘A Note on Perspective in Chinese Painting, The China Journal Vol. VII, No. 2, pp 69-72, http://library.uoregon.edu/ec/e-asia/read/artpers.pdf, accessed 20 August 2017
Needham, Joseph (1971), ‘Science and Civilisation in China’, Vol. IV, Part 3, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 112-113.
Radman, Andrej (2012), ‘Gibsonism: Ecologies of Architecture’, Delft School of Design, Delft University of Technology, pp. 285.
Richter, Irma A. (2008), ‘The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci’, Vol. I, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 113-114.
Rowley, Georges (1947), ‘The Principles of Chinese Painting’, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 14, 77.
Shibata, Toshio (2013), ‘Contacts’, Poursuite.
Spencer, John R. (1970), ‘Leon Battista Alberti. On Painting’, New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 47-48.
Taussig, Michael (1993), ‘Mimesis and Alterity – A Particular History of the Senses’, London: Routledge, pp. 58.
Ueda, Shoji (2010), ‘La Photographie et Moi’, Tokyo: Crevis, pp. 20, 32, 34-35.
Verter, Mitchell Cowen (1996),’Viewing Power in Heidegger and Levinas’, Brown University, Providence, RI, 1996, http://www.waste.org/~roadrunner/writing/ViewingPower/DescartesAndNietzsche.htm, accessed 20 August 2017
Yusa, Michiko (1987), ‘Riken no Ken. Zeami’s Theory of Acting and Theatrical Appreciation, Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 42, http://myweb.facstaff.wwu.edu/yusa/docs/riken.pdf, accessed 20 August 2017


This text was first published in 2014 in the biannual Arts journal ‘Philosophy of Photography’, Volume 4 Number 2, Intellect Journals ISSN 2010-3682, in 2014. See http://www.intellectbooks.com for more information.

El Lissitzky, In the Studio, 1923

El Lissitzky, In the Studio, 1923

In 1925 avant-garde artist El Lissitzky wrote his seminal essay on perspective and space: ‘Art and Pangeometry’. It traced the origins of spatiality in visual arts and examined the ability to express three dimensionality on a two dimensional surface.

The text also critically analysed the production of images within different art genres of the early 20th century and focussed on the visual and spatial strategies they developed. Lissitzky used his critique as a stepping stone to introduce Suprematist space and described how it differed from the traditional ways of depicting space. According to his beliefs ‘our visual faculty’ had become too limited, too focussed and had to be freed from visual dogma and conventional order. He was genuinely convinced art had the power to produce new visual strategies necessary that would liberate the masses:

[1] A. and Pangeometry, El Lissitzky, 1925.

Art is a graduated glass. Every era pours in a certain quantity: for example, one puts 5 cm of Coty perfume, to titillate the nostrils of fashionable society: another throws 10 cm of sulphuric acid into the face of the ruling class; yet another pours in 15 cm of some kind of metallic solution which afterwards flares up as a new source of light. [1]

El Lissitzky set himself the task to explore new expressions of space which would enlarge our receptivity and constitute a new and more sensorial way of seeing, one which would create new spatial connections and consequently new ‘imaginary spaces’. What he didn’t take into account was that through the rapid technological advancements of cinema, printing techniques and photographic processes, painting lost ground to popular culture and entertainment as a primary and guiding visual source.

In 1936, nine years after ‘Art and Pangeometry’ was published, philosopher Walter Benjamin pointed to this phenomenon in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. He analysed what influence the easy reproducibility of imagery asserted on society and its direct consequences for human behavior:

[2] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936.

‘The mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organised, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well’.

‘The desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent towards overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Everyday the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction’. [2]

The words of both texts resonate strongly even today. They take on new meaning when we realise our current society has shifted during the last decade from a consumer media age to an age in which everyone is able to produce his own images and share them instantly. Although written almost 80 and 90 years ago it seems their conceptual thoughts on the production of images, visually and mechanically, displays visionary wit and still seems to be valuable. But what exactly can we learn from re-reading these texts when we connect them to our technological era? And in what way are the questions they pose and the strategies they employ relevant for the current production of images?

Pope Benedict's Inauguration in 2005 vs. Pope Francis' Inauguration 2013

Pope Benedict’s Inauguration in 2005 vs. Pope Francis’ Inauguration in 2013

The Rise of the Kaleidoscopic View

In 2005 anyone who was present and witnessed the inauguration ceremony of Pope Benedict in Rome had to look with their own eyes to experience this public event. In March 2013 the majority of people standing on St. Peter’s Square were able to film or photograph the inauguration ceremony of Pope Francis. Probably they saw most of it through their media devices or were very much consumed by the act of taking the right images and sharing them on their online profiles.

The miniaturisation of technology has enabled everybody to easily take photographs and as a result important events are currently recorded from a multitude of viewpoints. In Google Image Search the amount of slightly different images produces an endless kaleidoscopic view of the same event, as if one looks through a window with thousands little rain droplets which cling to the glass. It is evident that smartphones have democratised image making and that news agencies and politics have lost their encompassing control on imagery in the news. But one can sense something else has been altered dramatically in the way we experience reality and how we relate to the world.

Google search 'Pope Francis on Balcony 2013'

Google Image Search: ‘Pope Francis on Balcony 2013’

[3] Ibid.

Walter Benjamin is right when he suggests in his quote that a change in the specific reproduction of images and its distribution has far-reaching consequences and inevitably changes ‘human sense perception’. Our newly acquired camera and communication technology has quickly generated new habits in use and perception. Nowadays many people are pre-occupied with a continuous scanning of everyday life for interesting situations and reduce reality to a space for photo opportunities. And little by little we’ve come to value capturing a situation by photographic means more than just looking or experiencing. ‘The thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment’ [3] distances and distracts our bodies and thoughts from a full experience and encloses our field of perception. We are caught up in an immersive and symbiotic act between technology and our new habits.

The Culture of the Self(ie)

Besides using our modern devices to photograph outwards, towards the world, we increasingly use our cameras to record ourselves with selfies, in a self-centered act of pointing the camera inward. In the past years the use of social media services has encouraged us to profile ourselves all the time and the frequency of taking photographs has gradually intensified. As a consequence a rather narcissistic cult of the self is promoted by descriptions, instant messaging, ratings, staging and outward appearances. Like the man in Robert Hooke’s portable camera obscura we are ‘locked in’, as it were, by the constant use of this modern technology. We are hardly aware of the fact that it only produces images in a very limited way, within a narrow band of possibilities. [4]

[4] Anthropologist and artist David Tomas strikingly defines the invention of Hooke as an ‘imaging prosthesis’ and as ‘a paradoxical sensory amputation of the upper body’ which functions as a ‘disembodied extraterritorial eye’. He goes on to say that ‘the draughtsman’s sensorium is transposed by being encased in a close fitting helmet with one opening to the outside world which is screened out by a lens (…). One imagines that these conditions would precipitate a rapid loss of contact with the outside world, and that the process of copying an image would also function as a channel of acculturation to the instrument’s interior cultural space (…).’ Beyond the Image Machine: A History of Visual Technologies, p. 121-122, Bloomsbury Press, 2004.
Robert Hooke, Portable Camera Obscura, 1660, mirrored

Robert Hooke, Portable Camera Obscura, 1660, (mirrored by the authors)

The increasing use of self portraiture in popular culture and social media reached preliminary new heights in the last few months. During a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in December 2013 the prime minister of Denmark, Thorning-Schmidt, was seen taking a selfie together with president Obama and prime minister Cameron. Unconsciously she introduced a new category to this phenomenon: ‘the selfish selfie’.

Obama Selfie, Nelson Mandela Memorial, 2013

A Selfish Selfie, Nelson Mandela Memorial, 2013

This ‘faux pas’ for staging oneself during a funeral service whereas one should pay respect was met with a lot of criticism. But another reason why people took offence at this photo was that taking a selfie at such a major media event was even considered a possibility. Obviously they knew the world was watching, which meant this selfie wasn’t taken for the sake of the moment alone with the intention to share it amongst themselves. No, it was an act of staging as well, of ultimate self promotion, to communicate ‘we are in fact normal people having a good time’, while inscribing themselves in history and our visual culture as modern leaders through the use of popular media technology.

Implicitly this affirmed that socially there are no boundaries anymore that refrain us from taking pictures of ourselves. If the presidents of this world can frame themselves whenever and where ever, why shouldn’t we? The only moral standard which remains is a personal, self-centered one: ‘if I feel like it and if it’s good for my profile I take a selfie’. The media frenzy subsided quickly but was soon to be followed by a selfie from the Oscar ceremony host Ellen DeGeneres in March 2014. The picture she shared of herself with Hollywood celebrities became the most retweeted image to date.

Ellen DeGeneres, Selfie, Oscar Nominations 2014

Her selfie followed the same logic and strategy as the Obama selfie, namely affirming the social status of these well-known actors and using this prominent podium for self promotion in overdrive. Both selfies make something apparent: It re-affirms the status of the spectator as outsider and the status of the of the people involved as unattainable. You are either inside the frame or outside. Sharing the photo instantly afterwards only underlines this fact.

The History of the Snap-Shot and its Relation to the Visual Pyramid

Nicéron, La Perspective Curieuse, 1663

Nicéron, La Perspective Curieuse, 1663

The culture of the Selfie, of course, did not arise out of the blue. Self portraiture and portraiture have long been established as genres in the history of art. But it was the groundbreaking influence of linear perspective in the 15th century which firmly put the beholder in the locus of this system of representation. Multi-layered depictions of different times, scales or places in one single image ceased to exist as a possibility to express complicated narratives or interlocked spaces, because it was incompatible with the visual order perspective imposed. Perspective not only put the eye of the viewer in the centre and on the horizon of the picture plane, it also defined the space between objects and people in relation to the viewer once and for all.

With this optical system the problem of how to render distances on a flat surface in an appealing and natural way was finally solved. Time and space fused together and simultaneously gave expression one and the same situation. For a particular space and specific moment in time perspective created a coherent optical illusion, a snap-shot.

The construction of this snap-shot or ‘instant image’, was from its early beginnings conceived as a part of a larger structure: the visual pyramid. In his treatise on painting entitled ‘Della Pittura’ from 1435, the architect and artist Alberti dealt with the geometrical aspects of vision and described for the first time the relation between the image plane and the pyramid by connecting them with visual rays:

[5] Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, p.47-48, Yale University Press,1970.

It is time for me to describe what this pyramid is and how it is constructed by these rays. (…) The pyramid is a figure of a body from whose base straight lines are drawn upward, terminating in a single point. The base of this pyramid is a plane which is seen. [5]

Aberti, Della Pittura, diagram visual pyramid, 1435

Aberti, Della Pittura, Section of the Visual Pyramid and the Picture Plane, 1435

The description was partly based on the logic of the first two postulates in Euclid’s book ‘The Optics’ from 300 BC where he states that:

[6] Euclid, The Optics, 300 BC.

Let it be assumed 1.) That rectilinear rays proceeding from the eye diverge indefinitely; 2.) That the figure contained by a set of visual rays is a cone of which the vertex is at the eye and the base at the surface of the objects seen. [6]

Euclid, The Optics, Cone of Vision

Euclid, The Optics, Cone of Vision

If we compare the two excerpts we notice an important continuity in thought but also a striking difference. The difference between the two projective theories at first seems modest. We see that Alberti substituted Euclid’s cone of vision for a pyramidal structure. The circle (at the base of the cone) was transformed into the rectilinear base of the pyramid. For Euclid the circle merely described the circumference of our ’rounded-shaped’ vision, where everything what the eye sees is located within the perimeters of this visual cone. And although both theories were based on mathematics and tried to define an encompassing structure, Euclid’s dealt more with the experience of seeing and the workings of the eye.

The resemblance is unquestionably that vision is projective, whether the eye ‘sends’ rays of light like Euclid put forward in his theory or receives rays of light like modern science determined. At the time of Alberti this was still an unsolved matter and in his treatise he referred to the unceasing discussion amongst philosophers and scientists of all times which were divided on the matter of ‘extramission’ or ‘intromission’. For Alberti’s theory this problem was of less importance. He dismissed the discussion altogether and instead focussed on the characteristics of visual perception putting forward the geometrical relations between the eye and objects.

The Invention of the Screen and the Photographic Condition

[7] Alberti brought many ideas together in his urge for conceptual and visual coherence. In his time two important scientific books were translated in Italian and Latin and became very influential. The first was a ‘The Book on Optics’ written by the Arabic scientist Alhazen in the 11th century. Alhazen compared the workings of the eye with a camera obscura and already formulated the notion of the ‘visual pyramid’, although he did not connect it to a system of representation. The second book was a treatise on cartography, ‘The Geographia’, written by the Greek scientist Ptolemy in the 2nd century. Ptolemy described three methods to project a sphere (the earth) on a flat surface, and in doing so developed the idea of a ‘central axis’ (of vision), a ‘horizon line’ and an invisible ‘grid structure’ with spatial coordinates. 

Alberti however went a step further. He was interested in the problem of representation, of depicting what one sees. With the transformation of a cone into a pyramid one can say Alberti formalised this projective figure and thereby reduced the phenomenological sensory experience of seeing to a more abstract model. [7]

The real ‘surprise’ is that as a consequence a new constructive element came into being, namely ‘the picture plane’. This abstract and invisible layer created, as it were, a perfect immaterial plane for projecting space onto. However to properly depict depth and space the plane was placed in between the observer and his view.  After that all the distinguished parts which laid behind it and which constitute space together, the far and near, the big and small, came together into an infra-thin and condensed layer of optical representation: the screen.

Count Johann, Window Grid, 1531

Count Johann, Interpretation of Alberti’s Idea of Equipping the Picture Frame with a Grid, 1531

[8] In 1604 astronomer and mathematician Kepler solved the geometrical problems of image formation in the eye and offered the first theory of the retinal image. In his book ‘Astronomiae Pars Optica’ he wrote: “Thus vision is brought about by a picture of the thing seen being formed on the concave surface of the retina.” Kepler’s retinal image was a geometrical representation of the outside world inside the body. The eye had become a camera obscura.

As we all know Alberti’s technique, and many others who perfected this system, had a huge impact on the visual arts. [8] It meant that from then on any view, whether it be an interior or a landscape, was rendered in linear perspective and had a rectangular frame. Furthermore this frame which coincided with the image plane of the visual pyramid, in turn changed the painting in a ‘fenestra aperta’, a window to the outside. It can hardly be a coincidence that, at the beginning of the 16th century when Alberti wrote his treatise, paintings finally became ‘independent’ of architecture and could be detached from their context, be traded and could be put on any other suitable wall.

In the 19th century, photography adopted, through the workings of the lens, the same optical conditions of linear perspective as in paintings and drawings. In relation to painting photography pushed realism dramatically with unprecedented amount of detail. In the eyes of many people it objectified reality and has since become internalised within our visual and social culture.

David Hockney, Selfie, 2013

David Hockney playing with photographic reality, 2013

[9] Perspective presents us with two artificial notions which contradict our phenomenological experience. The first is that perspective is ‘monocular’ and based on the assumption that we see with only one eye. The second notion deals with parallel lines which will never converge in reality, whereas in Western perspective they coincide in a vantage point on the horizon. For more on this matter see the essay of Bejamin March.

It is clear that the photographic condition has superimposed itself onto our own experiences and is ever present in our personal lives. Through our frequent and daily interaction with the medium, photography has become a second nature, a ‘habitual perception’. And it seems our primary experience has lost ground to representations, which not so long ago were considered a secondary layer of meaning. Without thinking about the consequences we have substituted ‘presentation’ for ‘representation’. We have accredited the same elaborate functions to representation, but at the same time have reduced our sensory perception to a singular optical aspect. [9]

In analogy to the last phrases Walter Benjamin’s essay, where he critically describes the consequences of cinema for the reception of art, one can say that photography through the use of smartphones puts the public in the position of both producer and critic, and that to catch up with the endless stream of daily images our attention is constantly dispersed and distracted. The public has become a producer and an examiner, but an absent-minded one. [10]

Axonometry and Imaginary Space

[10] See again ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ where Walter Benjamin says that ‘The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one’.

But let’s return to the questions and strategies El Lissitzky developed in his text and see if we can find clues that can be valuable for contemporary photographic practices. Like Benjamin Lissitzky is aware of the restricting parameters the optical condition imposes both on our sensory perception and on representation. In his essay he muses about a forgotten Chinese invention of an object-lens with concave instead of convex lenses as we have, which would have produced a different objective and mechanical image of the world. [11] He is interested in a system which goes beyond linear perspective to find new expressions of space. To start his argument he first describes the ontology of perspectival space and shows two striking diagrams.

[11] In the essay ‘Proun: An Exercise in the Illusion of Four-Dimensional Space, architecture theorist Richard J. Difford quotes mathematician Henri Poincaré who similarly asserts in his book ‘Science and Hypothesis’ from 1905, that had the mechanisms that control vision been configured differently, we might have developed a four-dimensional understanding of space. 
El Lissitzky, A. and Pangeometry, 1925

El Lissitzky, A. and Pangeometry, 1925 (first diagram)

The first diagram shows three images. The left image, which he calls ‘Chinese’, depicts an interior drawn in inverse perspective with the tip of the vantage point in front of the picture plane. The right image, which he calls ‘Leonardo’, shows an interior in linear perspective with the tip of the vantage point on the horizon, behind the picture plane. The middle image shows no interior but a diagonal cross. Here he introduces a third space which is actually a synthesis of the right and the left image with their opposite vantage points. The caption reads: “This is the perspective representation of a pyramid. Where does the tip lie? In depth or in front?” From our frontal point of view, as a beholder, we can’t discern this and answer his question. It seems there exists a space where both possibilities co-exist. The question bluntly confronts us with one of the main fundamental laws of Suprematist space where definite answers about the exact location of geometric shapes cannot be given and stay ambiguous.

El Lissitzky, A. and Pangeometry, 1925

El Lissitzky, A. and Pangeometry, 1925 (second diagram)

In the left image of the second diagram Lissitzky renders perspectival space ‘spatial’. Here we see, as it were, the real nature of the picture plane arise. The two vantage points of the visual pyramids, one in front and one with dotted lines in the back, are made visible. For him this space is enclosed by perspective and does not define space in a fundamental way. So to attain Suprematist space he has to go a step further and apply another action which he describes as follows: ‘Suprematism has advanced the ultimate tip of the visual pyramid of perspective into infinity’.

This is what we see in the right image; Lissitzky has dismantled linear perspective. The vantage points have been pried open and the existing lines, which once formed the edges of the visual pyramids, have been pushed outwards until they run parallel. He goes on by saying ‘that Suprematism has swept away from the plane the illusions of three-dimensional perspective space, and has created the ultimate illusion of irrational space, with its infinite extensibility into the background and foreground’.

[12] See the essay ‘Radical Reversibility’ published in the magazine ‘Art in America’, April 1988. It has to be remarked that Bois is focussed on the opposite positions within the reversibility of Lissitzky’s art. In his belief these positions can’t be overcome, whereas we think that Lissitzky envisioned higher forms of inclusion, more like a productive coincidence of opposites.

El Lissitzky thus created a system based on parallel perspective, on axonometry. He hoped that the appearance of this new space would lead to a more active way of looking, a larger optical awareness and finally to a new system of perception. Art historian Yve-Alain Bois thoroughly analyses this endeavour in his essay ‘El Lissitzky: Radical Reversibility’. According to Bois axonometry ‘eliminated all reference to the spectator’s point of view and liberated the viewer from gravity’. He continues by writing that axonometry in Lissitzky’s Prouns gave way to ‘an ambiguity that would force the spectator to make constant desicions about how to interpret what he or she sees: is this figure hollow or in relief?’ And he coined the term ‘Radical Reversibility’ to describe this visual principle of endless oscillation between these opposite positions. [12]

El Lissitzky, 8 Position Proun, 1923

El Lissitzky, 8 Position Proun, 1923

[13] See the essay  ‘Proun: An Exercise in the Illusion of Four-Dimensional Space’ published in the Journal of Architecture, Vol. 2, 1997

Architecture theorist Richard J. Difford follows the same line of thought when he traces the ideas and workings behind the Proun Room in his essay ‘Proun: An Exercise in the Illusion of Four-Dimensional Space’. Difford also concludes that ‘the imaginative capability of the observer to compress an experience over time into a spatial moment is essential’ to create new spatial relationships in the mind of the observer. [13]

From Monumentality to the Advent of Non-Anthropocentric Thinking

If one takes the current state of our visual culture with its narcissistic traits serious and see how it is embedded in a long history of depicting reality, one has to be grateful for the wit and perseverance of El Lissitzky in pursuing a visual language which breaks with this history. Even if we know that in his last years he resorted to making propagandist art for the Communist regime. His Proun experiments weren’t just Modernistic exercises to make beautiful geometric drawings. He was genuinely after a higher comprehension and awareness of space. At the end of his essay he hints to this new era in art, one which ‘should effect the destruction of the old idea of art, that of monumentality’.

He was in search of an art which didn’t depend on lasting a hundred or a thousand years, but on ‘the perpetual expansion of human achievement’ itself. Instead of being focussed on a kind of earthly permanence, with the only goal of inscribing oneself or artworks in history, he is drawn to a more profound engagement with the world which goes beyond ‘terrestrial’ relationships. In his words, it is a ‘progression [that] consists in our being led to consider certain views as obvious and necessary which our forefathers considered as incomprehensible, for they were incapable of comprehending them’.

[14] El Lissitzky, ‘Proun– Not World Visions, But World Reality’, 1922. From Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers, El Lissitzky–Life, Letters, Texts, Thames and Hudson, London, 1968, p.343. This quote is taken from Yve-Alain Bois’ essay Radical Reversibility.

Analysing his texts and art we can say that the core of this progression is in fact the abolishment of self-referentiality. It is one of the most important characteristics of axonometry and this different fundamental approach can’t be overstated. Instead of promoting one self-centered perspective, axonometry has the ability to encompass endless possible viewpoints. Its multi-perspectival system surpasses the mechanical eye of the camera and optical space ceases to exist. It frees our focussed gaze and instigates a performative activity which goes beyond the realm of personal identity. And this mental activity together with the complementary intrinsic visual language of axonometry both constitute El Lissitzky’s Pangeometry. Lissitzky wrote in an earlier essay:

We saw that the surface of the Proun ceases to be a picture and turns into a structure round which we must circle, looking at it from all sides, peering down from above, investigating from below. (…) Circling around it, we screw ourselves into space… We have set the Proun in motion so we obtain a number of axes of projection. [14]

[15]  Soho Machida, Great Thinkers of the Eastern World, Harper Collins,1995. Machida explains the concept of ‘Basho’ of philosopher Nishida Kitaro which ‘defines this existential transition of the self as one ‘from that which functions to that which sees’.

From a philosophical point of view the thoughts behind Pangeometry share many resemblances with Eastern concepts in which reality is not exclusively considered from a human perspective. It can be understood as a form of non-anthropocentric thinking which creates an awareness beyond the identity of things, even beyond oneself. The beholder ceases to be a reference point and engages in an immersive mode of seeing. ‘It is the place where the authentic self turns around and becomes a self without self’. [15]

[16] John W.M. KrummelShigenori Nagatomo, Place and Dialectic: Two Essays by Nishida Kitaro, Oxford University Press, 2012, p.11

Exactly this thought is elaborated by the Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida in his essay ‘From the Acting to the Seeing’ from 1927. He writes: “I want to conceive, from the root of all things, a seeing without seer”. [16] Let’s find out if an emphasis on this mode of seeing, which goes beyond our current concepts of space and time, changes the ways we experience, think about and represent space. Therefore we should strive for other models of visualisation which are more based on our sensory perception and imagination. One needs to analyse our current visual culture and treat new technology not as an end in itself but as an opportunity to re-define ourselves and our relation to the world.

Ex Libris of Benjamin March

Ex Libris of Benjamin March

NOTE: Writer, curator, and professor Benjamin Franklin March Jr. (1899-1934) studied, lectured and wrote in the United States and in China. Through his works he became one of the foremost authorities on Chinese art during the 1920s and 1930s. In this essay he analyses the different functions of Western perspective (optical) and Chinese perspective (axonometric) and on what grounds they differ. It is one of the first attempts to understand Chinese pictoral space on a structural and a conceptual level and it became an important reference on Chinese space in Joseph Needham’s book Science and Civilisation in China Vol. 4 part 2 in 1965. This essay was first published in 1927 in The China Journal Vol. VII, No. 2, pp 69-72.

The most general criticism aimed at Chinese paintings by Westerners seems to be concerned with the representation of distance, and very often takes the form: Chinese paintings have no perspective. This is, of course, not only untrue, but it is not what the critic meant to say. Perspective, after all, is nothing but a convention for representing distance, and though the term is sometimes limited to mean the type of projection generally used in the West, it properly includes any and all devices for representing three dimensions in two, for symbolizing three-dimensional space on a plane. In painting, the third dimension is usually in recession from the painter, and the plane, either physically or so far as the image is concerned, is perpendicular to the direction of recession.

Obviously no perspective can be absolutely true, since two dimensions cannot be three, and the truth of the convention depends not so much upon science as upon custom. It is common, however, for foreigners to regard Western perspective as somehow truer than the Chinese perspective, and it may be worth while to examine the two from the standpoint of Western mathematics, to determine by Western standards whether or not the criticism is valid.

The problem of representing three dimensions is most acute in the painting of landscapes (山水) and the painting of figures (人物), the first two of the traditional four classes of Chinese paintings. Petrucci and others have discussed landscape perspective, and this is the least difficult for foreigners to grow accustomed to and enjoy. The convention of representing buildings and furniture, on the other hand, often seems primitive and inaccurate even to stout protagonists of Chinese landscapes; so we shall limit our discussion for the present to a comparison of Western and Chinese methods of representing three-dimensional solids such as buildings and furniture. 

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Front and back cover of the Europa Almanach of 1925

Front and back cover of the Europa Almanach of 1925

Seeing, of course, is also an A.

NOTE: In the essay A. and Pangeometry  El Lissitzky analyses the changing role of perspective in art and introduces axonometric projection (or parallel perspective) as a new means to represent and perceive space. It was first published in German in Europa-Almanach, (Carl Einstein and Paul Westheim, Kiepenheuer Verlag, Potsdam, 1925, p.103-113) and was reprinted in 1984. This English translation was published in the book El Lissitzky. Life – Letters – Texts, Lissitzky-Küppers, Thames & Hudson, London, 1992 (out of print). 

In the period between 1918 and 1921, a lot of old rubbish was destroyed. In Russia we also dragged A. [1] off its sacred throne ‘and spat on its altar’ (Malevich 1915). At the first Dada-event in Zurich, A. was defined as a ‘magic excrement’ and man as the ‘measure of all tailors’ (Arp).

Now after five years (five centuries in the old chronology) in Germany for example, Grosz brings only one reproach upon himself: ‘our only fault was that we ever took the so-called A. at all seriously’. But a few lines further on he writes: ‘Whether my work is therefore called A. depends on the question of whether one believes that the future belongs to the working classes’. I am convinced that it does, but neither this conviction nor the excrement and the tailors are universal criteria for A.

A. is a graduated glass. Every era pours in a certain quantity: for example, one puts 5 cm. of Coty perfume, to titillate the nostrils of fashionable society: another throws 10 cm. of sulphuric acid into the face of the ruling class; yet another pours in 15 cm. of some kind of metallic solution which afterwards flares up as a new source of light. So A. is an invention of our spirit, a complex whole, combining the rational with the imaginary, the physical with the mathematical, √1 with √-1. The series of analogies which I am going to bring to your attention is put forward not to prove – for the works themselves are there for that – but to clarify my views. The parallels between A. and mathematics must be drawn very carefully, for every time they overlap it is fatal for A.

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Shoji Ueda, 1940

Shoji Ueda, untitled, 1940

This blog presents a collection of images and texts we have collected during our artistic research over the past 5 years. It focusses on alternative ways of representing space within the realm of photography and painting. With this blog we aim to analyse how these representations can affect our gaze on a fundamental level and change the way we relate to the world. This first post gives a brief summary of topics of interest we will disclose in more detail in the following posts.

Bon’yari shite

Since the ‘discovery’ of perspective in the early 15th century our understanding of space is guided by optical laws. The invention of photography and the extensive use of photographic images nowadays, constantly re-affirm these laws. This visual knowledge we’ve inherited and we’re imbued with determines how we – in the West – perceive and represent space: as homogeneous, unified and absolute. Our world is conveniently ordered by this optical system but it is as if we only look with our “visual memory” and think of what we see as being true. In the last sentences of his famous book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes hints to these limitations of our gaze when he says:

[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, Hill and Wang, New York, 1981, p. 118.

“One of the marks of our world is perhaps this reversal: we live according to a generalized image-repertoire. Such a reversal (…) de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under the cover of illustrating it.” [1]

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