Perception and External Memory

Don't know how many of you are familiar with the service called "Amazon Mechanical Turk," but here's an interesting application for it. (Thanks to Edward for the link.)
Basically, Matt Richardson has designed a camera that does what we've been jokingly describing to small children for years: allows the image to be interpreted by people trapped inside of it, and spat out in a new form.

When you press the shutter release on this camera, it uploads a digital image to one of the enterprising individuals contracted through Amazon's service, who types out a description and sends it back. The camera then prints the description, and perhaps more significantly, attaches the text as "metadata" to the digital image for use in catalog/search/database applications later. (The process can complete within six minutes of pressing the shutter release, a feat that's pretty astounding when you think about someone sitting on the other side of the world, working part-time typing descriptions for the images you take.)

Richardson's camera, it seems to me, could go a step further: he could contract graphic artists through A.M.T. who could "copy" the paintings in a variety of ways. This is so close to the idea of "tiny 'Polaroid Gnomes' inside the camera painting the picture" that it makes me giddy. 

Rus and I were talking this evening about travel and the process of describing the places we visit to the people at home--he was recounting the story of someone he knows who re-traced the steps of his honeymoon and sent letters back to his terminally-ill spouse. This man didn't have a way to send images of all the places he stopped, but reflecting on that idea I'm pretty sure I'd rather *not* be able to take an album worth of photographs on a trip like that. Sure, a photo or two might be nice, and if you'd taken photos on your original honeymoon I'm sure you could make some very profound comparisons (if not of changes in scenery, the in the change of who's present in the photographs.) Describing the journey, though, gives an inherently reflective quality to the practice. Not that photos aren't reflective; I just think we're more likely to hide our perspective in photographs by slipping into the practice of taking "descriptive" or "journalistic" photos, capturing wide-angle perspectives in an attempt to remove ourselves from the scene. Sure, you can do the same thing with a written description--that's exactly what Richardson's "descriptive camera" system does, in a sense--but I think that a letter written to your wife about places you visited together in decades past would be hard to write in a passive voice.

In either form of the "descriptive camera," it does bring something interesting to photography: it removes the photograph by one "degree" or "generation" from the subject. This is, interestingly, something that many people assume cameras do already--we let the camera do the work of "seeing" the world, holding it at our own height and distance from the subject and assuming "this is what I'm seeing right now, ergo if I hold the camera here it will capture the reality of the thing itself, and preserve that reality for posterity." "It's just like being there", we say, and call our photo albums "mementos" of past events, people, and places. Something that photographers grapple with is the fallacy of this "objectification" of images; it's not "just like being there", it's "just like" someone showing you the world through their eyes at a very precise moment in time and space. Even in a description of a scene, you're going to get a very unique, personal twist on the "reality" of that precise moment, and you'll then add your own perceptual shifts in the way you interpret the description or see the image. Adding yet another layer of interpretation shifts our attention to the process, almost forcing us to ask questions "what's being left out?" and "Why this and not that?"

In a sense, photography is very much like our cognitive memories: we remember details, "close-ups", smells and sounds that are pulled out of very specific places and times; or very familiar, even mundane places and times, which we then ignore like stock photos in advertisements, attaching little significance to their details. I think it's the external nature of photography that makes us trust it: "it's outside of me, thus it's more "real" than my perception or memory." Interestingly, the same applies to oral tradition in cultures that don't have the same ideas about writing or image-making that we do: Plato argued that it was far more accurate to receive a spoken account of an idea than a written one, if only because you could ask questions and pester the speaker with questions. Oral tradition leaves things out, to be sure, and emphasizes new details in each generation, but there's a sense of accountability in the fact that the storyteller doesn't believe he is inventing the story as he goes along. If one deviates too far from the tradition, people will notice--much like the obvious darkroom/photoshop trickery that makes for a good laugh or a moment of skeptical amazement in some of the photography that's distributed in our culture. Even the "flair" that an individual storyteller can add to a tradition will stick out, in much the same way that a confident photographer, or writer, will add a touch of personal perspective that becomes a kind of signature for their work. People recognize this "flair", and it pulls attention away from the "objective" nature of the subject being described/viewed.

It's late so I'm not going to come up with any kind of profound conclusion for all this, but if you've got this far, thanks for reading. Feel free to add your two cents; pennies aren't going to be useful much longer anyway. ;)

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