On The Nature Of One’s Own Optics

Stephen Shore: “Examine this photograph by Robert Adams. Move your attention from the bottom edge, back through the parking lot, to the movie screen. From the screen, move your attention to the mountain to its right and from there to the sky.


“Follow the same path through the picture, but now be aware that as your eye moves back through the parking lot—as your attention recedes through the depictive space—you have a sensation of changing focus, your eyes focusing progressively farther away.

Notice that as your attention moves from the screen to the mountain there is little or no change of focus.

Notice that as your attention moves from the mountain to the sky there is a shift of focus, but now, instead of moving back, your focus is seemingly moving forward, coming closer.

Notice that the direction and speed of your re-focusing is not tied to the recession in depictive space. The clouds may be farther away than the movie screen, but your focus moves closer.”


Herve Guibert: “I read in a scientific article that the area of sharp vision is restricted to a small depression of the macula lutea in the center of the retina called the fovea. Projected in space by the mechanism of sight, it would correspond in size to the fingernail of our index finger if we extended our arm horizontally in front of us.

So sight, when it is acute, would be limited to the surface of a fingernail moving through space, an activity similar to touching, one that would recreate the image of reality, touch by touch, facet by facet, like a puzzle, each piece of which would have the same dimension and the same form as the fingernail of our index finger. (Nearsighted people would be considered mutilated.)

The fovea would only be a point, a center of precision within a blurred circle of vision, which would itself form an indistinct tableau stained with color, like staring into space. But this tableau might itself be nothing else than the memory of what the fovea registered earlier, a stationary image that continued to vibrate slightly, that remained suspended a while before completely disintegrating, covered by another pattern of acute or obscure vision in the dream image. Each phase of the fovea’s activity would be followed by a period of repose, when the image is digested: from time to time the fovea would take a vacation, it would be prevented from focusing on anything at all, it would rock back and forth in reflection or sleep.

Sometimes, the fovea would pass repeatedly over the same surface to let the tactile sensation of its fingernail wander tirelessly across the same image, the same face, the same body, the same painting: the subject is in love, or obsessed. But when he looks at a photograph, he compels his fovea—by this more or less reduced (or enlarged) and fragmentary demarcation—to act the way the eye does in a state of desire or, rather, obsession, through his continued scrutiny. He sees nothing but this image, detached from the absolutely fluid bounds of context and reality; and he sees too, too often, the same unreal pigments on the paper. The photographic gaze is a visual fetish—a second fovea within the fovea, a deformed child, a tiny abyss, a super concentrated fovea (too rich, too sweet, too bitter).

As a result, a different type of activity (and different tastes) would come into play for large or small formats, exhibitions or books, the projected or printed image. As the image increases in size, the intensity of the act is both diminished and regenerated—the surface to be encompassed by the tip of the fovea-fingernail increases, the light ray must spread out rather than converge, and loss is inevitable. Even if the image stands alone on a white screen in a mass of darkness, the fovea encounters all kinds of parasites—not just fireflies—capable of distracting it along its path;its activity becomes public. So looking at a small picture or an image in a book is a form of activity that is more secret, more solitary, and more perverse than this, and not simply because of the proximity of the object. it is the same as looking into someone’s eyes form half an inch away, or at a mouth just before kissing it; it’s a “surreptitious” way of looking, like looking at a banned image, or through a keyhole, or in the false bottom of a trunk, or the hollow of a cameo. We look in much the same way as we desire, or as we fantasize—by obsessive scrutiny.”

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