Seeing Seeing, or The Generous Image
Let's assume that an image is not an image of. The image is something in and of itself, a piece of the world. As such, the image asks to be reckoned on its own terms. Really, it’s a question of ethics, granting the image the respect it so eloquently requests.
But what happens once we grant such a request, once we make such a generous gesture?
The world explodes, proliferates itself. As real and imitation join ranks, the world becomes a great bounty, an infinitely fecund universe, a plenum of image events. There is not first the world and then images. Now, it’s all images, everywhere, a great baroque symphony.
And we are implicated in our act of viewing. The image looks back. To see becomes an exchange, a dialogue (or multilogue), an event. We no longer view signs of things absent but encounter something here and now.
This exchange between viewer and viewed becomes an exchange between this and that. Each party gives; each party takes. The image gives a seeing, a way of looking at the world. “Here,” the once-image says, “here’s a very nice way to look at things.” And the once-viewer replies, “I see your seeing like this. Thanks very much.”
The image gives over its body to the viewer. And the viewer gives over his or her body to the image. Each says to the other simultaneously, generously, (hence forming an odd, potentially disharmonious, chorus): “See?”
And yet we cannot really say that an image is, in no way, an image of something. Surely, a photograph of a cow or a child is just that: an image of that cow or child. But perhaps an image—such as a photograph—is also an image of.
An image takes up the world. And takes it up in a particular way so that when I see a photo of a cow, I see that cow, sure, but now that cow has been condensed, amplified, saturated, stretched, bent, pleated—that cow has been seen.
Which is to say, when I see a photograph of a cow I don't just see a cow: I see the seeing of that cow. And seeing is not neutral precisely because it is always embodied; this body sees in this way. One always sees, one always takes up the world, with style. The maker of images imprints his seeing—his style—on the image (enacting an odd synesthesia, a haptic vision). In some sense, all image making is a kind of photograph of the seer's seeing.
This stylized seeing is a metabolic engine that makes sense of the world, assembling it just so. This engine not only sees certain things rather than other things—seeing at its most basic level is an algorithm of selection—, it sees how things go, how they relate, their speeds and consistencies. Consider an obvious example: Van Gogh's "Starry Night." Suddenly, the sky is a particulate viscous, oozing and swirling with surprising weight into eddies and undulating planes. Isn't this the delight of that painting—that, for a moment, we see the world in this very odd, beautiful, surprising way? And maybe we even learn something about how things can go, how stars can shine and atmospheres can flow.
An image always proffers a seeing that is a mode of making sense. Everywhere we look, we see sense making.