Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Art photography, and the Darwinian explanation for Vivian Maier

We've just seen the wonderful new (2013)  film, "Finding Vivian Maier," about a street photographer whose art was completely unknown while she was alive, but her sweeping body of work is now coming into its own, 5 years after her death.  Maier was a nanny for families largely in Chicago, had connections to a remote village in France, and was an enigmatic, sometimes troubling or troubled person.  The film is a beautiful, moving, disturbing, evocative and we recommend it highly.

Besides her fascinating personal story, her previously essentially unknown massive trove of photographs, most never developed until recently, are stunning; well-framed, with a brilliant use of light and contrast, her ability to capture a moment, a fleeting second, in evidence photo after photo after photo.

Self-portraits from Vivian Maier: Street Photographer photographs by Vivian Maier, edited by John Maloof, published by powerHouse Books.

The artistic part of all this story is certainly interesting and provocative in its own right.  But, as scientists, we find ourselves returning time and again to a nagging question.  Most of Maier's work is in black-and-white.  For some reason, it seems, black-and-white photographs are much more able to instantly evoke strong emotion, to bring us to tears, than are color photos.  Perhaps it's that color distracts the eye, while stripping the picture of color allows our eye to zero in on its emotional pith.  

And we think we know why.  It comes down to biology and natural selection.

We have different cells in our retinas for color and black-and-white.  The much more abundant 'cone cells' receive the broader spectrum of light that we interpret as color, while 'rod cells' receive black and white.

Rod and cone cells; via Encyclopedia of Science

Cone cells just don't work well in the absence of light, or of bright light -- that's why the night is predominantly black and white to us, when rod cells are doing the light reception, and our brains are primarily getting black and white signals.  

And when do scary things happen to us?  The predator approaches our campfire at night, when we're equipped to see only its frightening outline, but that's enough to set adrenaline coursing through our veins, sending us scurrying for a blazing piece of wood to scare off the predator, or to run in the opposite direction.

Our cone cells, on the other hand, allow us to see anything, from the cute to the mundane -- babies or kittens, a beautiful flower or landscape (deceptively beautiful, granted, as it hides the predator by day), the curious berry we've never seen before, or the hearth as we cook the daily meal.  The breadth of things we see in color, via our cone cells, elicits a panoply of emotion, while rod cells are obviously more immediately connected to our fight-or-flight response in a scary world.   

Not only can we thus explain the emotional pull of black-and-white, but in the interest of a genetic evolutionary explanation for everything, we can also explain why Maier was able to evoke these emotions.  She clearly personally had the genes 'for' spookily captivating photography (how those genes evolved before the Rolleiflex camera was developed is probably explained on some blog we're not aware of).

Artists might object to biologizing this, and attribute her skill to just that, skill.  But the deeper, primal, emotional pull of this work is, ironically, something we owe to wolves or the brigands of history.

Finding Natural Selection.  Piece of cake.

A few days after this was posted, I received an email from the editor of Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, published by powerHouse Books, who was alerted to the post by Google Alerts.  He sent me a number of photos from the book, with permission to post them here.  Thanks very much, Declan Taintor.

From Vivian Maier: Street Photographer photographs by Vivian Maier, edited by John Maloof, published by powerHouse Books.


Thomas Raab said...

Interesting story. However, my textbook(s) on neuroscience states that the rod cells saturate and are unresponsive in daylight. That is, the cones alone are responsible for our daylight vision. The black and white images, in other words, are processed by the same cones as our colour vision (unless, of course, seen in a very dark room - but then everything would be black/white). I am afraid that this might reduce your beautiful story to one of the "just-so" kind? Sorry!

Anne Buchanan said...

Oh no! A beautiful 'just-so' story destroyed by the facts -- again!

But thanks, Thomas, for following this to its logical conclusion. You caught us. I will admit that we made up this scenario as a bit of a dig at adaptive stories that are made up all the time, but that are meant to be taken seriously (unlike ours). It is so often assumed that all traits are here because of natural selection, and it's very easy to make up an adaptive reason, and most often (unlike our tale here, as it turns out) untestable.

I was just reading such a story last night, in fact, in an otherwise fine book about cholera -- the reason that people believed that diseases were caused by miasma rather than germs, and the reason they so stubbornly stuck to this false theory, was that we evolved to be disgusted by bad odors. QED

But thanks for giving me the chance to point out that this post was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek commentary on that all too frequent, and all too untestable, approach to evolution.

That said, the movie really was excellent, especially Maier's black and white photos!

Ken Weiss said...

Or, maybe the just-so story withstands this challenge? That would be because the evocative nature of b/w photography is due to the fact that at night, when our lives depend on what our rods are detecting, that's when we need our emotional responses to things.

The photographic revelation of this is, yes, viewed in daytime and is of daytime pictures, but that reveals the underlying emotional truth of night terrors....

Of course, this illustrates, as Anne says, the problematic nature of any such reconstructions, so easy to make and so hard to break.

Thomas Raab said...

Thanks for the responses. I am glad my comments didn't spoil your day, but instead can be used constructively!