Book of the Month :: The Ambiguity of Image

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The Trojan War is notable as one of the single most important events in Greek mythology, kicked off when Paris, King of Troy, stole Helen, wife to Menelaus of Sparta. In the ten years of hostility that followed the event most remembered was the night the Greeks left a giant wooden horse outside the heavily fortified Trojan capital. Taking this as a victory trophy, the structure was dragged into the city. Hidden within were a group of soldiers who promptly poured out, opened the gates and let the rest of their countrymen in.

What they assumed was one thing turned out to be something quite different.

Ambiguity in art could be traced back to the first cave painting, if one subscribes to the belief that the only person who truly understands meaning of any composition remains responsible for its creation. However, if you look for paradox in art purely in visual terms, trompe-l’œil (French for ‘deceive the eye’) has been popular since Roman times, creating paintings so lifelike as to be believed as real. With the Renaissance period in Italy a process was popularised known as di sotto in sù, meaning ‘from below, upward.’ Applied to the process of ceiling paintings, elements were presented as if viewed from the true ‘vanishing point’ perspective, creating the impression they were the true vista above the viewer.

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With more knowledge and time came the ability to better integrate orientation and numerical precision into works, leading to more complex approaches to creating an illusion. The most famous of the artists who popularised mathematical conceptualisation was M.C. Escher (1898-1972.) This Dutch graphic artist extended precision to infinite staircases and birds that turned into fish: his work is almost instantly recognisable even today. As the established art world began to question and reject traditional expression, photography became a new way to accurately represent the human image. This form however was not as pure and incorruptible as many early proponents would have its participants believe: trick photography soon became popular, and with the advent of cinema the potential for deceiving the eye via ‘realism’ was not far behind.

Cinema brought a whole new set of visual variables to the table: the film ‘L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat’ was said to appear so real when exhibited by the Lumière brothers in Paris during 1896, that observers ran to avoid the oncoming train, though this claim has subsequently been debunked as an urban myth. Once it became apparent what could be suggested by cinema, film-makers would seize on the possibility visual ambiguity: trompe-l’œil became an indispensable means by which movie sets could be painted, to give a sense of depth and false perspective. When one looks at the process of modern Computer Graphic Imagery (CGI) in films, and realises that in many cases the worlds we are presented with as real were in fact created inside a computer, it is clear only the sophistication of tools has changed in the process of deception.

It is becoming increasingly important for an audience to be capable of distinguishing CGI actors from the real thing. What then matters is a sense of belief that what their mind registers is unreal can also be acceptable as natural. Many cinema reviewers will refer to the concept of the uncanny valley: (noun) the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it. This has been most notably highlighted recently in the Star Wars stand-alone story Rogue One, where the late Peter Cushing was ‘resurrected’ (with the full permission of his estate) to appear as the Grand Moff Tarkin.

Tarkin’s requirement to the plot is sympathetically and (in this viewer’s mind at least) acceptably placed in the context of the narrative. This ability to bring actors virtually back from the dead moved Robin Williams to insert a clause into his will to restrict the use of his image until 25 years after his death, to prevent what happened to Audrey Hepburn (who now sells chocolate that never existed in her lifetime.) When it is possible to produce a hologram of a dead pop star to perform live on stage, who is to believe what they are being shown is real or not?

In the world of modern photography, a new set of rules dictates our belief of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Photoshop, airbrushing and all manner of ‘sympathetic’ digital techniques can transform, remove thirty years or similarly age an individual. You may claim to #nofilter but everyone, at some point, will look at themselves in black and white and know it is a better way to hide their own personal fatigue than will ever be found with make-up or suitable lighting. In this digital age, your children understand and wield the power of visual ambiguity on a minute by minute basis: SnapChat makes you a bird, or a dog, has the power to transform in a moment.

This ability to instantly manipulate imagery can and does form a distorted view of what has become visually acceptable. We spoke at length last week about the tyranny of the nude, that body confidence can be irreparably damaged when every Instagram post shows a woman in a size eight dress. This image manipulation however is not restricted to the female form: an increasing number of men use vanity as an excuse to alter their physical appearances via surgery.

Transformation to order often moves away completely from notions of sexuality and gender to allow greater affinity to the widest possible audience. However, some advances remain almost depressingly predictable. The latest generation of sex robots are being made to look like women, because their major purchaser will be men. For every cosmetic procedure reducing the size and shape of nipples to create more androgyny, there remain those willing to increase breast size. Fashion may dictate some choices, but traditional stereotypes continue to win the day.

As consumers of image, we can become more discerning not simply in our understanding but also in the willingness to be deceived. When we take time to apply filters to our own images before posting them to social media but are critical of actors or sportspeople who do the same, there is a hypocrisy at play that transcends the public face we all wish to present. Only by accepting the faults and flaws we all carry, and often by embracing them can there truly be a peace with what is presented, plus the means to expose the ambiguity of imagery in general. Learning to live with conditions such as alopecia, body dysmorphia or simply becoming more acceptant of the variance and beauty that comes from randomness in all things is the path more should try and tread.

However, all of this self-acceptance can often be totally negated by the vicious nature of current social media. Revenge porn, slut shaming… these are terms that have been invented for a digital age. However, undoubtedly, such practices took place well before the terms were used to describe the practices. The only difference is how those images are now delivered. Speed, immediacy and reach mean a hacked filmstar’s photo library can be global in 12 hours, when 100 years ago the pictures taken might have taken months or years to become public domain. Scandal is not restricted to the digital age either, the only difference now is in the number of people able to watch a sex tape, or stare at infidelity simultaneously.

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When so much of what the modern world is about revolves around image, it can be hard to cope with ambiguity. One hopes for a clear, precise explanation behind every image, yet often what looks like one thing ends up as something quite different. Honesty should be the number one priority when it comes to imagery: if you’re trying to evoke the representation in a particular fashion, then be up front. Not being clear or accurate in description, using deception as a selling point… this is never really going to end well. If we return to our wineglass/female body image from the first essay, it is only with the business of optical illusion that ambiguity is a positive. In most other cases, it will only end in tears.

As has been the case in the last two weeks, I hope you can walk away from this essay with a clearer understanding of the duality of image in modern life. When reality TV is only presenting a version of the truth, it is up to us as discerning and intelligent individuals to try and make some sense of the complexities presented. At the same time, if we feel others are deceiving with their presentation, it is important to stand up and make our dissatisfaction heard, especially in relation to promoting body, race and sexual diversity.

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The image and the word together are what makes the Internet so powerful and compelling. I can stick 4 images and 140 characters into a digital message and potentially have millions of people see both. When a single individual is granted that ability without restriction, you cannot simply just keep pressing ‘send’ without due consideration of consequence. We all have our responsibilities to uphold in the Digital Age. The next time you manipulate an image, for whatever reason, consider the long term implications such power grants you, and how that could be used unscrupulously by others.

Book of the Month :: Seeing a New World

‘The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act.’

Ways of Seeing, Essay One.

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Occasionally a work of non-fiction has the ability to utterly transform how multiple individuals perceive the world around them. As an 18 year old Film Studies student at Canterbury in the 1980’s, my view of the world was as blinkered as you would expect, and opening both my eyes and mind to the possibility of a larger Universe was a pretty big ask for my tutor. However, it only took one book to alter everything; a set of essays that became a revolution for anyone who looked at the world with a critical eye, truly wanting to understand what they saw.

John Berger, who died in January this year, was born in Stoke Newington in London. He won the Booker prize in 1972, but is best known to a generation of art critics and students as the man whose socialist views on how he perceived static imagery redefined how the world at large considered painting and composition. After time in the Army in the 1940’s he enrolled at the Chelsea School of Art and the Central School of Art before exhibiting his own work. His first work of written fiction appeared in the early 1950’s and by 1962, in protest against British life, he left to live in France where he remained until his passing.

1972 was a pivotal year: Ways of Seeing did not begin life as words, but images; a series of documentaries commissioned by the BBC. The book came later, before becoming indispensable as reference text for a generation. The foundation of this thinking was collaborative too, based in part on an essay by Walter Benjamin entitled ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ What Berger bought to the table was charisma and an obvious passion for his ideas on the small screen, understanding all too well the power the moving image could have in both education and enlightenment. The fact these documentaries remain freely available on the Internet is a testament to the significance of his appraisals without the need for commercial gain. This was art, explored and exploded in simple, revelatory terms.

Berger reminds the reader/viewer in his opening appraisal that ‘seeing comes before words: the child looks and recognises before it speaks.’ Once we become aware not only of seeing, but being seen, the way we begin to consume and interact with the world is formed, based on a vast set of differing circumstances. There are assumptions regarding what is beautiful, our tastes, even our backgrounds affect the means by which imagery is ‘consumed.’ Berger also points out that how the past is manipulated and dictated by government plus the ruling classes will have a direct impact on how we ‘see’ it from our present standpoint.

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Once upon a time, the only way we had to ‘see’ history was via static works of art, and the means by which that now occurs is different to how those pieces were consumed by those viewing art before us. Photography unlocked the ‘static’ nature of canvas, moments caught at a specific time and place, immovable and inflexible. No longer were these staged images simply meant for specific locations: art hung in churches, in the homes of the rich, in places of civic significance. Photography freed the artistic process and allowed pictures to be instantaneous: soon granting imagery an ability to permeate every home, becoming part of everyday life.

Berger’s argument that ‘if we can see the present clearly enough, we shall ask the right questions of the past’ is as relevant in the current political and social climate of the early 21st Century as it was in the late 20th: his inaugural essay also highlights that art, like it or not, is often nothing but a reproduction of something that an artist considers important. Its relevance to that artist is often unclear or non-existent without vital frames of reference that are often lost when all one has to use as a starting point is the image. Using the past to highlight the present, drawing on nostalgia as a means to sell you an item or encourage you to take part in an activity: so much of what influences our daily existence is now irrefutably woven around imagery.

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Just because this new form of static art was not painted by a Grand Master does not mean that an individual cannot learn the process of critique. As Berger points out, ‘reproductions are still used to bolster the illusion that nothing has changed, that art, with its unique undiminished authority… makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.’ Modern photographic techniques are used to distort what we see, Photoshopped models and actors lose blemishes and weight and because these are photographs and not pictures. Our acceptance of reality is warped yet still accepted, often without complaint.


The reason why I picked Berger to kick off the Internet of Words project is very simple: words are incredibly powerful tools. Combined with imagery, it is possible to create versions of reality that do not exist, and will never be possible. When these works are marked as ‘art and fiction’ is is much easier to understand what is presented. However, when given something that straddles the boundaries of reality and fantasy, which could be honest but just as easily fiction… how do we react? Is it simpler to stick one’s head in the sand and dismiss all the untruths: do we call out Fake News, retouched bodies and unreasonable expectations? Do we need to learn to see for ourselves with a truly objective eye? Only by doing so can we release our minds from what others have taught us and find a reality that is truly a representation of our own personality. This is why learning to ‘see’ matters so much.

As part of the research for this essay, I presented the following image on my Twitter feed and asked people to tell me what they saw:

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Produced as a poster for a cervical cancer charity’s fundraiser, I was not surprised to see that most men identified female genitalia way ahead of the women who saw the cocktail glass. This is undoubtedly a very well thought out optical illusion, that allows the fundraisers to present a provocative image, thus reinforcing the point of their charity. Your ‘way of seeing’ is as much about the background you come from, your sexuality and how open you are to the possibility of ambiguity. Learning how to see both images and appreciate the cleverness of this poster should be the ultimate aim in understanding, and that requires both words and pictures to attain.

Image is supremely important on the Internet, but this is not simply a visual medium, despite what YouTube and Facebook might like you to believe. Words matter, far more than many people ever consider when they abuse a random celebrity or ‘anonymously’ send hate mail. In fact, the words used to describe images, the ways in which we deconstruct the visual around us, become increasingly more significant. Language may be altering to allow the emoji to exist as a quick and easy means of expressing visual intent, but if you want to explain yourself at all, you’ll need at least a basic grasp of written language in some form. That may change in the next 40 years, but for now, the Internet of Words is as relevant as the visual, aural and all points in-between.

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One of the most important life skills you will ever learn, in my mind, is the ability to be critical of yourself. Knowing when to say you are wrong, accepting shortcomings and learning to communicate with fairness and objectivity… all of these are part of the process. In starting this project, I hope to not only stimulate thought over why things happen the way they do, but to challenge individual thinking on the reasons and motivation behind other people’s written words, their fictions and their works of art, in all its forms. I am eternally grateful for having been taught the process of objective criticism in my 20’s but 30 years on I still struggle with the mechanics. It is never easy, and my mantra of ‘every day is a school day’ is often repeated.

For humanity, standing at any number of economic, environmental or social crossroads, the business of individual enlightenment is more important than it has ever been before. Only by understanding each other as individuals is there any real chance of making full and constant progress to a better, more productive planet. As a first point today, once you’ve read this essay, go and find a favourite picture: perhaps of a computer game character, or even of a classic landscape or portrait.

Look at the picture carefully: what do you see?

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Then, look again: why did the artist draw in this way? What does the use of colours say to you… how does it make you feel? There is always more than one way to appreciate anything. Finding joy in doing so is one of life’s pleasures, and is worth taking time to enjoy.

What you see is never all that can be seen.