Monocular Vision and Absurd Perspectives

John Pfahl, Australian Pines, Fort DeSoto, Florida, 1977 (416.1984)

From 1974 to 1978, American photographer John Pfahl (b. 1939) worked on a series of unmanipulated color photographs on the theme of The  Altered Landscape. The series consists of landscape photographs with different added elements, depended on the given scene. In these pictures Pfahl manipulates the optics of the camera and is playing tricks with perspective by using cleverly placed man-made objects to mislead the viewer’s eye.

John Pfahl, Shed with Blue Dotted Lines, Penland, North Carolina, 1975 (562.1983)

Especially the photographs in which the perspective of the depicted scene is corrected piqued my interest. They reminded me of the series Perspective Correction (1969) of the Dutch artist Jan Dibbets, who exploits the illusion of perspective created by the camera. One of the interesting aspects of photography is the difference between the monocular view of the camera and binocular seeing in real life. Thanks to our binocular vision, we are able to see the three-dimensional world by using both of our eyes, which gives us a wider field of view and a precise perception of depth. The single-eyed lens of the camera sees with a monocular vision and thus creates in a photograph a two-dimensional representation of our three-dimensional world. Perceiving a monocular perspective photograph of a place as “being in that place” means, according to the Dutch scholars Hilde van Gelder and Helen Westgeest, that one is able to imagine looking with both eyes at a three-dimensional space. So, if we can image ourselves be present in the space of the photographed place, why then are we unable to see the rectangle in Pfahl’s photograph Library Protection or the squares in Blue Grid as a trapezoid lying on the floor or spread out over the stones?

John Pfahl,  Library Projection, Tampa, Florida, 1977 (566.1983)

John Pfahl, Blue Grid, Pembroke, New York, 1977 (425.1984)

In David Green’s article “Between Object and Image,” he writes the following on the work of Dibbets, which is also applicable to Pfahl’s Altered Landscapes: “In exploiting the difference between what we know and what we actually perceive, [the photographer] does more than draw attention to photography’s ability to deceive: he suggests that the ‘reality’ which it offers is itself problematic. Thus, the camera records a trapezoid that cannot be ‘seen’ and reveals a square that does not ‘exist’ and a conundrum is set in motion that involves a reality that is there and not there, a truth which is evident and concealed, and evidence that is visible yet in some sense invisible.” (Cited by Hilde van Gelder and Helen Westgeest, Photography Theory in Historical Perspective, 2012, p. 128)

Like the lines in Pink Rock Rectangle and in Shed with Blue Dotted Lines, when photographed from a pre-calculated vantage point, they appeared as non-perspectival rectangular shapes. By exploiting the consequences of the monocular and their central linear perspective in photography, Pfahl is not just playing with our ideas of perspective, but also with our understanding of what a photo is, because he draws attention to the fact that we are looking at a photograph by the absurdity of the perspective.

John Pfahl, Pink Rock Rectangle, Lewiston, New York, 1975 (563.1983)

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Government Shutdown


Weegee, [Baby elephant a top of Capitol, Washington, D.C.], ca. 1960 (3041.1993)

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Fall for Dance

morgan_barbara_528_1986Barbara Morgan, Martha Graham–Letter to the World, 1940 (528.1986)

lee_russell_80_2003Russell Lee, Negro cabaret, Chicago, April 1941 (80.2003)

rothstein_arthur_208_1989Arthur Rothstein, Tanaquil LeClercq, Ballerina, 1950 (208.1989)

morgan_barbara_531_1986Barbara Morgan, José Limón–Cowboy Song, 1944 (531.1986)

Fall is dance season in New York, with plenty of dance to be seen at Lincoln Center and City Center.

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Working to Break up the Break: Celebrate International Coffee Day!

owens_bill_2389_2005Bill Owens, I used to be a chef and my partner was a garbage foreman, 1974 (2389.2005)

mydans_carl_181_2005Carl Mydans [French tank brigade near Verdun, France], June 1940 (181.2005)


Carl Mydans [Sand hogs, Midtown Tunnel breakroom, New York], 1939 (189.2005)


Russell Lee, Combine Workers Eating Breakfast, 1943-50 (210.1983)

weegee_15135_1993Weegee, Fire, July 27, 1941 (15135.1993)

“Long hours don’t mean good work—highly efficient, productive work is more valuable,” Dr. Levine says in a New York Times article, published June 16, 2012 by Phyllis Korkki, outlining the benefits of regular breaks from the work day routine. When you come right down to it, Dr. Levine says, “the work should break up the break.” In summary of a summary, whatever your “work,” consider the benefits of taking a few quality breaks. And on September 29, in Canada, England, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Sweden, and the United States, in honor of International Coffee Day in those countries, consider carefully your beverage of choice.

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The Art of Spontaneity

For sixty years, documentary photographer George S. Zimbel (b. 1929) has been fascinated with capturing spontaneous moments. “Unique among the visual arts,” he writes, “is the ability of  a photographer to incorporate spontaneous action into a  still work.” His favorite photograph, The Goose, exemplifies this idea.

zimbel_george_103_1985George Zimbel, The Goose, New York City, The Bronx, 1958 (103.1985)

zimbel_george_119_1985George Zimbel, Girl and Dog, Queens, New York, 1960 (119.1985)

Like The Goose, many of Zimbel’s photographs have an element of humor. In 35th Street, New York City, Zimbel caught two neighborhood boys, one wearing a traffic cone as a hat. The boys, Butch and Jub Jub, were aggressively hustling cab drivers for spare change as the drivers came in and out of a tire shop. Such spontaneous moments, by definition, cannot be constructed.

zimbel_george_104_1985George Zimbel, 35th Street, New York City, 1954 (104.1985)

In order to capture spontaneousness, Zimbel argues that the photographer must “have a sense of rhythm” and “be in tune” with what is happening in front of the lens. From dancers in an Irish dancehall to Marilyn Monroe, Zimbel has utilized these skills to make photographs that capture the unexpected, fleeting nature of these scenes. In his view, “photography is the art of spontaneity.”

zimbel_george_106_1985George Zimbel, Irish Dancehall, The Bronx N.Y.C., 1954 (106.1985)

zimbel_george_105_1985George Zimbel, Marilyn Monroe, 1954 (105.1985)

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Congratulations to Carrie Mae Weems!

weems_carrie_mae_62_2001Carrie Mae Weems, Mirror, Mirror, from the Ain’t Jokin’ series, 1987 (62.2001)


Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled, from The Kitchen Table Series, 1990 (63.2001.1)


Carrie Mae Weems, You Became a Scientific Profile from the From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried series, 1995-96 (835.2000.1)

American photographer and video artist Carrie Mae Weems has been named a 2013 MacArthur Fellow! Check out more of her work in the traveling retrospective Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video.

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W. Eugene Smith’s Germ-Free Animals

W. Eugene Smith, [Man in protective helmet and rubber gloves holding mouse, Laboratories of Bacteriology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana], 1949 (1519.2005)

The American photojournalist William Eugene Smith (1918-1978) is, amid other things, known for his major photo-essays for Life magazine that he photographed between 1947 and 1957. Among these are some of Smith’s most influential and important works. Besides the famous photo-essays “Country Doctor,” “Spanish Village,” and “Nurse Midwife” he made a series of an experimental program in bacteriology at the University of Notre Dame’s Germ-Free Laboratory in Indiana in 1949.

With my background in culture, art history, and film and photographic studies, I have absolutely no knowledge of laboratory practices, bacteriology experiments, or even germ-free animals for that matter. Perhaps because I’m not a proponent of animal experiments, W. Eugene Smith’s photographs of the animals in his photo-essay “Life Without Germs”  immediately stoked my attention. After doing a little research I found out that germ-free animals are animals without any microorganisms because they are raised within germ-free isolators. By doing so, the scientists can control the animals’ exposure to viral, bacterial, or parasitic agents. In fact, germ-free life was a prominent topic of discussion in post-World War II medical, scientific, and popular discourses, but eventually played a significant role in bone-marrow treatment for leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease, the prevention of colon cancer, and the use of nutrition in preventing prostate cancer.

The photo-essay, “Life Without Germs,” was published in the September 26, 1949 issue of  Life. John Kinsella’s poem, “Beyond W. Eugene Smith’s Photographic Essay Life Without Germs,” is another way of describing the lab Smith photographed.

W. Eugene Smith, [Technician removing germless monkey from sterile chamber to study how it will react to harmless microbes and adapt to normal life, Laboratories of Bacteriology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana], 1949 (1518.2005)

W. Eugene Smith, [Baby chick in jar being fed deficient diet to determine which vitamins essential to its survival, Laboratories of Bacteriology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana], 1949 (1517.2005)

W. Eugene Smith, [Attendant weighing week-old kitten who is sealed for life in chamber to show how animals age without disease, Laboratories of Bacteriology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana], 1949 (1514.2005)

W. Eugene Smith, [Blood sample being taken from a monkey raised in germ free environment to find out how it differs in immunity from other animals, Laboratories of Bacteriology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana], 1949 (1520.2005)

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