Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A history of seeing

Over the next few weeks some of the posts here will be a little sketchier than the norm as I work on a larger project. I also need to remind you that the deadline for submissions for the special Aotearoa edition of Overland is in six days, and that you should all be otherwise occupied as well.

Speaking of Overland, I have a piece up there today on Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table for the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

But this week’s post is scattered notes about an old topic, and for that I apologise. I have hinted at this from time to time: how looking at old moving like, say, Ghostbusters might remind me of when my mind processed the same, ostensibly identical images I see today, in a very different way. It’s not just that the digital effects that look comically inadequate today seemed advanced. That much is obvious. It's that the images looked real.

Or take this screenshot, from a 1987 Rainbird videogame called The Guild of Thieves, which I’m quite sure my mind – familiar with watercolour painting, photography and what the inside of patrician villas looked like – smoothed at the time into a high-resolution, high-colour picture, in place of the rudimentary array of pixels I see today.

I haven’t studied the topic in any great detail, but if this is true for other people, it suggests that technologies of representation update our sense of what is real, or perhaps that we lower our expectations of what looks real based on the state of those technologies.

This may or may not apply to you. But as I struggled to make order among old family pictures during my last visits back home, I found documents of another kind: the first photographs I ever took, from the ages of six to ten, some at home, some on holidays, with a Kodak camera of roughly this vintage and model.

Some, not all: I recall taking pictures of my toys, and of a wonderful exploded-view poster of the anime robot known to Italians as Goldrake that I kept in my room. It was a black and white, six-by-six copy of a full-size colour poster, and yet it felt as if by taking the picture I was somehow enhancing the original – this I recall quite vividly.

Of the photos that survive, some are of my immediate surroundings: the downstairs neighbour’s balcony, which otherwise was of no interest to me whatsoever.

The roof opposite my window, one day it snowed.

Others I took in Milan, like this one at the old university in Via Festa del Perdono.

Several were extreme close-ups of my fingers. I seemed to have a real knack for this.

While the balance, more justified in their keeping, come from our holidays. Two pictures of the same tree at Lido Conchiglie, in Apulia.

A nuragh in Sardinia.

(We developed this film years later, by which time the pictures were uniformly orange.)

And our long wished-for, never repeated holiday to Greece, in 1980.

Both my parents are in this one

I don’t have any special reason for showing you these, except to ask if maybe you recognise a child’s way of framing a house or a monument, of getting things wrong. I look at the pictures now and some of them I actually remember taking – or perhaps think I do – but all of them speak to me in varying degrees of that personal history of looking at the world, of being short and eager, and of learning to see through the small eye of a machine.