I Myself Have Seen It: Photography and Kiki Smith
Discussing photography without first understanding perspective is impossible. Each and every one of us has a point of view that sets us apart from one another, making perspective the genesis of individuality. We are only conscious of our own views, but photography is a medium that can document perspectives and provide valuable insight into different perceptions of reality. When individuals make decisions regarding “the angle from which a picture is taken, the visual information given in the foreground and background, the amount of detail used to render all or parts of the picture and the deliberate manipulation of light, shade, texture and color” (Marien, XIV), they record their perspectives on paper to be viewed by others. Photography opens the door to a new realm wherein we can step out of our own shoes and perceive the world in the eyes of another; it gives us a new perspective.
Perception is the first step to forming a perspective. The human eye is capable of filtering overwhelming amounts of visual information surrounding us into smaller fragments that the brain can easily organize. The eye separates the important from the negligible by way of central and peripheral vision. Central vision is responsible for spatial discrimination, color differentiation and sharp sight while peripheral detects objects outside the direct line of vision. The eye is limited in perception because it “can only seize upon one object or plane at a time” with everything else blurring into the periphery (Melon, 84). Vision functions in spurts, jumping from one object to another, making it impossible for us to see everything in our environment in pristine detail. Looking at a scene, we must “choose, sift, retain and reject objects, planes, lights and colors” depending on whether they move us (Melon, 94). Therein lies the origin of perspective: selective vision. However, our selection is not only physiological but psychological as well. Individuals exposed to an identical scene will find distinctive elements to focus on due to their differences in psychological makeup.
Someone who has a background in both human physiology and art critique, Dr. Peter Henry Emerson, a physician turned photographer, wrote that “nothing in nature has a hard outline, but everything is seen against something else” (Hannavy, 980). When everything is relative, distinguishing outlines becomes complicated. Establishing a beginning and an end in a purely relational world is extremely subjective. But it is something we must do because of the physiology of our eyes; we cannot perceive the natural world as it is, but must discriminate and create lines and borders. The moment that we make a decision, consciously or not, to direct our attention to one element and not another is when perspectives arise.
While it is true that we are unable to perceive the world in someone else’s eyes, photography is a medium by which we can momentarily catch a glimpse of the perspective of another. A photographer standing before a landscape must first look for an image to capture. A retraction takes place as a selection is made, progressively removing all that is useless and emphasizing all that is significant to the individual. The selection is visible in the final photograph; the perspective of the photographer then is recorded in the image as “an emotional and aesthetic response to space, light and shadow” (Marien, 179).
Viewing a conventional work of art such as a sculpture or painting is different than viewing a photograph. Because of the technical advancements of the camera, it can collapse space and time to create a two-dimensional copy of reality with intense accuracy. Photographs do not provide options such as brush size or carving methods, but rather creates a duplicate of what is real and visible. Renowned sculptor, Kiki Smith, displays her three-dimensional artwork in exhibits all over the world. Recently, she launched a large-scale exhibition dedicated to her photography alone called “I Myself Have Seen It: Photography and Kiki Smith.” In the show are hundreds of images that Smith has captured over the years of her studio, artistic process, and sculptures. Her photographs of her own sculptures are most intriguing because she has a distinct pictorial style that fragments her work. The individual images carry with them a informative power when separated from the original piece.
This exhibit demonstrates the power of photography through her specific arrangement of images. Smith creates borders with her camera and captures subtle, delicate details that tend to be overlooked on her figures. She takes multiple pictures of the same sculpture from different angles, with varying depth of fields and focusing, in a way disassembling the figure. She then reconstructs the whole by placing the photographs on display in respect to each other in “gangs” or groups. Viewers in the exhibit are then only exposed to her photographs of the sculpture, not the piece itself. Through this “Frankenstein impulse” of disassembling and reassembling, she manipulates the visual information that we viewers get. We stand stripped of our own perspective, viewing the sculpture only through the eyes of the artist herself (Brown, 41). Her deliberate isolation of certain elements provides a revealing look into Smith’s mind and her perspective.
Smith’s view of her artwork is the central focus of the “I Myself Have Seen It” exhibit. In fact, the title of the show is quite appropriate in regards to her intent; we finally see what Smith, herself has already seen. In earlier exhibits, she displayed sculptures whereas this exhibit displays her perspective by way of photography. This fascinating medium provides Smith with the tools to present her world to her audience, as she sees it. The essence of the sculpture and Smith’s artwork dramatically changes when we are no longer able to draw on our own perspectives, but are forced to view the work in her eyes. It provides the viewers with a new point of view that would not have been possible if not for photography. The most beautiful thing about photography is it makes us aware of the different viewpoints people can have, opening up our mind to a world of infinite possibilities. We simply have to let go of our viewpoints and see the world with a different perspective, through a photograph.
Brown, Elizabeth. Kiki Smith: Photographs. New York: Prestel, 2010.
Hannavy, John. Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. London: Routledge, 2007
Melon, Marc. A History of Photography: Social and Cultural Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Marien, Warner Mary. Photography: A Cultural History. London: Prentice Hall, 2011.