Monday, April 14, 2008

Photography, Space, and the Brain:
In Appreciation of Drawing

(Continued from last week)

Here we are: some of the great plates from Ruins of the palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia by Robert Adam, a Scottish architect who visited Split during the last forty years of Venetian rule (which ended in 1797). As a consequence, I get to see aspects of the city as it was over two hundred years ago, before some of the more significant growth of the town.

Of course, many of these images feel much more romantic and exciting than they probably really were. Adams came from a Romantic appreciation of ruin, so the elimination of unsightly modern clutter and the artful placement of fallen capitals, etc. is likely. As a result, my modern attempts to recreate his "views" with a camera are significantly lacking by comparison!

Also, please excuse the imperfect Photoshopping; I had neither the time nor the stitching-software which might have made for a more sophisticated look... still, you get the picture - so to speak. I am heartily aware how dull these images make the city look, yet I still find them fascinating: they speak of changing attitudes and how the vision of the age can affect what we record. The modern world is not always beautiful, but we do need to beware of romanticizing the ancients. Doing this project was a real eye-opener [sic] for me in terms of how we look at and record the world. I learned a lot.

One of the first things I learned is that you can't always count on the environment to co-operate. It is probably good that this gate is in restauro, but it doesn't help my cause much. Still, you can see it hasn't changed too significantly, except for the hilarious little windows (into houses on the other side) now have modern windows in them, and people can actually pass through this gate now (in Adam's time it was bricked up). And please note the little piece of column is still lying on the ground there, after all these years! It's much less prepossessing than Adam made it look (though, to be honest, it's probably not really the same one).

The Peristyle has changed hardly at all, except somehow the floor in front of it has been lowered; there are steps just beyond the woman striding through the foreground, and on the opposite side, under the entrance to the domed Vestibulum, someone has made an opening with stairs down to the lower levels of the Palace, the place where, historically, things were unloaded and loaded from ships at the sea-gate. Nowadays, of course, this area in front of the South wall is filled in and the famous Riva, where people like to promenade, lies there. But Adam describes a difference:

"From the Peristylium we ascend by a flight of steps into the Porticus [the gateway area at the top of the steps]... From this there were two doors to two winding stairs, which led to the ground story, in order that the slaves might have access thither, without passing through any of the apartments."

Nowadays, of course, these two little spaces lead nowhere and are merely decorative, with souvenir shops inside. And, of course, modern people simply don't look as interesting as all those people in turbans lounging and looking at textiles (but did they really look like that?). As anyone who's ever taken snapshots of something and discovered a horrible pipe going right across what you were looking at but didn't notice, cameras aren't smart about clutter. So when Adam sat down to draw - and there was that pile of broken pots or the horrible old man with leprosy, the kid peeing against the steps, the graffiti - he simply left them out, and concentrated on the architecture (with of course some Picturesque-ing of the filler subject, to keep it interesting).

Another thing I learned is how different a camera is than drawing with one's own eyes. I know, there's tons of discussion about this in the art world and beyond, but it has never been brought home to me so strongly the limitations of the camera. When I tried to capture the Vestibulum, I discovered to my horror that Adam's beautiful flat projection of this spot took in more than half of the actual surrounding space. Without magically hovering in the air twenty feet away and using my x-ray vision to photograph it (which wouldn't have satisfactorily flattened the space, anyway), I couldn't possibly fit even a small part of it into the lens of my camera.

And here I have to stand back for a moment and ponder.

We go through the world, looking at everything and never fully appreciating how wonderful our sense of sight is. If I include peripheral vision - without turning my head - I can see throughout approximately a 240 degree radius. This means, when confronted with an awe-inspiring view, I can gasp at its vastness; I can appreciate the spacial intensity of a place, from top to bottom and side to side, without working very hard at it. It's true, as the Cubists said, that our way of seeing is actually made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of little glances. But our brain stitches this together so seamlessly together into a wondrous whole.

Artificial Intelligence researchers have spent years and tons of money trying to figure out how to replicate this ability of the brain's, but it simply takes too much processor power to reproduce. What we do unconsciously, without hardly trying, computers simply flail at. And cameras - well, cameras just simply... well, suck. I mean, they are a wonderful instrument, and create art out of thin air. But there are places where they just can't compete with someone sitting and looking. Looking through a camera is, of necessity, like looking through a square hole at something (probably because you're doing just that).

When Adam decided to draw the dome, or the entrance to the Temple of Jupiter (now a church), he didn't worry about "getting it all in the frame." He simply drew what he saw, with his marvelous eyes that Nature had given him. And - as natural as anything - he laid it all out flat, so it made sense. Not like my weird, distorted attempts above.

And to take it a bit farther, I find myself wondering how hard could it be for someone to create a digital camera with a fixed fish-eye lens and pre-programmed hardwiring that would compensate for the fish-eye distortion, allowing us to take pictures much more like what we see...and laying it into a flat format much like what Adam created two hundred years ago? I don't believe it could ever produce as lovely a product as we can create with trained eyes and hands like he did, actually looking around us and putting down what's important about what we see, taking in as much as we need to make the picture work. But it could help us to escape that feeling of looking down a well at the world when we want to capture it with a camera.

Case in point: when I went to take a picture of the entrance to the church, I found that the place I really needed to be standing to take a picture was about eight feet off the edge of a drop-off, standing fifteen feet in the air. How did Adam draw it? Simple, I think: he looked around him, drew what he saw, and then extrapolated, drawing people to scale and making it appear farther away than it really was (thus encompassing it all).

And, unfortunately, they don't allow photography in the church. Perhaps sometime I'll go back and do a sketch, though I hear from others in my family that the interestingly patterned bricklaying in the ceiling is still on view. above all the rich trappings of the church itself.

As you can see, some things have changed a great deal. The Temple of Aesculapius, for example, used to include a building and a great forecourt as part of its status as a temple (see the map at the bottom). However, with Christianity and the pressing need for more dwellings, this temple is now in a tiny back-alley (as you can see below). It is, of course, in restauro - which in the long run is good. I had to crouch in a smelly doorway to take my seven photographs of the poor thing in order to get it all in, and then warp it like crazy in Photoshop to get it all to fit together! (And the graffiti is indeed cut off like that, it's not an artifact of the stitching).

The gate in the western wall of the old Palace seems to be slowly disappearing, swallowed by buildings from the 19th century, mostly.

In any case, the search goes on to try and grasp the details of the changes and convolutions the city has gone through as it ages. I want to see it in my mind, turning and twisting, rising and falling: and use it somehow, provide a rich and changing backdrop for something, because even before the Venetians it was an interesting place. It has always been a refuge, where people came when hordes came over the mountains, or during war-torn years. It has never been unoccupied, and it shows: like the beautiful lines on the face of an old woman who has been everywhere and seen everything, and is still here to remember it for us.


peacay said...

Wow Heather, thanks very much. I know zero about Split so it is absolutely fascinating reading your reports.

It's also obvious you have gone to some serious effort with these posts, which is deserving of our admiration. This is why I love the interweb!

If my eye was on the potential market for my sketch book of ruins I too would have no problem with replacing a peeing kid with a turbaned textile aficionado. Embellished romantic income trumps distasteful empty pockets reality.

Heather McDougal said...

Hahahaha! Turbaned textile aficionado, indeed! Wish there were more of them around the town nowadays, it might spice things up a bit...

But, given that it's one of the most famous sketchbooks of its kind (and, I suspect, the entre for the architect to the Royal Society of Arts a year later), I would have also made these choices.

Curiously, the actual book didn't get published until seven years later.

Thanks for the comment!

spacedlaw said...

Interesting before and after series.
I would somehow have expected much more changes since preservation of the past is after all a luxury only recently found to be necessary. A great many monuments in Rome have disappeared for that reason, being cannibalized to provide building material or just done away with because they were in the way or modernity.

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