Tuesday, 7 August 2012


Perspective – it’s an interesting concept. A dictionary definition is “a technique for depicting volume or spatial relationships on a flat surface” and as a starting point that doesn’t seem unreasonable. perhaps the most interesting part of that definition is the use of ‘a’ rather than ‘the’. It is clear that there are a variety of ways in which this might be achieved.

The tradition Western approach is based on a perception of physical reality in which the viewer is effectively at the centre of the image. Objects further away appear smaller (which reflects the simple physics of seeing), and often fainter or less distinct – again reflecting the physics of the viewing experience – atmospheric haze, limitations of eyesight and so on. We are so used to this approach that we seldom think about it – it’s how the world appears to us, so any photo that produces the same effect is “realistic” and any that doesn’t is odd.

As explained in the course notes, in this model similar sized objects closer to the camera appear larger than those further away, and lines converge towards a vanishing point. But in reality that is not true. Similar sized objects are exactly that – their size does not vary with viewing distance. And parallel lines most certainly don’t – in traditional geometry – meet at infinity. They don’t meet.

Traditional Western perspective solves a particular set of problems – how to represent what the eye sees from a single viewpoint, how to show 5 sides of a cube from a position on the 6th side. It is well suited to bound books which display single images in a limited space. But there are other problems it doesn’t solve. For example, how to illustrate a view seen from a moving viewpoint – for this western or linear perspective requires movies – essentially rapidly changing single viewpoint images which fool our brain into believing we are moving. It also restricts our ability to communicate the passage of time. This is not really an issue in painting, where we can choose elements to tell a particular story – but as several philosophers have observed a photo is literally a moment in time.

Enter axonometric perspective – the type favoured by Chinese/Japanese culture until their contacts with the west, and perhaps even the west until the Renaissance or thereabouts (c.f. the Bayeaux Tapestry). If you are reading a scroll, which you continuously wind on, losing the RHS of the image and gaining new LHS with every passing moment then single point perspective doesn’t really work. True you could paint an extremely wide panorama, but the limit is a 360% rotation rather than linear movement and if you wanted to see the whole picture you would need a very wide wall or a magnifying glass.

View from a beach close to the Eyrarbakaveggur, Iceland

Distant objects become vanishingly small and foreground objects distort quite oddly – in short you start to lose some ‘realism’ because this isn’t how our eyes see.

The Chinese/Japanese solution was to use a set of rules in which parallel lines don’t meet at infinity and an object in the foreground retains its relative size compared with something of the same size in the distance. To western eyes this is quite strange, but it means that as you unroll the scroll you are not fixed to a single viewpoint- so you effectively walk through the image.

A third approach – also adopted by eastern cultures - was to simply vary the viewpoint. The benefit of this system is that it allows the artist to produce a single image (as opposed to a scroll) which creates the impression of a moving view point, allows the artist a choice of which elements to emphasise by painting them ‘larger than life’, and still retains something of the visual effect of normal sight from the various viewpoints. It is this technique, combined with the convention of simply placing more distant objects higher up the painting which creates the slightly disconcerting effect of traditional oriental wall hangings.

In western art similar concerns about how to create space on a flat surface appear to have influenced the Cubists and, much more recently, David Hockney

In my written blog I have analysed one of these paintings - "Landscape with Waterfall" by Tsunenobu, an artist of the Japanese Kano school. I can’t post a link as I can’t find it on the web but the effect is like an extreme version of the compression produced by a very long lens.  Interestingly it still makes use of aerial perspective and sharpness, with the more distant objects increasingly indistinct. Use of colour is not an issue as it is an ink drawing on a sepia ground, but there is also limited use of diminishing perspective within the individual elements of the overall painting.

After Tsunenobu.jpg

To my mind a clear benefit of this approach is the ability to represent time in a single image. It is not necessary for every individual element to have happened, or be visible, at the same time. Because the image has become a temporal narrative it allow the portrayal of, for example, all four seasons in a single image – a regular oriental motif which is emphasised by the use of symbolic elements – cherry blossom, geese, mist etc. Although this is not unusual for painting,  photography has until recently been fairly solidly locked into traditional perspective by simple physics. Some , such as Duane Michals have sought to push the boundaries of this by using shots in short series. Digital techniques, however, allow the opportunity to combine multiple viewpoints in a relatively convincing manner, to give something of the feeling of an oriental wall hanging.

The image on the left is my first attempt to address some of these issues. It is, admittedly, a bit of a cheat as, the waterfall are from Iceland and the other two shots are from Switzerland, but at this stage I am simply exploring the technical possibilities of this approach to a landscape photograph.

It certainly manages to capture some of the feel of a town in the foothills of the Alps, and I would like to think that there is the sense of a journey for the waters from the snow fields at the top to the wide rivers at the bottom.

In Zen Buddhist terms – which informed a lot of Japanese art in particular - I think there may also be a reverse reading, from bottom to top, reflecting the nature of the struggle to move from the relative comfort of the lowlands to the airy open peaks of enlightenment. Certainly that is captured in the painting I was trying to imitate, although I make no real claims for that in my attempt.

There are a number of themes which I would like to explore which emerge from these initial thoughts, including:

  • the use of panoramic photography to illustrate four seasons in a single image, which is something I’m already thinking about for my portfolio
  • the use of multi point perspective to capture a narrative about a particular location
  • other ways of capturing time by still photography.
  • the impact of very wide angle panoramas on perceptions of space
  • the use of multi-point perspective and collages to capture an idea of space or a space.

I may well come back to revise this post, but for the meantime I simply wanted to capture my early thoughts on these matters for later reference.

No comments:

Post a Comment