Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Flaws of Perception

Posted in art, awareness, black and white, perception, photography, psychology, science, Uncategorized by Jason Gray on March 3, 2012

Some would argue that human beings are essentially social creatures. However, while socialization is undoubtedly intrinsic to human cohabitation, it is an internalized motivation to distinguish oneself from “others” (people, businesses, the environment, etc.) that drives modern civilization and distinguishes humanity from most of the rest of the natural world. As early as six months of age, human beings exhibit a behavior known as the “Other-Race Effect”, or ORE, which can be summarized as the diminished capability of a person to recognize faces from races not one’s own.* Flaws involving facial recognition between humans of different races have been observed and hypothesized about since 1914**; is it possible that humanity’s tendency toward elevating itself above other things is a relatable feature? What about in art, could the misrepresentations of one race/sex by another be an extension of this inherent problem of the mind with perception?

Annie Leibovitz; Pocahontas (from Disney Dream Portrait Series), 2008

“They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”(1)***  It is statements like this one, from an expedition log of Christopher Columbus, describing the Arawak people of the Bahamas Islands, that makes the above representation of Pocahontas by Annie Leibovitz so uncomfortable. Western cultures have long exploited people outside of their home territories by means of their technological advantage. The ship in the distance of the photograph is therefore an ominous foretelling of what is to come, but it is also a storytelling device, like the dear running after Pocahontas, which makes the “primitive girl” seem all the more primitive. Possibly though, what makes this photograph seem so much like exploitation, aside from the fact that it is an advertisement for a rich, media conglomerate (an important fact raising parallel issues, that I will not explore here), is the truth of who photographed it. Annie Leibovitz’s family immigrated to North America from Jewish populations in Central and Eastern Europe; this makes her point of view culturally different than Pocahontas’, but does it make it incorrect?

Linda Nochlin would argue that it would. “…In the case of imagery directly related to political, diplomatic, and military affairs in the inspirational territory of Orientalism, the very notion of ‘Orientalism’ itself in the visual arts is simply a category of obfuscation, masking important distinctions under the rubric of the picturesque, supported by the illusion of the real.”(56)` Undoubtedly, the contemporary, American subconscious feels a romantic affinity towards its native population (“the inspirational territory of Orientalism”), which once spanned across much of the United States. Certainly, this spirit has led to many picturesque representations of Native Americans, like the one above, but what exactly in this image is an illusion to be obfuscated?

The pre-Virginian landscape of Pocahontas in 1607 probably looked much the same as that depicted in the photograph (albeit less idealized), with the same features of topography and plant and animal species. The three ships which sailed as part of the company that brought Pocahontas’ legendary companion, John Smith, to the region were the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed“, all of which possessed structural similarities and scale similar to the ship shown in Leibovitz’s recreation (if her image is meant to be of the English landing at Jamestown then it is inaccurate for the three ships not to appear together). Finally, Pocahontas, modeled by actress, Jessica Biel, was an Algonquian Indian; Biel is part Choctaw, which although technically not the same, is somewhat appropriate, given the Choctaw’s original territory in the southeastern U.S. (Florida, Alabama, etc.). The Choctaw and the Algonquin varied in language and culture, but would have shared certain physiological similarities resulting from the proximity of their historical locations. It seems then that Leibovitz did research a fair amount about the history behind Pocahontas’ story before attempting to restage her interpretation of it. However, the image is still problematic for two reasons; one, it is a recreation and is therefore an idealization and false, and two, Annie Leibovitz’s cultural and ethnic background is so dissimilar from Pocahontas’ that any interpretation which she might give for the original events as they transpired is always at least one person removed from an authentic description, which could result only from experiences shared with Pocahontas or Native Americans in general. In short, whatever image of Native American life Annie Leibovitz might strive to recreate, no matter how exhaustive, it will contain some degree of generalization. Might this inevitable generalization be the result of recorded psychological phenomena like the Other-Race Effect?

If human beings of a particular ethnic background have some problem with facial recognition when confronted with members of an ethnic background distant from their own because they see race before they see facial distinctions, then it is possible that artists looking to record depictions of people culturally or ethnically different from themselves may be hypersensitive to the differences in culture/ethnicity that they are observing rather than keen to the similarities. In this case, the best representation of a culture is the one that the culture can produce (an idea shared by revisionist historians like the late Howard Zinn). Consider how the image below contrasts with Leibovitz’s:

Graciela Iturbide; Mujer ángel, Desierto de Sonora, 1979

Graciela Iturbide is a photographer with a cultural and ethnic attachment to her subjects, which gives her work, a mixture of the found and the staged, a notable authenticity. In restaging the moment of the photograph above, a photographer with a divergent cultural or ethnic background might ask the woman to eschew the portable stereo from the picture, thinking falsely that it would make the scene seem more “real”. Unfortunately, the decision to get rid of the stereo by the theoretical photographer mirrors the thinking of actual image-makers across the world each day, even in instances of photojournalism, a profession which prides documentation without intervention. A quick Internet search for “images of Libya” proves this point:

The image above is representative of the types of images that appeared in the first page of results from the search. They paint a picture of a desolate, isolated place, full of nomadic people scouring the desert. In actuality, Libya is 88% urbanized“`, one of the most urbanized countries in Africa.

The question regarding Orientalism in contemporary imagery is not whether or not it exists, but rather, what causes its perpetuation? Are psychological/physiological factors partly to blame? If so, how does a photographer, seeking to show the truth, overcome the handicap of their cultural/ethnic background to produce images that record history as it unfolds without either generalizing or idealizing their subject? Given the choices necessary in order just to convert the three-dimensional world, moving all around you at once, into a single, two-dimensional composition (a small portion of that surrounding you), the answer might be that “truth”, no matter your point-of-view, can only be something that is sought for but never fully found.


* D. Kelly, P. Quinn, A. Slater, K. Lee, L. Ge, and O. Pascalis. “The Other-Race Effect Develops during Infancy: Evidence of
Perceptual Narrowing”. University of Sheffield. 2008.
** C.A. Feingold. “The Influence of Environment on Identification of Persons and Things”. Journal of Criminal Law and
Police Science
. 1914.
***H. Zinn. A People’s History of the United States:1492-Present. 1980.
` L. Nochlin. The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society. 1989.
“ Jamestowne Society website. “Captain John Smith”. 2006.
“` Human Index Report. United Nations. 2001.


6 Responses

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  1. Jason Gray said, on March 3, 2012 at 11:17 am

    P.S. This one’s for you Stan. Thanks for asking for more verbosity!

  2. elmediat said, on March 3, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Excellent post. Basic Mass Media Principles instruct us that all mass media construct a reality. That reality contains values, beliefs & ideologies. These in turn carry both intended and unintended messages. What you have described in this post are examples of how those principles have come into play when you consider the photography and how they convey attitudes about other cultures and ethnic groups.

  3. susangeckle said, on March 3, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Whites were the first Americans by the way. So Asians took advantage of whites when they crossed the Bering Strait, found whites already here, and killed them. They then lied and claimed the continent was empty. Read “Across the Atlantic.” They had the advantage of numbers.

  4. Jason Gray said, on March 3, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Great insight! Thanks for reading.

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