Monday, June 29, 2015

Ceaseless Tread of Pictures of Pictures

In his Sherlock Holmes story "The Man with the Twisted Lip" Arthur Conan Doyle had his character Dr. John Watson notice:
Ordering my cab to wait, I passed down the steps, worn hollow in the center by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet
Above is a detail from the drawing "Twin Staircases in Vitorchianoby" by Rhode Island School of Design  Professor Fred Lynch from his blog. It nicely illustrates Dr. Watson's observation. I found a comparable photograph of such stairs here.

The tread of those ceaseless drunken feet have worn away the stone most in the center and less along the edges. The worn steps give us a profile of a normal, bell-shaped pattern of wear. A pattern we've seen often.

But Design Professor Lynch tells how he included this image along with a drawing of a historic and often reproduced, tourist-popular image of an Italian piazza. When he asked his students to critique his drawings he found that such beautiful and historic images were of less interest to his students than this drawing of stairs. One student noted "one kind of drawing was of what I, the artist had found to be interesting. The other kind were drawings of subjects that others have found interesting". He had made a drawing of an image many people knew well, and were then more critical or bored with yet another rendition of something they had seen often. The stairs, on the other hand, were something not so ingrained in their visual memory. It was an image the artist cared about, not one that history and tourist traffic had made famous and ubiquitous.

It reminded Professor Lynch of a passage from the novel "White Noise" by Don Delilo:
“Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America.  We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington.  There were meadows and apple orchards.  White fences trailed through the rolling fields.  Soon the sign started appearing.  THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA.  We counted five signs before we reached the site.  There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot.  We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing.  All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits.  A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot.  We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers.  Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book. 
“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
He fell silent once more.  People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura.  Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence.  The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender.  We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future.  We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception.  It literally colors our vision.  A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
Another silence ensued.
“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.
He did not speak for a while.  We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.
“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said.  “What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?”

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