For a picture of your own choice say how the image indicates a point of view for the spectator and say why you think the effect is rare in the cinema but common in photography. Does the painting or photograph represent eye-contact between someone in the picture and ourselves. What films have you seen where characters treat the camera as another person.
My chosen picture is Gustave Caillbotte’s 1877 painting The Gardeners. I chose this painting because the spectator’s position can be readily determined from a series of clues (see fig. 1).
Establishing the spectator’s physical position / point of view
The first two rows of plants on the left of the painting recede into the distance (dashed pink lines) – the first row converges to the right, and the second row converges to the left, and they meet at the horizon (blue line). The heads of the gardeners are aligned with the horizon – the same as the spectator’s eye-level – which tells us the spectator is on the same plane, or ground, as the two gardeners.
If the rows are extrapolated out of the picture then, using the convention of linear perspective, we can determine that the spectator is situated equidistant between these lines, somewhere on a line perpendicular to the vanishing point (yellow line), and must be off of the canvas.
To get an approximation of position off the canvas, we might measure the regular spacing of the plants to the right, extrapolating lines towards the spectator’s position (red dashed lines).
From this point of view all the action, where the gardeners are working, is happening in the right half of our vision.
Another point of view
It’s difficult to see if the gardener in the middle ground is looking at us, the spectator, but for the sake of this analysis let’s say he is.
Sturken and Cartwright say:
‘… viewing is a multimodal activity involving a range of active elements besides the individual who looks and the image at which he or she looks. The viewer is interpellated – that is, hailed – by images in the field.’ [1: 103]
They go on to say in their analysis of Foucault’s book The Order of Things (in which Foucault analyses Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas):
‘… the look of the spectator is always constituted in a field of looks, including “looks” that emanate from objects … . The depiction of people who look out of the painting and toward the position of the spectator makes literal the proposition that any image or object interpellates the human subject who looks at it with a look back.’ [1: 104]
So, in Caillbotte’s painting, it can be said that the spectator is being interpellated (hailed) by the gaze of the gardener – the spectator is now made to know that he or she exists as part of a broader dynamic with the painting – and the spectator knows, consciously or subconsciously, that he or she is part of an other point of view.
In Photography and Cinema
In photography it is common for a subject to be looking directly at the spectator, as part of the allure of photography is to capture personal moments with friends and family. If we tell someone we will take a photo of them then they are likely expecting to look at the camera, and say “cheese” or some such inane phrase.
However in the cinema, a character looking directly into the camera, and therefore at the spectator, happens rarely – and when it does it ‘s often to offer a view of what a character is seeing for a brief moment, often when the character is experiencing some unusual visual effect – like they are hallucinating or they have been attacked or awaking from a hospital operation and their vision is impaired, or perhaps seeing people, ghosts or objects that other characters in the movie cannot see.
It is rare for a character in a movie to engage directly with the audience and when it does happen it is usually to express a narrative. Termed ‘Breaking the 4th Wall’, the breaking of the imaginary wall between the movie and the audience, the technique is often used when a character wants to tell the spectator their thoughts and feelings. I have seen this used in the films Ferris Beuller’s Day Off and Shirley Valentine, and also TV series such as House of Cards, and Miranda Hart’s ‘Miranda‘ situation comedy.
But looking beyond a purely narrative interaction between character and spectator, I tried to find a film where a character treats the camera as another character in a story. The most obvious is Blair Witch Project where all the action is witnessed through the lens of a video camera being used by the main character.
So why are there very few movies where the characters permanently interact with the camera as if it were another character in the story? I believe it it has do with the lack of identification, and lack of emotional ownership of an off-screen character by the spectator. Sturken & Cartwright pose some interesting questions about how we relate to people in images:
‘… do we experience the person in the image or on the screen as an object of our desire – that is, do we identify with the apprehending look of the camera and admire the imaged human subject as an other whose image we might enjoy and consume in fantasies of touch and interaction? Or do we fantasize ourselves in the place of the person on the canvas or screen? Perhaps we are identifying with the body on the screen – for example imaging ourselves wearing the same clothes or interacting in the same social world in which they appear.’ [1: 122]
So when the physical appearance of a character is missing, or is brief (perhaps by the spectator seeing the character in a mirror), I think the spectator will find it challenging to emotionally engage with it as a believable character for any length of time. The movie would need to find some innovative ways to overcome this problem, and in Blair Witch Project I think is was probably compensated by the suspense and the ‘reality’ style in which it was filmed.
List of Images
Figure 1. Analysis of spectators position in Gustave Caillbotte’s 1877 painting The Gardeners, includes a painting by Caillbotte, G. (1875-77) The Gardeners [oil on canvas] 117 x 90 cm At: private collection. https://www.wikiart.org/en/gustave-caillebotte/the-gardeners-1877 (Accessed 5 August 2017)
 Sturken, M. & Cartwright, L. (2009). Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture – 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Artyfactory.com, Perspective in art: https://www.artyfactory.com/perspective_drawing/perspective_8.html
Backstage.com, Breaking the 4th wall: https://www.backstage.com/news/14-films-famously-break-fourth-wall/
Chicago School of Media Theory, Interpellation: https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/interpellation/
Wikipedia, The Fourth Wall: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_wall
Wikipedia, Psychoanalytic film theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychoanalytic_film_theory
Main research during this part of the course
- Revisiting chapter 3 of Sturken and Cartwright Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture as my main source of guidance in the subject of spectatorship and the gaze.
- Studying and deconstructing Martin Jay’s paper Scopic Regimes of Modernity, Vision & Visuality (not cited in the final answer to this exercise)
- A study of Breaking the 4th wall and basics of Psychoanalytic Film Theory
These are my deconstruction notes of Martin Jay’s paper Scopic Regimes of Modernity, Vision & Visuality, Bay Press 1988. Much of the text is verbatim, but rearranged or paraphrased to make my understanding easier. As it turned out, I didn’t use any of this paper to answer the questions in Exercise 2.4 Point of View, however I felt it was important to understand the idea of “scopic regimes”. My own questions / clarifications are in orange italics.
The paper is available on line: http://beauty.gmu.edu/AVT307/AVT307-001/martin%20jay%20vision%20and%20visuality%20copy.pdf
Modern era since the Renaissance and scientific revolution dominated by sight more so than premodern and post modern – ocularcentric – due to printing aided by telescope and microscope.
The visual has been dominant in Western culture, writings of e.g:
- “the mirror of nature” metaphor – Richard Rorty
- surveillance – Michel Foucault
- the spectacle – Guy Debord
“scopic regime” termed by Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (1982), page 61. The scopic regime of modernity may be characterised by a differentiation of visual subcultures.
Scopic Regime: Cartesian Perspectivalism
This is the dominant visual model of the modern era: Renaissance notions of perspective and Cartesian ideas [Cartesian: relating to Descartes and his ideas.] of subjective rationality in philosophy. It succeeded in becoming so because it best expressed the “natural ” experience of sight valued by the scientific world view. This is illustrated by writings of:
William Ivins Jr in Art and Geometry (1946) “the history of art during the five hundred years that have elapsed since Alberti wrote has been little more than the story of the slow diffusion of his ideas through the artists and peoples of Europe”
Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) “in the Cartesian model the intellect inspects entities modelled on retinal images … In Descartes’ conception – the one that became the basis for ‘modern’ epistemology – it is representations which are in the ‘mind’.”
Most important characteristics of Cartesian Perspectivalism:
Linear perspective, invented by Brunelleschi and theoretically interpreted by Alberti. A rough consensus has emerged: Linear perspective came to symbolize a harmony between the mathematical regularities in optics and God’s will. This grew out of the late medieval fascination with the metaphysical implications of light (as divine lux rather than perceived lumen). This new concept of space had become geometrically isotropic, rectilinear, abstract and uniform.
The 3D rationalised space of perspectival vision could be rendered on a 2D surface by following the transformational rules in Alberti’s De Pittura and later by Viator, Dürer, et.al. – the basic device being the use of symmetrical visual pyramids or cones.
The transparent window that was the canvas in Alberti’s famous metaphor could also be understood as the flat mirror reflecting the geometricalized space of the scene depicted back onto the no less geometricalized space radiating out from the viewing eye.
“Founding Perception” of the Cartesian Perspectivalism tradition – coined by Norman Bryson in Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (1983). The idea that the scene was conceived in the manner of a lone eye looking through a peephole at the scene in front of it – a static, unblinking and fixated eye – reduced to one “point of view”, rather than dynamic, moving with “saccadic” jumps from one focal point to another. It followed the logic of the Gaze rather than the Glance.
A couple of implications from this visual order:
- The abstract coldness of the perspectival gaze meant the withdrawal of the painter’s emotional entanglements with the objects depicted. The gap between spectator and spectacle widened. The moment of ‘erotic projection’ in vision (re: St. Augustine’s “ocular desire”) was lost as the bodies (presence) of the painter and viewer are forgotten.
- It also fostered de-narrativization or de-textualization – the quantitatively conceptualised space became more interesting to the artist than the qualitatively differentiated subjects painted within it – the rendering of the scene became an end in itself. According to Bryson in his book Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime (1981) This “diminution of the discursive function of painting” (telling a story to the masses) meant the increasing autonomy of the image from any extrinsic purpose, religious or otherwise. The effect of realism was consequently enhanced as canvases were filled with more and more information unrelated to any narrative or textural function.
Cartesian Perspectivalism was in league with with a scientific world view which no longer read the world as divine text. It saw it as a mathematically regular spatio-temporal order filled with natural objects that could only be observed by the dispassionate eye of the neutral researcher.
Michael Kubovy terms “robustness of perspective” . Renaissance canvases could be successfully viewed from more than the imagined apex of the beholders visual pyramid.
The subject position in the Cartesian perspectivalist epistemology is problematic: For the monocular eye at the apex of the beholders pyramid could be construed as transcendental and universal – exactly the same for any human viewer occupying the same point in time and space, or contingent, solely dependent on the particular, individual vision of distinct beholders, with their own concrete relations to the scene in front of them. When the former [the subject ??] was explicitly transformed into the latter [beholder ??], the relativistic implications of perspectivalism could be easily drawn. [… as in the subject gazing from the canvas, into the eyes of the beholder?]
Scopic Regime: The Art of Describing (Italian Renaissance art versus C16th Dutch art)
The term Art of Describing was coined by Svetlana Alpers in her book The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, (1983, University of Chicago Press).
Italian art in art history has occluded a ‘second tradition’ in 17th century Dutch art. Italian Renaissance art, for all it’s fascination with perspective, held fast to a storytelling function (narrative art) – in which human figures performed significant actions based on the texts of poets.
Dutch art, in contrast, suppresses narrative and textual reference in favour of description and visual surface. It emphasised the existence of a world of objects depicted on the flat canvas, a world indifferent to the beholder’s position in front of it – a world not entirely contained within the frame but seems to extend beyond it. The frames around Dutch pictures are arbitrary and without the totalising function they serve in Italian art.
If there is a model for Dutch art, it is the map with it’s unapologetically flat surface and its willingness to include words as well as objects in its visual space.
Alpers posits the oppositions between Art of Describing versus Cartesian Perspectivalism:
- attention to many small things – versus – a few large ones;
- light reflected off objects – versus – objects modelled by light and shadow
- deals with the surface of objects (colour and texture) – versus – placement in a legible space
- an unframed image – versus – a clearly framed image
- no clearly situated viewer – versus – a clearly situated viewer
Dutch art savours the particularity of visual experience and resists the temptation to allegorise or typologise what it sees, a temptation to which Italian art succumbs.
Alpers notes :
Although the grid that Ptolemy proposed, and those that Mercator later imposed, share the mathematical uniformity of the Renaissance perspective grid, they do not share the positioned viewer, the frame, and the definition of the picture as a window through which an external viewer looks. On these account the Ptolemaic grid, indeed cartographic grids in general, must be distinguished from, not confused with, the perspectival grid. The projection is, one might say, viewed from nowhere. Nor is it looked through. It assumes a flat working surface.
The Art of Describing anticipates the visual experience of photography. Both share a number of salient features:
- arbitrary frames;
Scopic Regime: Baroque
In opposition to the lucid linear, solid, fixed, planimetric, closed form of the Renaissance, the baroque was painterly, recessional, soft-focused, multiple and open, connoting the bizarre and peculiar (traits normally disdained by champions of clarity and transparency of form).
In the recent work of Christine Buci-Glucksmann (La raison baroque of 1984 and La folie du voir of 1986) it is precisely the explosive power of baroque vision that is seen as the most significant alternative to the visual style of Cartesian perspectivalism. She emphasises the rejection of the monocular geometricalisation of the Cartesian tradition, with baroque celebrating the dazzling, disorientating, ecstatic surplus of images. She also contrasts the Dutch art of describing, with its belief in legible surfaces and faith in material solidity of the world its paintings map, with the baroque fascination for opacity, unreadability and the indecipherability of the reality it depicts.
Baroque revels in the contradictions between surface and depth, disparaging any attempt to reduce the multiplicity of visual spaces into any one coherent essence. Baroque visual experience has a strongly tactile or haptic [haptic: based on the sense of touch] quality, which prevents it from turning into the absolute ocularcentrism of its Cartesian perspectivalist rival.
Baroque vision sought to represent the unrepresentable and, necessarily failing, produced the melancholy that Walter Benjamin in particular saw as characteristic of baroque sensibility. It was closer to what the aesthetics called the sublime in contrast to the beautiful, because of its yearning for a presence that can never be fulfilled. Indeed, desire, in its erotic and metaphysical forms course through the baroque scopic regime.
My main closing question on Jay’s paper is: why has he not addressed Cubism and Abstract Expressionism as independent scopic regimes given that they are counter to Cartesian Perspectivalism and were such significant developments during Modernism?
These are some notes from Sturken, M. & Cartwright, L. (2009). Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture – 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press. I made these verbatim while researching the subjects of scopic regimes and psychoanalytic film theory. They were not used in my final exercise but are still useful to reflect upon:
For Descartes, the world becomes known when we accurately represent it in thought, not when we experience it through the senses and not when we imagine it in our mind’s eye. S&Cp95
Jaques Lacan: explanation of the ‘mirror phase’ of infant development of ego S&Cp101
‘… In visual theory the term spectator (the individual who looks) and spectatorship (the practice of looking) have added meanings that derive specifically from film theory. Not only is the spectator’s gaze constituted through a relationship between the subject who looks and other people, institutions, places, and objects in the world, but also the objects we contemplate may be described as the source of the look in the gaze. ‘ S&Cp102.
Christian Metz wrote “What fundamentally determines me is the look which is outside.” This means: “I” exist only insofar as I can imagine myself in a field in which I appear in light of others (objects, people) who make me apparent to myself. S&Cp102.
‘Christian Metz and other theorists who wrote about film in the 1970s generally described the process of spectatorship as follows: the viewer suspends belief in the fictional world of the film and identifies not only with specific characters in the film but also, and more importantly, with the film’s overall ideology. This occurs through identification with the position of the camera or with film characters. Identification with character or camera position puts into play fantasy structures (such as an imagined ideal family) that derive from the viewer’s unconscious.’ S&Cp120.
Part of the fascination with cinema, according to Baudry, is that the darkened theater and the conditions of watching a mirror-like screen invite the viewer to regress to a childlike state. The viewer undergoes a temporary loss of ego as he or she identifies with the powerful position of apprehending bodies on the screen, much as the infant apprehended the mirror image. The spectator’s ego is built up through an illusory sense of owning the body on the film screen. S&Cp121.