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November 29, 2007

The inherent bias of the camera


Verlyn Klinkenborg's New York Times editorial page essay yesterday was a meditation on the recently discovered pictures (above and below) of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.

He asked, "What would the photographic record show if it reached back, say 500 years, instead of 180?"

Underlying his thoughts on the seemingly built-in bias of whatever medium is used to perceive and record was a more profound and interesting observation: "... the moments we have traditionally called history are really just brief disruptions of the heavy, dense fabric of ordinary life."

History as a linked series of discontinuities in the regular flow of "reality" — there's a book in there somewhere.


Anyway, here's the Times piece.

    History and the Problem of Following the Camera’s Gaze

    Over the past few days, I’ve looked again and again at recently published images, drawn from two enlarged photographs in the Library of Congress, that very likely show Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg 144 years ago on the November day, the 19th, when he delivered that famous address. A bearded man in a top hat rises above the crowd (we are looking at him from behind, over his left shoulder) and there’s no real reason to doubt that it’s Lincoln. He appears in a minute portion of two stereoscopic photographs that were meant to be looked at in a special 3-D viewer.

    Incredible as it is to see Lincoln there, a crowd swirling around him, blurred by their own motion, it’s every bit as surprising to see the whole scene that the camera captured in that moment. The camera has been positioned well away from the crowd, and there’s open ground just ahead of the lens. Deep in the crush of bodies, Lincoln is looking off into history, toward us in a sense. But out in this open ground, it’s a November day in Pennsylvania. A few men — including one in a broad white collar and a voluminous top hat — stare at the lens with a truly American candidness.

    There’s a kind of conviction in the ordinariness of what this photograph shows us — ordinary even though it was a day, as Lincoln said, of consecration. We’re always surrounded by hard evidence that the past existed, and yet a photograph like this seems to offer a special testimony precisely because it witnesses an ephemeral moment.

    So many kinds of evidence overlap here. It’s tempting to say that we have an idea of what was in Lincoln’s mind that day, but we don’t. We know only what words he read aloud for a few minutes, not what he was thinking as he did so. His identity mattered then as it does now, and it is the only reason we find ourselves looking at this photograph.

    Meanwhile, that unknown man in the broad collar stares at the camera. We have no idea at all what’s on his mind, no idea who he is. By the tilt of his head, the angle of his body, he seems to be expressing intense curiosity about the camera and its operator, and none at all about the scene going on behind him. He looks as though he might have walked out of a line of Whitman.

    Perhaps that’s what is so convincing about this photograph. At the edges of every crowd — even at moments of intense historical importance — there is an unknown someone being distracted by the world, uninterested in what’s happening behind his back. You can see it here. We feel the power of what Lincoln was saying more strongly than those who were present did — that is, we feel its ongoing power. But if you begin walking outward from where Lincoln stood, how far would you have to go before any trace of the extraordinary nature of that day had vanished into the ordinary? The evidence of this photograph suggests that you wouldn’t have to go far at all, a few hundred yards at most.

    I don’t quite know why this thought seems to matter so much to me. Perhaps it’s the irreverence of the world, the way it is always tempting you to pay no attention to that great human being uttering words that will live forever behind your back. Perhaps it’s the fact that the moments we have traditionally called history are really just brief disruptions of the heavy, dense fabric of ordinary life. Perhaps, too, it’s the way that humans, for all their ability to concentrate, will nearly always behave, if given the chance, like the animals we are — easily distracted, diverted by a sudden motion, drawn off guard by the glint of light on a camera lens.

    Looking at Lincoln in these two photographs — all but his hat nearly lost in the emulsion of the film itself — I find myself wondering what it would have been like if photography had been a rudimentary discovery and had been with us, say, as long as the printing press. What would the photographic record show if it reached back, say 500 years, instead of 180?

    One answer is that it would show us this same structure over and over again: a fiercely concentrated knot of people hanging on the words of someone at the center of the crowd. And around them? People standing in looser and looser concentrations, until finally — far enough from the epicenter — their attention turns away from history and focuses on the abiding interest of almost anything else. And this is somehow the inherent bias of the camera. It always directs us toward the center of attention, never away to the periphery, even though that is where our attention eventually wanders.

November 29, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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