A visual research on the influence of education, cultural background and Exposure to fine arts on how individuals perceive and interpret singular or juxtaposed photographic imagery.
The word Diptych comes from two Greek words ‘di’, meaning two, and ‘tyche’, meaning fold. Basically a diptych is any two flat objects attached at a hinge. The word was first used in 1622* (Merriam-Webster) even though Ivory Notebook Diptychs were in prevalence right from the 6th Century Rome. Diptych paintings were common in the medieval period. Altar pieces in diptych, triptych and polyptych formats were also prevalent in many parts of Europe especially Netherlandish art. Modern painters have also used the term and the format in many of their work, Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Diptych” (1962) and Helmut Newton’s “Sie Kommen (Dressed)’ & ‘Sie Kommen (Naked)” being examples of such pop art movement.
“I wanted to convey a feeling of discovery and gratification but realized that some of the photographs gave a sense of tension as if the subjects were in opposition. The interaction of the two images often produces ambiguous feelings. In the creation of an image, I believe that we react in a field of association with repetitions, analogies and duplicities. In any given situation – from time to time, place to place, and subject to subject – the image maker will subconsciously encounter similar approaches. Intuitive action brings the affinity of the subject matter to a new level of significance. This series of diptychs constitutes an excellent demonstration of the use of repetition in idea or in form when moods are analogous.” writes artist-photographer John Bernhard.
This report is the result of a research on the influence of education, cultural background and exposure to fine arts on how individuals perceive and interpret singular or juxtaposed photographic imagery.
Every photograph holds a story of its own. Still, the story it narrates may differ depending on the context in which it is seen – alone, juxtaposed with another, or among a collection of other similar or different images. The narrative that it exchanges with an individual may differ in accordance with who is looking at the image as well. The individuality, culture, education, awareness about the artistic practices, exposure to the use of visual language etc. may influence the ultimate communication that the individual attains with the particular image.
The context differs when two disparate images are juxtaposed or shown together. The viewer is given a chance to interpret the resulting message or meaning or an emotion. This demands even more cognitive exercise from the individual similar to the situation where most so-called high art creates. Juxtaposed images with their contained plurality of pictorial elements often create specific or sometimes ambiguous contextual meanings which individual images alone may not carry.
A Photographic Diptych is a sequential combination of two images. It is an effective tool to express an idea, concept or a story that would have been impossible or incomplete had each of the images been presented individually. The combination expresses something new or synthesizes a new dimension by virtue of their visual collaboration. In other words, one plus one becomes three!
Diptychs work on the basis of visual connectivity. Two images stay together on the basis of many parameters like colour, form, pattern, composition or even ambiguity. The images stay together based on similarity, interconnectivity or even contradictions. Mood, message, story, concept or abstraction may also be the basis of the collaborative existence of the images. Ironies and paradoxes play as well as the resemblances.
In this photographic project I wanted to explore and answer the following aesthetic queries:
- How is the communication of singular images different from multiple juxtaposed images?
2. How do education, cultural background and exposure to fine arts influence on how individuals perceive and interpret singular or juxtaposed photographic imagery?
3. Does something called ‘universality’ of communication exist?
4. How does the socio-economic background of individuals influence their interpretive ability and hence the appreciation of art in general and photography in particular?
5. Is there any palpable difference between urban and rural population owing to the sharp contrast in their visual exposure history?
Stage 1 : This involves creation of a body of photographs – singular images, diptychs, triptychs or composites of multiple images
Stage 2 : The photographic work is shown to individuals by ways of prints, projections, digital displays or exhibitions.
Stage 3 : This involves interviews with the individuals to extract their views / interpretations / opinions.
Stage 4 : Analysis / interpretation of results
Over the period of 24 months, more than 3000 pictures were made from different parts of India and USA as part of the project. From about 100 diptychs made, 50 were selected for the final report and study. Out of these, 5 diptychs were used as study samples for showing and interviewing people from different walks of life which included farmers, shop-keepers, nurses, doctor, architect, IT professional, interior designer and students, in addition to photographers, artists and art historians. 20 people were interviewed and video-graphed. Their responses were documented as video and still photographs.
100% of the people were cooperative and tried best of their ability to interpret the diptychs. All of them could very well appreciate single photographs, much better than how they did with juxtaposed images. 28% of the participants reported that some of the diptychs did not communicate with them. This set of people included members from all educational level. Neither it had any cultural preference nor did any predominance to socio-economic status. A farmer, a student, a IT professional, a researcher and a painter/photographer were in this group. The diptych which they reported as non-communicating had no issues with many other participants.
Inference: Visual communicability is a very individualistic quality independent of general education. Appreciation of single images is much simpler than that of juxtaposed images, obviously because the latter demanded more analytical capacity to read and relate multiple visual elements.
While 100% of the members from higher educational / occupational strata were able to relate and rationally analyze the two pictures in most of the diptychs, 100% of the under-educated people (farmers, shop keepers, students) failed to relate and rationalize the connection between the two pictures of the diptychs. Pictures which had culturally recognizable elements were appreciated and interpreted much better and faster than those without.
Inference: Visual analytic capacity is education-depended. It is more of a cognitive ability, enhanced by the individual’s cultural background.
Many of the educated participants who related and analyzed the diptychs had no previous history of seeing and analyzing such works of art. They did the analytical process as competently as those who had such previous exposures. Still, those who had very professional level of expertise, such as art critics and historians, were more elaborate, precise and verbally expressive.
Inference: Visual analytic capacity exists in all individuals at various levels, influenced heavily by their general education. It is only a question of interest, and opportunities to get involved with art. Visual challenges stimulate the imagination and intellect of any clever individual as effectively as in any of those who are already in the fields of art and visual media. Previous experiences and continued visual stimulation makes one sharper in interpretative ability.
A diptych provokes a dialogue – between the two panels of the diptych and between the diptych and the viewer. The diptych and the viewer forms a closed organic triangle that contains and blends the content of the dialogue. The same process takes place with the next viewer. It continues until the last viewer is interviewed and interrogated. “The diptych is a wrestling”, writes Eric Dean Wilson in the American Reader. “A dialogue emerges, something like a silent Platonic dialogue, in which ideas are presented, expounded with evidence, challenged, and left unresolved” he continues. Diptychs, by virtue of its conceptual density, resists passive viewing. It demands an active contribution from the viewer to resolve the idea and the mystery that lays the road to the final meaning. It requests the viewer to stay with it for long, engage with it, and transact a thought process so that the diptych itself grows into being.
The organic functionality of a diptych could be compared to that of human brain itself. While each cerebral hemisphere is important, there is no separate existence. There is eternal communication that is happening between the two halves, ultimately culminating in a unified intended emotion or action. Structurally the two unites into one, while, functionally, the two grows into three or even more! Because the meaning that is deciphered out of a diptych is a consummation of what is obviously inside the diptych and what is an occult product of the ingenuity of the viewer. There is always new synthesis. There are always new possibilities of interpretation. The viewer’s range of inventiveness is the only limiting factor. “The viewer of the diptych becomes maker”.
Reading a diptych usually involves a pattern, but sometimes none. It begins with an attempt to see and feel the emotional and informational content in the first plate, which is usually the top plate in a vertical diptych or the left plate in a horizontal diptych. The eyes should them move onto the second plate. Going to the title, if any, should be the last step, if at all. Then begins a phase of ‘digesting’ the content and finding the relationship, connection, contradiction, or the signs of unity or diversity. This phase of digesting and meaningful assimilation of the idea is a very subjective and cultural exercise that depends heavily on the cultural and educational background of the viewer. It also depend on the already acquired capacity in understanding the visual language. The universality of such interpretational possibilities is more of a myth than truth, unless the viewer is dealing with pure abstraction. The intercultural ramifications of such visual vocabulary opens up new possibilities of diversity in interpretation. Elucidation of any work of art is only the beginning of its understanding, if not its delimitation. This is why Susan Sontag famously told “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellectual upon art”.
Sometimes, attempting to put the ‘meaning’ of a diptych into words is not only incomplete but also unnecessary. Such works need to be treated as if two harmonious notes sounded simultaneously. No one would probably attempt to put a piece of impressionistic instrumental music, like Claude Debussy’s Arabesque No.1, into words. It has to be enjoyed as it is, as sound. Likewise, some diptychs need to be enjoyed and indulged in as it is, as visual. Debussy wanted his art to be musical just as the maker of a diptych wanted his or her work to be visual, rather than a piece of verbal language.
Every photograph lends a certain degree of ‘factive pictorial experience’, as explained by Robert Hopkins of the University of Sheffield. The good old saying that ‘camera never lies’ has to be better modified into ‘camera never lies unless you make it do so’. This factive experience, unless one is dealing with abstraction, combines with that of the other image in a diptych. This act of combining multiple strata of experiences not only consummates the two separate image’s factive elements but it also multiplies the information and emotions by virtue of their relatedness, contradictions, ironies, and metaphorical connections.
Diptychs are also used to tell different stories of the same event or experience as seen from different perspectives. Multiple perspectives when shown simultaneously expands the visual or informative spectrum of the image. Inversely, if not taken care of, it can dilute the visual intensity of either of the images. The feasibility and the aesthetic usability of making a diptych remain debatable and it is a very personal choice.
Does the act of making a diptych betray a photographer’s inability to make a single image that shows it all? Definitely not! A photograph is made with a camera. A camera is a physical object that can exist at a time only in a single place and make a picture of the place, a happening in the place or an object or organism that lives in the same place. This means that the physical act of making a photograph is limited by time and place. Diptych, or a triptych, or a photomontage, or any other form of art that makes use of multiple imagery, lets the artist transcend the boundaries of time and place, releasing the knots of physicality, to reach out to a whole new vista of infinite inventive possibilities in concept-based photographic practice. Hence, the making of diptychs ties the history of the art together, right from the pre-photographic era, where the practice began, to the post-photographic period, when the art still flourishes.
Elliott Erwitt says “Photography has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” Very true and equally applicable to appreciating diptychs – it doesn’t matter what is shown in the diptychs, but it does matter how we look at it, how long we try to read it out, whom we show it to, what mindset we approach it with, how prejudiced or open-minded we are, and how well we have been seasoned to such visual challenges and its language. It is a very intimate experience, though intricate. Intricacies apart, it is the instinctive, raw, visceral response that is generated at the first look that is true and original. The viewer then tries to relate, analyze and build upon the first response, gradually building up layers of thought and inferences. The process and product keeps on evolving. The final interpretation is as organic and evolving as the interpreter itself. Understanding of art should only be a personal, internal process that generates the final product called appreciation. Its bye-product is always an elevated soul. It opens up a window to oneself. By saying “The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself”, Edward Steichen probably meant the same.
A photograph is born out of combination of a visible element called Light and an invisible element called Time. While the aperture of a lens controls the former, the shutter controls the latter. When either of the two is zero, no photograph is born. Hence, metaphorically, or even theoretically, every photograph is a diptychal combination of Light and Time, photographer being the hinge. The integrity of the photographer is as important as the veracity of the image itself.
This study done in Kerala, one of the most developed states in India with the highest levels of literacy, is probably the first of its kind in the Nation – a study on the cultural and educational background on the communicability and visual analytic capacity of individuals, based on their instinctive responses to single and diptych photographic images. The study found that the visual communicative capability of individuals is not dependent on education and cultural background, even though their analytic capacity based on visual language is highly influenced by both.
Every individual contains an innate capacity at various levels to appreciate visuals and its connotations. It can be nourished further by increased exposure to visual arts and its language. Opportunities augment the possibility of one being more or less sensitive to visuals and the art-forms that make use of visuals. Specific education in this direction increases the interpretative skill to the next level.
While it is not possible to get everyone trained in visual arts, it is possible by proper planning and policies, to increase the level of exposure of the public to visual arts and its cultural possibilities. Increased engagement to creative arts by the public makes the society more vibrant, culturally and intellectually, which is of utmost importance to any nation where cultural degradation and ‘negative’ entertainments are making deep-rooted presence. In this context, it is unwise and imprudent to dismiss a subset of population as ‘incapable’ of appreciating ‘high art’. Enough rains and right geography takes the stream to the ocean.
Dr. Unni Krishnan Pulikkal