Staving Off Infinite Regress By Way of Interpreting Agee
James Agee, begins his essay, A Way of
Seeing (which can be found in Helen Levitt's seminal book,
A Way of Seeing), "The mind and the spirit are constantly
formed by, and as constantly form, the senses, and misuse or
neglect the senses only at grave peril to every possibility of
wisdom and well being. The busiest and most abundant of the senses
is that of sight. The sense of sight has been served and
illuminated by the visual arts for as long, almost, as we have been
What an awkward beautiful jumble of a statement. The essential
thrust being the recognition that the nature of experience is
transactional at its root. Experience both forms, and, over time,
informs what we know of the world and how we might know the world.
The more we experience the world, the more we might come to know
it, and the more we know about the world, the more we might see and
experience. It is through this mind/sense connection that we
subject our understandings to constant qualification, evaluation,
interpretation and reinterpretation, making new encounters
(possibly) all the more richer and all the more meaningful.
So it may not seem surprising, at first glance, that when we say
we "see" something it implies certain knowledge of the thing. The
two are many times conflated, at least in the English language.
We'll say, "I see, I understand." Common phrases centered on our
sense of sight and its opposite, blindness, are all about knowing
and not knowing. But the link is somewhat specious, if not outright
false. Ask any visually impaired person, and you will find that
they can "see" certain issues sighted people remain pretty much in
the dark on. What we have in our language is a propensity for
metaphor. And images of light and dark should not be taken
literally. Images can well "illuminate" a higher truth or lead one
astray, but they should never be taken at face value. Again,
intuitively, innately, we know this. An image, in the form of a
photograph, is never taken at face value. At face value an image is
a phantom, a mirage, a nothingness, a two-dimensional surface of
light and dark, of tone and color. We embellish and project meaning
from photographs, into photographs and
through photographs. We find in them significance. And the
images formed on our retinas and categorized in our minds are
perhaps even less substantial (as they are more transient and
mutable), but no less metaphorical.
By the time our minds synthesize the raw sensory input of visual
stimulation into consciousness, we have already connected the sense
data to associations it's already elicited, already categorized the
data of perception into wafting clouds of shifting signifiers that
convey mutable and extended orders of significance. This process
does not happen mysteriously in an unordered mind full of random
events, but in a socially ordered mind full of human associations
and human significances interpreted by way of human priorities. All
our significances are human significances and all the images we
project give meaning to us as human beings filled with human
strengths, desires, frailties and fears. We know the world through
metaphor as we extrapolate and speculate into the outer reaches of
considering what might be possible-and just what might be true.
The world we live in is one of infinite regress, but the
constant stimulation of our limited senses and the limited (and
delimited) purview of our images keeps endless regression in check
and gives focus to our attentions. In other words, not only do our
images and senses direct our attentions, they also set us off in
particular directions and into particular, sometimes closed, lines
Our images, for the most part, are static and fully formed. But
we are not. And we may come back and revisit images whose meaning
and interpretation shift and evolve for us.
We must be vigilant to remember that our images are not the
world. Images are metaphors that allude to specific things in the
world that we may recognize, and that we may not fully understand.
Perhaps this is the closest we can come to reality, but as Agee
warns us, "[we] misuse or neglect the senses only at grave peril to
every possibility of wisdom and well being."
The above images are unpublished out-takes from my book,
Invisible City (1988), Twelvetress Press. A reprint of Invisible
City is forthcoming.
On May 14th Claxton Projects will be giving away a signed
copy of my latest book, Oculus. The Claxton Projects website is a
curated selection of contemporary and vintage photography books
from the Claxton Projects library. This archive includes books by
some of photography's most distinguished, imaginative and inventive
artists and is intended to provide an introduction to new
collectors, whilst highlighting the occasional overlooked title to
the more seasoned photography book enthusiast. Above all else,
Claxton Projects is a celebration of great photography books and
the wonderful images within.
Ken Schles (Foam Magazine #5/Near)