Marvin Heiferman | Seeing Through Photographs

December 13, 2019 0 By Peter Engel

60% or 80% of the activity
that goes on in your brain is about deciphering visual data
and visual input that you get. There are scientists who’ve done
a tremendous amount of research on this, and it’s within 13 milliseconds
that you know what a picture is of. You can look at a blurry picture
and you’ll know it’s a bedroom, or a kitchen, or a street scene. You don’t need to see detail. The power of photography
is way more complicated than people admit to. And I think there’s psychological
and physiological reasons that we respond to things
that we respond to, as well as intellectual
and emotional ones. So it’s wildly complicated
and it’s terrific. It’s great, it’s great. I loved the title of your book,
Photography Changes Everything, because of course it does. And I thought maybe we’d start
with talking a little bit about that project. I spent about three years
reaching out to almost 100 people, asking them to think how photography
changed what they did, because I was very interested
not in the power of images as museums often talk about them, but in terms
of the consequentiality of images and how they really transform things. I was sitting in a room with a bunch
of environmental scientists surrounded by drones. Actual drones in the room? Yeah, drones were all there
on shelves, right? And we were talking
about the project they were doing, and they were showing me
the kind of schematic God’s-eye view down through the drone’s flight path
where you could look at every image that the drone made, and each drone
was making 2,000 images a day, and that was all really interesting. But I turned around and I looked
to the people in the room, thinking about Edward Steichen
and aerial photography, and I said, “Does anybody here
ever think about the history of aerial photography
as you’re doing this?” And they said, “No.” –Right?
–Right. And I thought, well,
that’s a really interesting thing. I mean, photography for the people
in that room was a tool. They didn’t care
about the history of it and what got them
to where they needed to be in terms of images. Photography is used by everybody, and everybody uses it
for all sorts of reasons, and images can be beautiful
for all sorts of reasons, and useful for all sorts of reasons, and consequential
for all sorts of reasons. Do you think it’s important
to tell a history of photography or do you think that
that is sort of a 20th century goal? I think it’s hugely important to talk
about the history of the medium because it’s not
quite a universal language, and the idea that we’re all
visually literate is not quite true. We can all probably
extract some very basic level of information from photographs but I think you have to learn
to understand how images work and how images are constructed. Who made the picture,
why did they make the picture, who edited the picture,
who cropped the picture, who captioned the picture,
what pictures did they leave out, what pictures are being censored? It’s a malleable medium, and I think people
need to be aware of that. That’s one of the big goals
in visual literacy is for people to understand how many different ways you can make and use
and understand any kind of image. There’s nothing like it,
there’s no other experience like it because when we’re
walking around the world, you don’t have time
to see everything around you. For a moment,
you can stop something and look at it in a way
that you normally wouldn’t see it, and I think that’s part
of the real fascination with still photography. It’s a kind of very existential,
philosophical kind of medium. It lets you step outside yourself
to kind of look at the world in a different way.