The Image

I went to an amazing exhibit today. Public, Private, Secret at the International Center of Photography in the East Village.

The exhibit consisted of a variety of visual media, mostly photo and video. A major theme was the refashioning of public images (specifically social media) into new narratives: obscenity, intimacy, and voyeurism.

I went with a coworker, after we had failed to get ticket to see, appropriately, Privacy, a play at the Public theater.

The exhibit was intense, and stimulated two lines of thought.

The first concerns the value of an image. A six-month old movie poster is generally less valuable than a sixty-year old movie poster.  I take five photos of my family, and choose the best. The other four are worthless to me, but valuable to the patrons of a museum of photography.

Where do candid photos get their magic? There is something interesting in the relationship between the image and the observer; investigating this relationship may yield fruit for more general investigations into value.

The second concerns the nature of the image.  The image is experienced totally in the moment. Contrast this with something like sound, which must be experienced in sequence, in time. When I look at an image, I apprehend it entirely. In order to experience film or sound, I must block out a portion of time, and experience it through time.

Considering the development of the senses, it would seem that touch, or some sort of proto-touch, came first. The coarse physical sensitivity. Then it would seem that smell, or taste, or a proto-sense predating both, came next. The chemical sensitivity. Sound, and then sight, would follow. Wave sensitivities of different orders.

The early life forms wouldn’t have had much sense of memory; their experience would have been entirely momentary. Sense and reaction. Over millions of years, these reactions became very finely tuned. Eventually, life forms which could retain impressions of their environment and modify their behavior would become more competitive in changing habitats.

As it happened, our sun burns at a temperature which emits light quite strongly in the 400-700 Terahertz range (the visible spectrum). As it also happens, our atmosphere is transparent to waves of this frequency, while blocking higher-energy waves (like ultraviolet), which would be damaging to our cells.

These waves would constantly bounce off of the matter on our planet, gaining information about their arrangement;  eventually life forms developed sensitivity to these waves. Moving literally at the speed of light, these waves were thus the most rapid form of information available about the environment. It makes sense that sensitivity to these waves would be very valuable.

Over time life developed sight and memory; our ability to experience the world began to extend forwards and backwards from the present moment. From this came our awareness of ourselves and of others. For humans, there finally emerged language, allowing the transmission of the self and ultimately new and higher forms of coordination.

Unfortunately, our experience degrades as we extend it into the past or into the future. Our memories are patchwork and unreliable. Our expectations are overwhelmingly unmet. The present moment remains the cleanest and highest-capacity channel for information.

I wonder if this can help explain the power of the image (see: Debord); why the image, unlike the sound, or the smell (acknowledging Proust, Lehrer), holds such a privileged and commanding place in our culture.

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