some thoughts on perspective and viewpoint

prompted by a reading of Peter Galassi’s introduction to the MoMA exhibition, Before Photography

Much of the argument of Barbara Krauss’ essay (examined in my response to exercise 2) was written as a counter argument to Peter Galassi’s introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition Before Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (9th May – 5th July 1981).  Krauss refers to Galassi’s use of the terms Synthetic and Analytical to describe different applications of the perspective system in painting. I wondered what the differences were and found the full catalogue available to download from the MoMA website.

The introduction is mainly concerned with the development of landscape painting as a genre (as such, I’ll make use of it for exercise 3) and only really touches upon photographic works towards the end. However, the difference between the two uses of perspective seems both interesting and practically applicable:

Synthetic – The original application uses perspective as an organising system for images. Here, the aim is to create the impression of three dimensions from two, by placing different parts of the image in relation to a visible (or implied) vanishing point. It works from individual parts to produce a whole. Galassi’s exemplar for this is the fifteenth century Italian, Paolo Uccello and his painting The hunt in the forest (c.1465-70).

The viewer looks into the image from the picture pane. The effect is that of being in possession of a godlike overview: you see the picture in an idealised state, with everything portrayed capable of being viewed in relation to everything else.

Analytic – works from the whole to an aspect (or point of view on a scene). As an example, Galassi (1981, p.17) uses the Impressionist painter Eduard Degas’ Jockeys before the race (1879) where  the artist and the viewer are placed clearly within the scene depicted, looking at it, with the vanishing point obliquely positioned and out of sight; the view is personal and subjective. In the process of discovering this point of view, the subject has been analysed visually.  The effect is thoroughly modern.

Galassi goes on to explain that the camera is only capable of producing Analytic pictures: it is limited by its single lens, to a single viewpoint from which the three-dimensional real world collapses into two dimensions, arranged upon a plane. It does not produce images where everything is set out clearly in the visible portion of a space arranged according towards a clear vanishing point.

(This fits with Stephen Shore’s description (in his 1998 book, The nature of photographs) of the pleasures of finding a point where the lines of the subject are seen to converge in your viewfinder in a way that suddenly collapses the world into two dimensions. Click! Job done.)

In Krauss’s essay, she argues with the way this plane extends to become one with the gallery wall on which it is displayed. Indeed, it is this flatness that bestows the status of art upon modernist painting, as well as the early photographs which in Krauss’ view are misidentified by Galassi as forming part of this conscious evolution of how to use the viewpoint.

This is fine up to a point (and anyone who has tried to take a photograph in a busy street, with no one person obscuring another will appreciate this) but ignores totally photographers’ efforts to escape the tyranny of monocular perspective and the limitations placed on the camera’s viewpoint.

In the section of the chapter, Problems of Depiction (Hockney, pp.96-109) dealing with a ‘moving viewpoint’, Having made the point that the human eye is only motionless when we stare or are dead, David Hockney addresses one of his recurring themes: perspective and its inadequate capture of the experience of looking in two dimensions:

‘In the Renaissance, the invention of a new way of depicting space, using the vanishing point, seemed to make the depiction more real… Then a point was reached, perhaps in the nineteenth century, when the Renaissance depiction of space was seen as not at all real. Perceptive people began to realise that space could be rendered in a different way.’

– Hockney, p.98

Hockney takes things further than Degas’ jockeys – which form the end point in Galassi’s journey from the Renaissance to Impressionism –  into Cezanne’s post-impressionist landscapes and what we still think of as Modern Art: the analytical (characterised by a fragmentary appearance of multiple viewpoints and overlapping planes – [Tate, 1]) and later synthetic (flattening out the image and sweeping away the last traces of allusion to three-dimensional space – [Tate 2]) Cubism of Braque and Picasso.

Around the same time as he started thinking about Cubism (the early 1980s) Hockney started working with – at first – polaroid – and then – 35mm cameras to make collaged pictures from printed fragments of his subject, culminating in his enormous  – and rather wonderful – picture of a road vanishing into the Californian desert: Peachblossom Highway (11th-18th April, 1986). He describes his working method:

‘Multiple viewpoints create a far bigger space than can be achieved by one… I moved about the landscape, slowly constructing it from different viewpoints. The stop sign was taken head on, indeed from a ladder, the words “stop ahead”  on the ground were seen from above (using a tall ladder), and everything was brought together […] to create a feeling of wideness and depth, but at the same time everything was also brought up to the picture plane.’

– ibid, p.108

I find this creation of landscape pictures from many individual images really interesting. It is something I want to experiment with more, probably in the later stages of this course. Of course, I am not going to limit myself to collaged prints, either…


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