On Scanner Photography
"One of the reasons—besides sheer artistry—that Katinka Matson's work resonates so strongly with us is that the insect-like vision that results from scanning direct-to-CCD runs so much deeper in us than vision as processed through a lens. By removing the lens, Katinka's work bypasses an entire stack of added layers and takes us back to when we saw more by looking at less." — George Dyson
Reality Club Discussion
Visual processing (in humans and other organisms) is characterized by layers: the layers in the retina, behind the retina, in the visual cortex, and finally in our consciousness and our culture as we interpret the ultimate results. There are also evolutionary layers, and the lensless, scanner-like visual system of the insect still lingers, unseen but essential, in some of those layers between light and brain.
One of the reasons—besides sheer artistry—that Katinka Matson's work resonates so strongly with us is that the insect-like vision that results from scanning direct-to-CCD runs so much deeper in us than vision as processed through a lens. By removing the lens, Katinka's work bypasses an entire stack of added layers and takes us back to when we saw more by looking at less.
There would seem to be two perceptual-level things operating that make Katinka Matson's scanner images look so different: 1) the lighting fades with distance into black, and 2) scanning one line at a time with a moving light source off to the side means that a sheen develops on the flower surfaces that adds to the unusual 3-D effect. It is somewhat like wearing a headlamp in a dark room and rotating a vase of flowers in your hands, back and forth.
On the cognitive level, new perceptual ways of looking at things can provide categorization challenges. Sometimes the result is confusion, other times it is a window to creativity. Being forced to take a nonstandard view of familiar things is why Stan Ulam used to say that he considered the use of rhyme in poetry to be a stimulus to creativity, as it forced you not to use the familiar first-choice word but to instead keep searching through all the near synonyms for one that rhymes, and so help you find better words to fit with the other ones.
"When I was a boy I felt that the role of rhyme in poetry was to compel one to find the unobvious because of the necessity of finding a word which rhymes. This forces novel associations and almost guarantees deviations from routine chains or trains of thought. It becomes paradoxically a sort of automatic mechanism of originality.... And what we call talent or perhaps genius itself depends to a large extent on the ability to use one's memory properly to find the analogies...essential to the development of new ideas."
— the Polish mathematician Stanislaw M. Ulam (Adventures of a Mathematician (Scribner, 1976), pp. 180-181.
I'll say nothing to take away from the originality of Katinka Matson's pictures (which I think are stunning). But it's worth noting that a photographic technique—photogravure—which produces similar results to the flat bed scanner was in use more than a hundred years ago, and was exploited to remarkable effect for photographing plants by Karl Blossfeldt. The parallels to Katinka's pictures are striking.
My own interest, as a psychologist concerned with aesthetics, is as much in the content as in the technique of the Blossfeldt/Matson pictures. Why flowers and plants? Why do human beings take such a delight in the visual rhymes and contrasts exemplified by these "natural art forms"? I proposed my own theory thirty years ago, in a paper called "The Illusion of Beauty," giving a rather different answer to the one Bill Calvin cites from Stanislaw Ulam. Here's a brief extract (which includes a discussion of "rhymes in nature"):
From The "Illusion of Beauty"
[People's delight in discovering 'rhyme' finds echoes in another remarkable aspect of human behaviour: the passion for collecting.] In an essay called "The reflex of purpose" Pavlov characterised collecting as "the aspiration to gather together the parts or units of a great whole or of an enormous classification, usually unattainable", and went on: "If we consider collecting in all its variations, it is impossible not to be struck with the fact that on account of this passion there are accumulated often completely trivial and worthless things, which represent absolutely no value from any point of view other than the gratification of the propensity to collect. Notwithstanding the worthlessness of the goal, every one is aware of the energy, the occasional unlimited self-sacrifice, with which the collector achieves his purpose. He may become a laughing-stock, a butt of ridicule, a criminal, he may suppress his fundamental needs, all for the sake of his collection" (Pavlov, 1928).
Collecting, though its practitioners are not usually credited with aesthetic sensitivity, is not, I believe, far removed from the appreciation of beauty. Consider for a moment the nature of a typical collection, say a stamp collection. Postage stamps are, in structuralist terms, like man made flowers: they are divided into 'species', of which the distinctive feature is the country of origin, while within each species there exists tantalising variation. The stamp collector sets to work to classify them. He arranges his stamps in an album, a page for the species of each country. The stamps on each page 'rhyme' with each other, while they contrast with those on other pages.
But Pavlov was right: stamp collecting is a worthless activity. As we have moved through my examples, from an infant animal learning to recognise the objects in the world about him, to a child learning to name pictures in a book, to a man sticking stamps in an album, we have moved further and further from activities which have any obvious biological function. They are all, I submit, examples of the propensity to classify, but with each example the classification seems to have less and less direct survival value. We should not be surprised. Earlier, I compared the pleasure people get from classification with the pleasure they get from sexual activity. Now, though sex has a clear biological function, it goes without saying that not every particular example of sexual activity has in fact to be biologically relevant to be enjoyable. Indeed, much human sexual activity takes place at times when the woman, for natural or artificial reasons, is most unlikely to conceive. And so too the process of classification may give pleasure in its own right even when divorced from its proper biological context. Once Nature had set up people's brains the way she has, certain 'unintended' consequences followed-and we are in several ways the beneficiaries.
So let me turn, at last, to beauty—to examples of rhyme and contrast which people deem aesthetically attractive. I want first to consider not 'works of art' but certain natural phenomena which people call beautiful and yet which have no 'natural' value to us. Among the wealth of examples of beauty in nature, I shall choose the case of flowers, flowers have an almost universal appeal, to people of all cultures, all classes, and all ages. We grow them in gardens, decorate our houses and our bodies with them, and above all value them as features of the natural landscape. They are regarded indeed as paragons of natural beauty, and I believe it is no accident that they are so admired, for in at least three ways flowers are the embodiment of 'visual rhyme'.
Consider first the static form of a simple flower such as a buttercup or daisy. The flower-head consists of a set of petals arranged in radial symmetry around a cluster of stamens, and the flower-head is carried on a stalk which bears a set of leaves. Petals, stamens, and leaves form three sets of contrasting rhyming elements: each petal differs in detail from the other members of its class yet shares their distinctive shape and colour, and the same is true for the stamens and the leaves; the features that serve to unite each set serve at the same time to separate one set from another. Second, consider the flower's kinetic form. The living flower is in a continual state of growth, changing its form from day to day. The transformations which occur as the flower buds, blossoms, and decays give rise to a temporal structure in which each successive form rhymes with the preceding one.
Third, consider groups of flowers. Typically each flowering plant bears several blooms, and plants of the same species tend to grow in close proximity, so that we are presented with a variety of related blooms on show together. But, more than this, groups of flowers of different species commonly grow alongside one another—daisies and buttercups beside each other in the field, violets and primroses together in the hedgerow. Thus while the flowers of one species rhyme with each other the rhyme is given added poignancy by the contrasting rhymes of different species.
It is this last aspect that perhaps more than anything makes flowers so special to us. The flowers of different species are of necessity perceptually distinct in colour, form, and smell in order that they may command the loyalty of pollinating insects. People neither eat their pollen nor collect their nectar, yet flowers provide us with a kind of nourishment—food for our minds, ideally suited to satisfy our hunger for classification.
But flowers have no monopoly of natural beauty. In fact almost wherever we come across organic forms we discover the structure of visual rhyme. Long before architects invented the module, Nature employed a similar design principle, basing her living creations on the principle of replication-at one level replication of structural elements within a single body, and at another replication of the body of the organism as a whole. But, at either level, the replicas are seldom, if ever, perfect copies: in the leaves of a tree, the spots of a leopard, the bodies of a flight of geese, we are presented with sets of 'variations on a theme'. And it is not only among living things we find such structures, for inanimate objects too tend to be shaped by physical forces into 'modular' forms—mountain peaks, pebbles on a beach, clouds, raindrops, ocean waves—each alike but different from the others. Thus, through its varied but coherent structure, a natural landscape can match the rhythmic beauty of a gothic church. Or of a musical symphony.
David Hockney has been experimenting along similar (conceptual) lines, though with quite different technology; and he too ponders at length the relationship between seeing and vision in a similar way. Cezanne, too, in his attempts to re-create ways of looking at landscapes and still-lifes, was re-exploring the perspectives of pre-Renaissance painting, before people became hooked on what has become academic perspective; and he too (being an intellectual) felt that the camera-like view of the world was in some ways a lie, even though it was so "logical"; that in truth, the brain reconstructs its picture of the world from disparate data.
It seems to me, in short, that Matson's work, though new, is also part of an ancient pictorial tradition. Most interesting.