A History of Seeing
A person holding a camera is able to capture the world around them. The frame of the camera however limits the affect of a totalization of the visible world that the human eye promises. The part of the world that a person looking through a camera sees is burnt, chemically transferred, or digitally recorded in a snapshot whenever the capture button is pressed and held. As camera technology has advanced beyond even the photorealistic and has indeed produced images with sharper clarity than the average human eye is able to perceive, several questions emerge concerning the history and trajectory of seeing. What has the effort in producing greater and more successful imaging technology produced? What has that technology advancement been in search of? How have our attitudes toward imaging technology changed? Have we, the human user holding the imaging technology, changed as well? This essay seeks to answer these questions and to chart a brief examination of the ways in which the advancement of our imaging technology has produced an epistemology of seeing. It is through investigating this epistemology of seeing that camera technology influences the way in which we enjoy both art and our leisure time. With a look toward videogames, this essay will observe how the epistemology of seeing is addressed through offering a user the ability to create and answer the reconcilable image-experience.
Before entering a discussion of the various devices and software that allow the human user to create ways to attend to the epistemology of seeing, we must first define what that epistemology is. What the human eye sees or can see influences the development of devices that aid the human being in experiencing or knowing the world around them through sight. What we gaze upon we can come to know or understand through the faculty of our other senses or through the acuity gained through shared lineages of human experience. But the ability to know what we see in the intimate ways of material experience is neutered in the production of the photograph. The captured image is unmoving. While a photograph can be said to talk back to the viewer through the framing and implied humanity or existence of the subject in various ways, it is a fact that the photograph as an object presents a reality that is irreconcilable. What is irreconcilable in a photograph is that the image presents events that cannot be addressed in a present temporality and may present human subjects that are no longer alive who appear in the image as specters. In his book Camera Lucida (1980, published in English in 1981), Roland Barthes discusses the idea of the irreconcilable and the spectral in photography. In an early section of the book, Barthes remarks that a photograph is an “object of three practices” (Barthes 9), the culminates in the image itself. He writes that the three practices are,
…to do, to undergo, and to look. The Operator is the Photographer. The Spectator is ourselves, all of us who glance through collections of photographs…And the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum…which I should like to call the Spectrum of the Photograph because this word retains…a relation to “spectacle” and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead. (Barthes, Camera Lucida, translated by Richard Howard, 9)
For Barthes, the Photographer “does” the image-making. The Photographer is thereby responsible for the image that they produce, as well as for what they see and choose to frame through their selected camera apparatus. But, while that moment in time is alive during the framing and shooting, the moment becomes frozen and indissoluble from the stone matter-of-fact nature of time. Of death.
But what does death in Photography mean for determining the course of human technological advancement? For that answer we turn again to Barthes. In Sections 9 and 10 of Camera Lucida, Barthes discusses how he was taking in images about the Nicaraguan Revolution and was settling into a reverie of viewership. This reverie was interrupted, however, as Barthes says, “A photograph made me pause. Nothing extraordinary…Did the photograph please me? Intrigue me? Not even. Simply it existed (for me). I understood at once that is existence (its ‘adventure’) derived from to co-presence of two discontinuous elements…the soldiers and the nuns” (Barthes 23). Diffusing itself from the banality of thousands of images from the Nicaraguan Revolution, the photo of the “soldiers and the nuns” performs what Barthes would later call the punctum (27), or prick, referring to the quality of a photograph that wounds the viewer in their viewership. It is this wounding capacity of the Photograph generally that induces the human viewer to create technologies that render greater and greater life or “realness” into their images. So, we move from the Camera Lucida to the Daguerreotype, from the Daguerreotype to the Beau Brownie. As the image becomes sharper, clearer, realer and more alive over time we as image-consumers demand greater and greater ability to not only have the subject made legible to us but to have access to that image in faster and faster ways. From the Beau Brownie’s time-consuming and hazardous image-production hardware we move on toward the instant-photography devices that can be typified in Polaroid’s SX-70 Land Camera and from the SX-70 to iPad with which the image is not only instantly accessible but infinitely malleable, more so than ever before. But more than instant access to the image that we see, we want images that are not just visually changeable, but we still wish the intercede in the irreconcilable essential nature of the image. We, the user of the technological device or software, want the ability to change what we see and to be a part of that very change.
How then does the human user step into the picture? One answer to this problem is the recreational practice of playing videogames. It is through the process of playing a game that the human user is able to step into the snapshot of a picture and address its irreconcilable nature. To rely on the dynamic established by Barthes’ remarks on three practices, the viewer supersedes the traditional power dynamics of photographer, subject/object, and spectator. The viewer achieves this supersession by instigating a new position on that continuum: the viewer either becomes interrupter or occupies the position of one of the subject/objects framed by the photographer. To carry the metaphor further, we need to the address the occluded technology that is necessary in the supersedure of the viewer in lieu of the camera. There are many distinct types of technologies that make the videogaming experience possible. Two technological “objects” available for further inquiry into how the gaming experience allows us to address the epistemology of seeing are Microsoft’s Kinect system and the game development software suite RPG Maker. With the Kinect (first released commercially in 2010) the idea of the “selfie” is epitomized. The body-mapping software was released during an early phase of virtual reality development for recreational media. The Kinect not only allowed the player to affect the totalization of the visible present within its gaming experiences, it also physically demanded that the player take part in the same tasks that needed to be performed within the gaming experience’s fiction. This physical layer satisfies a human need that exists within the punctum of a photograph: the intercession into the action with our own physical body. With all its problematics, the Kinect as a body mapping hardware paved that way for virtual reality experiences that allow the dead to return not only visibly but tangibly in a virtual sense. With RPG Maker—a suite first developed by ASCII Corporation in 1992, now by Enterbrain most recently in 2015—the player is not only able to take part in an interrupted visual experience but is able to craft that experience themselves. With RPG Maker the user is able to use a log pre-coded, prerendered, pre-drawn assets to create their own gaming experiences (an extremely popular example being the lauded game series LISA). The supersedure of the viewer into the dynamics of photography reaches a zenith in allowing the user to not only intercede in the action of the pictorial, but to become photographer and to determine the infinity of subject/object for themselves as well.
From console platforms—like the many iterations of the Xbox and the near-ubiquitous Nintendo Switch—to the home computer, the pieces that make the experience possible range from the hardware of the devices themselves (graphics cards, hard drive memory storage, RAM, core processor units, etc.) to the software that constitute the games themselves (rendering, engines, bit scaling, color palettes, internal logic scripting, etc.) the process of creating and experiencing videogames is incredibly complex. The intensive reality of the labor that goes into producing and playing a game, along with the reality of making and enjoying photographs as difficult, is obfuscated for the viewer/consumer under contemporary contexts of labor, technological production, and steady access to and proliferation of resources. As the viewer steps into the pictorial experience, perhaps it is that occluded labor and technological force that becomes the spectral and irreconcilable un-presence that haunts the viewer/interrupter experience.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang reprint edition, New York, 2010.