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Invisible Photographs

"...for an ingenuous observer, said a highly elaborate representation in perspective, whose code he doesn't know, doesn't remotely resemble the object in question...epistemological operations are involved in establishing isomorphism." Umberto Eco, "Introduction to a semiotics of iconic signs," VS, no.2, (April 1972) p.8...


Ethnographic evidence tells us that the photographic image is in fact not a message without a code. Ethnographers have found that members of non-photographic cultures are unable to get much from a photo: "More than one ethnographer has reported the experience of showing a clear photograph of a house, a person, a familiar landscape to people living in a culture innocent of any knowledge of photography, and to have the picture held at all possible angles, or turned over for inspection of its blank back, as the native tried to interpret this meaningless arrangement of varying shades of gray on a piece of paper."[1]

Jan Deregowski described the case of a woman who was unable to recognize a photo of her own son.[2] In New Guinea, the "inability of people in cultures not used to them to see photographs is of course well known...the Abelam's lack of understanding of photographs after more than twenty years of contact remains almost absolute, and provides possible support for my hypothesis that they have very definite and limited expectations about what they will see on any two-dimensional surface made to be looked at. In other words, their vision has been socialized in a way that makes photographs especially incomprehensible, just as ours is socialized to see photographs and indeed to regard them as in some sense more truthful than what the eye sees."[3]

1.^Melville J.Herskovits, Man and His Works, Alfred A.Knopf, 1948, p.381.

2.^Jan Deregowski,"Illusion and Culture", in R.L.Gregory and E.H.Gombrich(eds.) Illusion in Nature and Art, Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd, 1973. Deregowski notes that in one case a woman was unable to recognize a photo of her son.

3.^Anthony Forge, "Learning to See in New Guinea", in P.Mayer, Socialization: the approach from social anthropology, Tavistock, 1970, pp.269-290.

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