Ansel Adams said something to the effect that the power of photography stemmed from its ability not merely to reflect reality but to alter our perception of reality.
Berries. Copyright Joanne Mason 2014.
One of my aims in photography is to reveal, through subtle (or not-so-subtle) post-capture editing, hidden or obscured elements of an image – textures, patterns, shapes, impressions – that we may “see” when viewing the scene with the naked eye but which our eyes and conscious brain do not necessarily register. In order to “see” we reveal that which is “unseen.” The intention is not to add anything to the image but to reveal new ways of viewing a natural scene.
The recent series of images – featuring extensive digital manipulation – has taken this practice much further. These are photographs of mostly natural scenes, and as such they are generic views of things we are usually very familiar with – woods, trees, flowers, outdoor scenes. Using techniques such as multiple exposures, HDR, solarization, (digital) polaroid transfer, color and tone enhancement, and other tools, the images were altered from what the camera produced to create an almost altogether new image. In a kind of impressionistic way, these images retain the original scene in a recognizable way, but alter the scene digitally to suggest different patterns and colors, different emotions or feelings, fresh reactions and impressions, and perhaps, as Adams suggests, altering our perception of the underlying reality.
Deep Woods Tree. Copyright Joanne Mason 2014.
Earlier I quoted the photographer Ernst Haas: “I am not interested in shooting new things; I am interested to see things new.” This idea, that photography enables us to see things with a fresh eye, to discern new realities in an image, to see something familiar in a completely new way, is one of the central ideas that gives photography its power. This philosophy is deeply embedded in the history and theory of photography and art, and in fact is one of the foremost ideas of 20th Century art.
The concept of defamiliarization was introduced in 1917 by the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky. Defamiliarization is the technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar. Defamiliarization (ostranenie in Russian) was defined by Shklovsky in the essay “Art as Technique.” (See link below.)
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.
Viktor Schklovsky in 1930
Shklovsky was a founder of the Russian Formalist school of literary criticism. Though Formalism initially ran headlong into the Bolshevick Revolution which was diametetrically opposed to its precepts. But in time (Shklovsky died in 1984), Shklovsky’s ideas became highly influential among literary and art theorists of the 20th Century.
There is a fabulous article (quite by coincidence) in the current issue of Tricycle Magazine, “The Unfamiliar Familiar,” by Henry Shukman, from which I would like to quote at some length.
Thus art exists to restore to us our actual experience, unmediated by the veil of what we think we know. Defamiliarization is not a method for making a poem more interesting, nor is it a mere writerly tip on technique; it’s central to the function and place of art in our lives. Sure enough, a good poem’s effect endures beyond the actual reading. When we deeply engage with good literature, good art, it changes our habitual view of things. The world itself seems different, clearer, closer.
Shklovsky was writing at a time when Modernist art, the new art of the early 20th century—inaccessible, hard to understand, intended to upset conventional expectations—needed defending. … But the point Shklovsky was making is much older. Perhaps it was ever thus: even Aristotle said that poetic language should appear “strange and wonderful.” Any work of art, old or new, has the power to be fresh. As Pasternak said of Pushkin and Chekhov, their work has “ripened of itself, like apples picked green from the trees, and has increasingly matured in sense and sweetness.” We may feel the same about Shakespeare, Dante, Ovid, Sappho, to name a random few: that ever-newness is integral to their longevity.
Light in the Forest. Copyright Joanne Mason 2014.
Defamiliarization is exactly the phenomenon I am looking to generate by creating photographic images such as in the recent series.
Tricycle is published by the Tricycle Foundation, which is “dedicated to making Buddhist teachings and practices broadly available.” Thus, Tricycle’s commentary on defamiliarization seeks to address more than art criticism. Again, from Shukman’s article:
Perhaps, in fact, what Shklovsky was pointing to is something more encompassing even than art, something basic to the search for spiritual meaning in life. … The world is dynamic and changing; therein lies its freshness. But our ideas about it tend to grow static and calcified, even our ideas about the most important things: who we are, how things are, why the world is the way it is. Especially these, perhaps. Our accustomed way of seeing is just one way, yet as it hardens through habit, it tends to become our only way. To see the world anew is of a piece with wisdom.
This, too, suggests the power of photography as art. Photography can generate the most existential conversations about who and what we are, what is important, and most of all what does the world around us mean. That is the power of art.
(Tricycle is a great magazine, available in print and online: Highly recommended. The paragraphs I have quoted here comprise but a small part of Shukman’s article; there is a lot more that makes the article very much worth reading.)
The photographer Raymond Chou has written about defamiliarization in photography.
This is a practice which we ought to find attractive as photographers. A lot of us have put this into practice one way or another. For example, think about black and white photography for a second. Depending on what you’re shooting and trying to achieve, color sometimes serves as a distraction, yet color is what we all see on a regular basis. Done correctly, capturing an image in b/w will allow us to see it in a completely different and strange new way. Macro, abstract, just about any form of photography really can be used to achieve this, it’s just a matter of paying closer attention to the details around you and noticing the beauty that’s already there. Your subjects don’t always need to be grand or exotic to be interesting, because defamiliarization isn’t meant for the novel.
In “The New Vision of Photography,” part of the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History published online by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Met’s photography department observes that the emergence of “a host of unconventional forms and techniques” in photography in the 1920s and 1930s corresponded to the Russian Formalist school and the idea of defamiliarization.
[Russia witnessed] the enthusiastic participation of artists like El Lissitzky (1890–1941) and Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891–1956), who saw in photography the most efficient way to express the dynamic reshaping of their country. In their photographs, they used a repertoire of defamiliarizing devices—extreme up and down angles (1987.1100.5), tilted horizons, fragmentary close-ups, abstracted forms—as part of an attempt to break old habits of perception and visual representation.
Secret Garden. Copyright Joanne Mason 2014.
I think Shklovsky’s notion of defamiliarization applied to photography is also a powerful argument for photography as art.
There are more images to share in this series. And I hope to continue this discussion. (Shklovsky’s essay introducing defamiliarization [or ostranenie translates as “estrangement”] is included in the English translation of Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, which is available from Amazon.)
Next: Abstract Impressionist Photography