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What the Body Sees - The Body That Is Seen

Notes of a Stereo Photographer

A stereo photograph, with the room for movement that it offers the eyes, contains much more than only twice the amount of information found in a single photograph. If the two-dimensional viewing of a photograph is a decoding of projection and signs on a surface - a form of reading - then three- dimensional viewing using both eyes is a visual-tactile experience, the synaesthetic touching of a situation.

Perceiving three-dimensional photographs is not merely about viewing bodies and spaces; it also involves the generation of a relationship between bodies and spaces to one another and to the viewer’s body.

That one’s own body participates in the viewing of a 3-D photograph is firstly apparent in that, through the angle of vision, one’s body assumes a unique position in the space depicted; but, on the other hand, and this is how it is fundamentally different from viewing a two-dimensional photograph, the perception of the size and distance of the depicted bodies is linked to how the camera is set up. The viewer sees through the eyes of a camera whose two camera lenses have been placed next to one another at a specific horizontal distance. In viewing a stereo photograph, the viewer’s eyes adapt to the distance between the stereo camera’s two lenses. All coordinates of the depicted space are disclosed to the viewer through the difference between these two perspectives.

In addition to the question of how changes in the distance between the two lenses effect the depiction of the scene’s size, one’s attention is also directed to how the material under the stereoscopic gaze behaves and to the changes and re-evaluations it thereby undergoes.

That the centimetre measurement between one’s eyes gauges spatial vision has been known since the mid-19th century, when stereo photography first enabled the viewer to compare spatial situations to their representation. Things work as follows: the greater the distance between each lens when taking the picture, the smaller the rendering of the object, or the viewer perceives him- or herself as larger vis-ŕ-vis everything. Moving the two perspectives apart from one another leads to an expansion of plastic perception in terms of depth; at the time, the military realized that this led to a “perfect and exact description of the depth dimension of the battlefield”.

The possibilities caused by changing the distance between the two lenses (also in the opposite direction - to see smaller things on a larger scale) have since then been taken into consideration by palaeontologists, archaeologists, architects, land surveyors, geologists, biologists, doctors, chemists, physicists and astronomers, who have been concerned with structuring a viewer whose body is subjected to the expansions and contractions of the perspectives. Hydrocarbon compounds as building blocks and the skeletons of golden-brown algae as furniture and architecture are available for use and the various steps. By using the diameter of the earth’s orbit around the sun as the stereo basis, we are in fact capable of entering the Milky Way with the body of a giant that encompasses the planetary space, and of assessing the neighbouring stars and looking down the Milky Way.

When stereo photography first started, one tried to avoid any exaggerations of the three-dimensional, and instead saw this medium as obligated to being true to nature. By imitating two-eye vision, one thought that with the stereo camera one had found the ultimate instrument for making depictions that are true to nature and realistic. Because the camera approximates the nature of the visual organ, the image will also look more realistic, and the viewer will see him- or herself situated in the picture.

That stereo photography’s suggestive three-dimensionality can also create images that look highly artificial can particularly be seen in depictions of the actual element that comprises the fluid, water. In a stereo photo of a waved water surface with a clear view of the stones at the bottom, the three- dimensional view causes the amazing facts of the captured, photographed moment to leap into view, because here the sense of touch involved turns the water into a jelly-like, crystalline material.

The re-evaluation of the material through the gaze’s construction can also be seen in the change in scale that takes place in the stereo-photographed scene. Taken with a greater distance between the lenses, the view of a city emerges as a model of itself. The real space of the city, developed from plans and models, reassumes the model dimension and sets up an unusual relationship to the viewer’s body. The plastic form of the city thus emerges all too clearly. Architecture, infrastructure, objects and people, from the general relationships to minute subdivisions, everything consists of one and the same material and becomes a single body.

Through the window of the stereoscope, looking at this naked body, stretched out and motionless before you, you become a voyeur, someone who uncovers something intimate. The salvaged body of the city has now assumed the form of something positioned opposite us, has been placed in proximity to our body and invites our gaze to peruse all its surfaces and to penetrate to the various corners, folds and transparencies.

The gaze glides around and feels its way through spaces that have been subdivided many times; this produces resonance in the viewer’s body and sets physiological activities into motion. Once seduced by the attractions of the space, the eyes experience it as a field of activity, or better as a space of activity for its continual rather than abrupt movements. This causes a network of relationships to develop between the parts of the photo that in the course of time fill up the space, that can solidify into the idea that the space itself is a body, that it gives rise to the subject matter and determines the forms and not the other way around.

(Translated from the German by Cathy Lara)

Published in the series, Aesthetics and Natural Science: Tom Fecht - Dietmar Kamper (eds.) REMOVAL INTO THE OPEN. Four Attempts on Space. Vienna- New York: Springer, 2000.

C3 Center for Culture and Communication