Thursday, July 3, 2008

Family Tradition

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: The telephoto lens is a powerful tool for snatching bird images out of the sky and deer images out of the brush. Its optical effect is only to narrow the cone of vision and bring distant things close, but those who have spotted telephoto use in film, recognize how it also compresses space. A person running toward the zoomed video lens appears to run and run but to get nowhere. The runner's form does not increase in size as we have learned to expect.

In still pictures the telephoto can be used to present a similar paradox; something is apparently wrong with the perspective, but what exactly? We sense distortion. In fact, telephotos are much less prone to distortion than wide angle lenses. The exaggerated curve of the wide angle lens must distort to pull the very broad cone of vision onto the flat, narrow plane of the film. Tip the camera up or down and the distortion of the resulting video can almost produce nausea as from motion sickness. Directors have used this to suggest the surreal. In contrast, the telephoto lens provides a very accurate, perspective arrangement of the objects in front of us but makes us think we are closer to them than we are. If we shot with a wide angle lens and then cropped to the center section (where distortion is minimized) it would look much like what the telephoto lens sees. Is it true that as a wide angle lens can make us queasy, a telephoto reassures with its orderliness?

The essential fact here is that we don't see the way a telephoto lens sees. We are used to the particular cone of vision of the human eye. How different the world must look to the compound eye of an insect or to animals whose eyes are positioned on the sides of their head! However, their brains, like ours, have learned to resolve such vision into some continuous, distortion-free reality. The "compressed effect" of the photo above depends on how it differs from the reality our brain assembles from the data transmitted by the the eyes' lenses and recorded by the eyes' photoceptors. We look at the compressed image of the telephoto which our brain processes as if it was our normal field of vision and seen close up. Why, it wonder, is perspective not diminishing size and arranging space in the customary manner. The effect seems more like an architect's elevation than reality. Of course, one needn't understand what's happening to recognize (and if you're like me, to enjoy & try to exploit) its capacity for composition and expression.

I call these images, "compressions." I began shooting them when I started photographing barns. This image of the port of Bass Harbor might be a companion to "Wharves at Dusk," taken three miles down the road at Southwest Harbor. I like the sense of artifice they give to photo reality and the emphasis they place on the flat, rectangular surface. Deep perspectives draw us into picture space - lead or focus the eye toward the vanishing points. In so doing, they naturally make some things more important than others. In compressions, as in Medieval art, importance is size-based, and the effect is more of simultaneity. The transactions occurring inside the little, red country store are no more important than the dramas that might be unfolding behind any of the windows in the homes or warehouses; life inside the boats is more important because larger, but life goes on everywhere across the image, though hidden from view. Such images ask me to wonder about the lives lived behind these facades. Do they also add a sense of universality to the image? Do they place extra emphasis on color and form? Is it their suggestion of folk art? I'm still trying to understand why they have a special appeal for me.

Similar view - 2007.

[110mm, f14, 1/500 sec, ISO 400] The only reason for the high shudder speed was wind and floor thump as people crossed the small deck from which I shot. It could easily been cut in half and either the f-stop or ISO adjusted accordingly.]