First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography

Allan Chasanoff, on whose collection this absorbing album draws, is particularly fond of unaltered photographs that resist immediate recognition. Such images, because photography is a two-dimensional medium, confuse the eye’s three-dimensional perception. At least initially, one doesn’t know precisely what one is looking at. Take Eliot Elisofon’s untitled 1940s picture of the long shadows of a number of persons. The shadows appear to be thrown on a wall, and the perpendicularity of the camera to the shadows’ plane suppresses perceiving the bodies casting them. Moreover, in every return to the image, the shadows again seem more substantial than the solids that throw them. The fact that most of the photos are black-and-white certainly facilitates their ambiguity. Where is the sky, one wonders, after establishing that Dave Bohn’s picture shows not some liquid’s texture but snow-smothered mountains. Yet Leslie Knippen’s full-color “Untitled #17” is as, maybe more, dumbfounding. The work of superbly skilled professionals, these photographs attest that even before digital monkeying could make any picture untrustworthy, believing one’s eyes could be a gamble

pp. 220; hardcover. Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008.

ISBN: 9780300141337| 0300141335
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Allan Chasanoff, on whose collection this absorbing album draws, is particularly fond of unaltered photographs that resist immediate recognition. Such images, because photography is a two-dimensional medium, confuse the eye’s three-dimensional perception. At least initially, one doesn’t know precisely what one is looking at. Take Eliot Elisofon’s untitled 1940s picture of the long shadows of a number of persons. The shadows appear to be thrown on a wall, and the perpendicularity of the camera to the shadows’ plane suppresses perceiving the bodies casting them. Moreover, in every return to the image, the shadows again seem more substantial than the solids that throw them. The fact that most of the photos are black-and-white certainly facilitates their ambiguity. Where is the sky, one wonders, after establishing that Dave Bohn’s picture shows not some liquid’s texture but snow-smothered mountains. Yet Leslie Knippen’s full-color “Untitled #17” is as, maybe more, dumbfounding. The work of superbly skilled professionals, these photographs attest that even before digital monkeying could make any picture untrustworthy, believing one’s eyes could be a gamble

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