Sassello January 2009 #1. A sense of place.

I have spent the first days of the new year near Sassello (Savona, Italy). Not far from the sea (45 minutes by car) but on the northern side of the mountain chain behind Savona, Sassello area is a rough and somewhat inhospitable land, numerous steep hills and few roads do not allow for an easy access. Snow is frequent in December and January but not easy to catch lasting only for a few days.

This year I had the luck have the snow while I was there. The blessed event gave me the opportunity, and the motivation, to make some pictures out of what I was seeing. I focused on three areas called ``La Boiazza'', ``La Moiazza'' and ``La Maddalena'' see here.

Due to my infrequent and random presences in the area I never got to an organic project about this place. In some previous post I mentioned the difficulty I am having with the concept of project in general. A project needs a finalization as the word itself implies. The achievement of the finality implies the termination, so the death, of the project. In architecture a project has a well defined mean and invariably ends with some kind of building. Its termination is, so to say, provable. But if you, like me, consider that making pictures is a non detachable part of your life, how could you fit it all in the finiteness of a project ? Is to prove the joy of making pictures an acceptable finality ? How will you prove it to be terminated and when ?

Recently I started to think more in terms of themes. Themes do not require finalization at least.

About the picture: I am starting with a view of "La Maddalena" just to give some sense of the general look of the place.


Frozen 2

In the times of B&W television the Italian Public Broadcasting Company, RAI, used to transmit, in between the various programs, sequences of still pictures (most of them from Alinari's archives) having as subject national scenic views. Invariably there always was some pictures having the sheep along some ruins as the main actors. "Intervallo" it was called and was accompanied by smooth and soporific harp sounds. I suppose it had some higher intention as to elevate the popular geographic knowledge by means of several well known cliches. I like to think about the recently published pictures (from the beginning of the new year) as much as an "Intervallo".


Snow + rocks and a further note on Gestalt theory

In the preceding post upon Gestalt Theory I warned photographers about the low ROI in reading tomes about cognitive psychology as a way to improve their own picture making.

The main reason is that the theory is based on phenomena which partly pertain to culture and partly to evolution/selection (nature). As an example consider that linear perspective is a cultural artifact as well described by Erwin Panofsky in "Perspective as Symbolic Form". This is an important question to all those involved in figurative arts. Cultural rules can be subverted (to a certain degree) while "natural" rules can be used. Other cognitive psychology schools, aware of this duality, approached the problem from other point of view as in the case of developmental psychology from Jean Piaget. More or less the separation of the two planes has been the object of most cognitive psychology till today.


Frozen garden and a note on Gestalt Theory

Cognitive processes, see here for a definition, are, according to Gregory Bateson, opaque. You can appreciate the causes and the outcomes but you are not aware, so to say, of what happens in between. As an example consider what is going on nailing. Certainly your brain had to do some calculations to find out the right trajectory for the hammer. But, unless the hammer goes straight to your finger, you are not aware of the calculus. Only when something goes wrong you will start to pay attention. The same seems to happen for each cognitive process. Vision is one of the those processes or better , vision is a composite of cognitive processes each with his own opacities.

In vision a lot has been showed by Cognitive Psychology as well as Gestalt Theory or Piaget (post)̠ school in the second half of the last century. To be exact in the 70/80 all the concepts already had been incorporated in psychology course books.

Gestalt Theory gave a frame for understanding several visual perception phenomena, like the one known as "Closure". But more important showed (in good company with the others) that each of our senses has different thinking models to interface with. Each of the schools had their own methods to demonstrate what postulated. Gestalt theory, as well as others, proceeded by showing cases of explicit specialized thinking (like completing the missing pieces out of hidden parts of a cube or paying attention to where the hammer is going :-) in form of perceptive experiments (something gone wrong or perceptually unexpected). The strength of the experiments outcome helped a lot in terms of popularity. Eventually it came out that some of the experimental models could be rendered in figures or photographies. R. Arnheim being one of the latest of the school is also one that more applied himself to Visual Perception and Thinking in the Gestalt Theory frame. If looking for a synthesis of the theory he represents a good entry point see here. I recommend his book "Visual Thinking" (the first 3 chapters are more than enough).

Photographers, and image makers in general, are attracted by Gestalt Theory in their never ending quest to the perfect rule for the successful image. But in general most of the adventurous end up questioning if it was worth reading hundreds of pages about experiments to understand that framing matters (Ansel, to cite a verbose one, treated all of that in far less, Paul Strand did it in pictures and Capa, while busy setting up the next decisive moment, said it in the shortest form).

But if taken at large, forgetting the quest for the photographic stone, what Cognitive sciences show us is that there is a visual form of thinking, with its own rules and forms and not always homomorphic to other thinkings. The concept of "Visual Thinking" has a long history if seen through the history of image making. A very interesting point is made in the "Metaphysics" artistic theory developed by the De Chirico Brothers at the beginning of the last century. The main idea was to detach any verbal or affective connection with what saw to obtain, or make visible, the pure visual relations among the viewed things.


Yet another year. Starting in red

I finally had some time to spend in pure meditative speculations or, if you are better, wasting some time doing absolutely nothing. "Otium" is not one of the most recommended activities in any western world profession. But it certainly is one of the most useful. Piaget and his school showed that cognitive activity (as learning) proceeds by disordered acquisition and ordered reconstruction (guess where Otium operates in this frame).