kaigou: this is what I do, darling (4 perfect whatever-it-is)
[personal profile] kaigou
previous part

Meeting CP had a profound effect on the way I see faces. The first has taken much longer to quantify, but the second was almost immediate, and it's that one that I think might provide another level of context. CP, like my father and his father, is a photographer, and both our fathers -- while never more than hobbyists slash recorders of their many travels -- had/have an amazing instinct when it came to candid portraiture. CP shows the same instinct, and when we started dating, I had just bought a new Canon Rebel. It was under CP's tutelage that I started learning about the intricacies of aperture and depth-of-field and all these other mysterious things...

Except that I freaking sucked at candid portraiture. If I had any instinct when it comes to capturing faces, it was the innate ability to capture people at their absolute worst expression, at the most bizarre angle, and every person ended up looking... well, like a mutant, really. It's all optical illusion, but if you get a person at the just-so angle, the nose looks abnormal, the cheekbones tilted, the jawline extended. So frustrating! I couldn't seem to anticipate, the way CP (or our fathers) could. More than that, even when the person was perfectly still, I couldn't get a decent image. I know I'm hard on myself as a student, but I'm talking way beyond just being slightly critical. Even from a objective stance, I was getting something totally wrong.

The issue wasn't anticipation. The issue was that I didn't understand light.

By that, I mean that I think it's perfectly ordinary to look at a face and see the parts even as you register the whole: high cheekbones or a soft jawline or a turned-up nose or arched brows. You can catalog those elements even as you know you know this face in a variety of expressions -- that is, if the person were frowning, the face remains familiar, and if the person laughs, you don't stop knowing the face. The little parts and the entire part, and you think: I know this face, therefore I understand how it appears.

Except that the crucial part of 'understanding' -- from a photography point of view -- is understanding how light falls upon the face. And to understand that, you have to understand the light, itself.

One thing we did was set up a camera and a chair, and we photographed each other in an range of angles. Torso facing due right, and head aligned. Torso facing due right, but head at 15' angle to the body (turned, about 1/4, towards the camera). Torso facing right, head at 45' angle. Torso facing right, head turned to look into the camera full-on. And then with the torso at 15', and head-angle changing through the angles, then torso at 45' degrees, and so on.

I still have those pictures in a box somewhere. When we developed the prints and laid them out, it was obvious how the lights -- which remained unchanged throughout -- shifted radically even when movement was only incremental. Then we did a series that were of only one or two positions -- torso at 45', head to the camera, that kind of thing -- but we moved the lights, instead. We rearranged the reflectors. We printed the pictures, and again... even the subtlest of changes and the presentation of the face would radically change.

In other words, what appeared to be the biggest change in the first set -- the angle of the body versus the head in proportion to the camera's eye -- was really mostly just the change of light upon the body. The body might've been the object of the image, but it was the light that was doing all the work.

During the day, I was working with an awesome (and remarkably diverse) team, and if there is any light that sucks, it's got to be the massive florescent overhead lights of a major corporate office. Everyone looks... flat. Washed-out. And I was meeting daily with people of all ranges of heights, face shapes, skin-tones, hair-colors, nose sizes, and so on... but those lights! Oh, how they made everyone look equally... somewhat ill. Honestly, those overhead lights are the bane of any existence I've had in an office, but I'd never before noticed how that kind of direct, broad, wash of bright light altered my impression of people's faces -- especially when we'd go to lunch and between outdoor and indoor, the faces around me seemed to drastically shift, as the light when from warm-sunlight to this blue-green-whiteness of the overhead-only lighting.

Anyway I look at it, and no matter of whether I ever got the knack of candid portraiture (not really, though a few times I got really lucky), I still learned to see faces differently, as a result of the way light plays upon the skin, where there are shadows, where there are highlights, how the brow shades the eyes or the curl of a dimple is shown more by shadow-marked absence than presence.

What I was most aware of, though, was that I was learning to see every face I met as beautiful.

When you start to see bodies as attractants of light, and you realize the way light moves and shifts due to place or time, the disparate parts that we use to declare "this face/body is socially-determined level X of beauty" -- it's like that disappears. It's no longer that any face must have cheekbones like this, or eyes like that, or even skin-tone of this shade: what matters is the way the light falls.

At the risk of dropping into bad poetry -- but I just can't think of any other way to put the sensation of learning to see this way -- what lends faces a beauty is a kind of luminescence. Every person has it, because it's the animation of the personality that, as we like to say in English, will "light up" a face. Somehow it seems like perfect synchronicity to me that light -- coming from the outside, onto the face -- is therefore also part of the interplay of luminescence.

I guess another way to put it is: to see the entirety of a face/body, you must also see that which you do not register the rest of the time, which does have a huge impact on how you see what you see. That's light.

To simply draw or photograph without that light, therefore, is to remove half of what makes a face or body or person or anything as luminescent as it is to our natural eyes. The camera isn't nearly as adept or adaptive as our eyes (especially when you've got a lot of it on manual), and it also flattens things, and let's not even bring up the topic of on-camera flash, an abomination for anything but snapshots. So you have to become consciously aware of what you'd always accepted on an unconscious level.

Doing so seems to be a major step -- or maybe this part is just me -- towards a sudden and entrancing appreciation of faces. Not just in repose, which is admittedly the easiest for a beginner photographer to handle (fewer variables and slower shifts in expression), but in movement. And the more you recognize the way light plays upon people, and how shadows can flit from here to there in subtle ways, the more you start to realize that faces are, well, beautiful.

More than that, because of the complexities of light and the sheer interest it brings to a face -- from within, and without -- suddenly a lot of the 'classically beautiful' faces got... well, they stayed beautiful. They just weren't quite as interesting. Craggy faces, wrinkles around the eyes, an imperfectly-healed nose, a twist of the lips: once you see the way light plays upon these uneven landscapes, and appreciate the quality of light, it's just... breathtaking, really. I can't think of any other way to put it. A little bit of awe, a little bit of wonder, maybe?

You realize: all along, the world is full of gorgeous people, and I never realized it. How blind I've been.

One of the hardest things about photography, though, is that it requires some matter-of-fact knowledge or discussion about something modern America prefers to ignore: race, or more precisely, skin-tone. I say "prefers to ignore" because sometimes it seems to mention someone's race or ethnicity is to invite tension -- you must be mentioning so-and-so's appearance because you're hyper-aware, and hyper-aware means you must be secretly against them. Yes, it's that whole color-blind thing.

Trying to photograph someone while maintaining this delusion of 'color-blind' is only going to get you some really horrendous photographs. The color of the skin is part and parcel of the shadows and light, and just the barest shift in skin-tone will change how the light falls upon the face. I had to come to grips with the notion that it's not racist to acknowledge the simple fact of this person having pale-pale skin that goes a little blue-ish in the shadows, or that person having medium-brown skin that goes a little brown-black in the shadows, or this other person having dark-brown skin that also goes blue-ish in the shadows. If you don't see what you're seeing and know it for what it is, then you won't understand how the camera will see it or how you'll need to account for the light (in terms of additional light, reflections, or changes in aperture or depth-of-field).

In other words, if you're trying to photograph someone with dark skin, you can't use the same standards or single-base-line as you would for someone with light skin... and then, as you start to pay more attention, you realize: there are immense variations in skin tone. The more attention you pay, the more you realize that there isn't a base-line that you could say: all white people get the usual settings, and I'll just adjust for anyone whose skin tone is darker than X value.

You're just heading for failure if you measure a black woman's skin by how far/dark it is from generic white-person skin -- eg, if the white woman gets X value in the camera's setting, that skin Y times darker would get some kind of arithmetic X plus Y times Z would give you the value of what to use for the black woman's skin tone. First, because there's no generic white-person skin-tone anyway, and second, because you're failing your subject if you see her only in terms of comparison with another subject -- that isn't even in the frame!

Instead, you set aside any values that might've worked for previously, and figure out what would work based on this person, and this light. In short, you must approach each new face as though it were the first face you've ever seen.

But we're all human, and things must come back around again -- because we can't always afford the time or energy (or have the spare attention spans) to see every face we meet, on a conscious level. Sometimes we have to get where we're going, and that (I think) is where heuristics comes into play. Except that, I think, once you've learned to see faces as parts and whole within the play of light, this is going to have an impact on how you interpret (and heuristically define) unfamiliar faces.

The qualifications of broader society -- mark off a list of gender-markers (beard, soft lips, whatever), or racial/ethnic-markers (skin tone or eye-shape) -- have to battle with what you've trained yourself to see, in terms of light. Most of the time, I operate on automatic for the stage I guess we'd call heuristic classifying (the first step in recognizing someone out of a crowd, in the previous post) -- but when I know there's someone I should be looking for, I have to slow down, and that's when I get a look at what I'm looking at.

Cheekbones and noses.

I have trouble seeing eyes quite as well (for several reasons, but this began back when I was learning photography). Yeah, sure, they're the windows to the soul and all that jazz, but the light only reaches them after glancing across the nose, the cheeks, the lips, the brow. Eyes, therefore, for me, are a much later impression. (For that matter, I barely ever register anyone's eye-color, unless someone calls attention to it.)

We -- and I say "we" because I certainly 'saw' people this way for most of my life, which may have been why I was so hyper-aware of 'seeing' in a new way, because it really was an abrupt change in what I'd always taken for granted -- seem, at least among USians, to classify people based solely on the broadest of racial/color grounds. Generally the list is: white (from Nordic pale to freckled to deeply tanned), brown (an apparent catch-all of anyone from Mexico to the Sudan to India), black (African or indigenous-Australian), and yellow (Asian). Sometimes you'll also see red (for indigenous peoples of the Americas).

As a note, I hate that classification of 'yellow' -- nobody's skin is freaking yellow, unless they've got jaundice. There are skintones with blue undertones, yellow undertones, red undertones, even olivish undertones, but having an undertone doesn't make you yellow. It makes you a light shade, a medium shade, maybe even a dark shade, with a light but warmish cast to the shadows on your skin. Once you start thinking about light, a lot of the color-base-racial stuff becomes completely useless, because it's designed to lump people together, not to provide as wide a variety as possible for distinguishing people.

But that's the biggest part of it, isn't it? I won't derail myself by going any deeper into the whole racial tension in the US, as others have done that far better than I. Instead, I'll just say: current social pressures are to pretend some kind of color-blindness, and failing that, to use only the broadest categories possible: for the most part, we stop at the skin-tone. Racial profiling is just heuristics, on an institutional level.

It's a lot harder to have those kind of socially-wide reactions (ie, "he must be a criminal, he's black and he's walking down the sidewalk") when you've spent any time trying to see the individual interactions with light. It's not that you can't -- because I'm quite sure there are bigoted photographers out there who do it all the time -- it's just... harder. Becoming consciously aware of how you see a face, of understanding that face, means it's a lot harder to dismiss a face.

It's like, oh, maybe learning a new language, and visiting a place that has signs up in that language. Before, you might've noted the signs and carried on, but now that you can read some of them, you find yourself pausing, just wanting to read them. They might even say random or useless things, like they're old gas station signs and all you're doing is parsing out the cost of a gallon of gas in Burma in the mid-1920s... but you can't not pause. Having even the barest edges of that language, having glimpsed the wider world you'd previously missed, you can't not look, ask, read. Even if you do your best not to let on, your gaze will still wander over, and you'll work it out in your head, because it's there, because you want to know, because you enjoy the sensation of that language, that knowledge.

What you're really doing is appreciating the experience of what-you-now-know.

It's the same with light.

In every face, to see that person as a person and recognize the way light falls upon them, even as your forebrain may be saying, "ahh, it'd be so much easier to just dismiss all these people in the crowd because they're X or Y or Z..." (or to say, "he must be a criminal because of this aspect or that aspect of his appearance or speech")... the part of you that's learning is going to be the language student in the restaurant. You'll be wanting to appreciate the experience of seeing the beauty before you.

And it's damn hard to just declare, "nothing but a criminal" or "another inscrutable oriental" or whatever freaking cruel and hollow stereotype you may've ruthlessly -- if unconsciously -- once employed to dismiss large swathes of the faces you see every day. Because in doing so, what you're doing -- what I realized I was doing -- is summarily denying what you've learned to see. It's putting a label on people that dismisses them, after you'd just spent so long trying to see faces and bodies and people as unique individuals bathed in light.

It'd be like walking into that restaurant, taking one look at the signs, and saying: I don't need to read those. I read or write or speak that language in the classroom, or in fine literature, or whatever, so no reason to use it here. It's putting a big fence around this new comprehension, and that's not appreciation at all. That's actually something that feels more like shame.

All that may explain (at least in part) why it is that I can look at two people that -- by most other measures -- would look nothing alike. If you see the skin tone -- or any other major racial marker (the eyes, the nose, the lips, the hair) and you've learned that this single feature is all you need to see to heuristically classify someone as X type and another person (who lacks that feature) as Y type... you can no longer see the similarities. You can't even see the details. Hell, you're not even looking anymore.

The primary, and often only, classification of X and Y types as "different" (and therefore completely separate) seems to blind many people to what faces may otherwise have in common: the curve of the lips, the arch of the brow, the dimple slightly off-kilter in the cheek. This is how we can completely Other someone, when we classify them as being of X or Y type per heuristic snap-judgments: because in doing so, we're dismissing them so quickly we don't allow ourselves to see all the ways in which that Othering fails.

Yes, fine: her skin tone is dark with a warm ruddy shade to it, and his skin tone is medium-light with a olivish-cast, and her hair is brown-black and straight and thick while his is wavy and almost blue-black in bright sunlight. If that's all you see of them -- if you have defined her as being of, say, Hopi ancestry and him of being of Greek ancestry, then you've blinded yourself to seeing how the light plays upon them to reveal that they may share some of the same features. They may have similar straight noses, or mischievous smiles, or eyes that crinkle at the edges when they're laughing.

If you were raised to believe Hopi are this stereotype or Greeks are that stereotype, then one of these two people is going to be Othered out-of-hand. Somewhere inside, the thought process is: "because these are X and Y, that separation means one of these two must be the Other, and the Other must be Other in all ways, with not even an iota like us." And that X versus Y perspective will keep insisting on this, even if the things in common with this so-called Other are as plain as the nose on your face.

I guess the only way to put it is that when I learned to look past the full-stop of "that person is Indian," I had to realize what had been hiding behind that statement: "and therefore I have seen all I need to see; I have defined this person as X and need look no further." I had to realize that I'd spent a lot of my life only rarely tripping over that full-stop, and to start pushing myself to do better, to not go the easy route of looking past people, of dismissing them as "only ___".

Learning to see the light -- even if that means seeing similarities where others just think you're crazy -- means realizing that saying "that person is ___" is never enough, never okay. You can't stop there. You need to keep going until you've kicked the heuristics and the assumptions and the full-stops out of the way, and can see the person standing in front of you.

I'm not saying I'm perfect, and I'm not saying I don't still make assumptions based on appearance, only that I just add up the parts a little differently, even as I struggle to refuse that full-stop on skin-tone, or gender, or weight, or age.

(To my undying frustration, none of this made me any better at recognizing people I already know. You'd think it would; I sure thought it might. I'm practically memorizing someone's face! ...and when we meet at the grocery store a month later, I'm stumbling over placing how/where I know the person.)

One thing I can tell you, though: if you watch the way light plays upon a surface, you'll see the most complex and fascinating patterns are formed when the surface is uneven, lines and curves and the interplay between them. Someone giving you a poker face, well, for some faces, that might have a kind of beauty of its own, to be so still... But when a person smiles, it's the complexity of light across the suddenly uneven and altered landscape of lips and cheek and jaw and nose and brows that makes for lowlight and highlight. The light plays across a smiling face in a way it never does upon the same face at repose.

Or, I could say, simply: learning photography taught me to see that absolutely every single one of you is beautiful when you smile.

Date: 8 Dec 2010 03:43 am (UTC)
leorising: (Default)
From: [personal profile] leorising
That's some beautiful shit you've written there. Very nice.

I have some problems recognizing people; I also have more flattened/less 3D vision than most people, so any difficulties I have may be related to that. Pretty sure that's all brain damage from getting beat in the head as a kid, not that it matters.

I love so much the different colors human skin comes in. I am pale with a hint of yellow-olive underneath, yet when I use makeup, I have to use the whitest, palest tint available, with a pink/peachy blush on top, or I look totally wrong. It is very weird. And oh, how I wish I could walk up to a gorgeous man with beautiful, black-black, coal-colored skin, and say to him, "Your skin is so beautiful, so lovely, I wish mine were that color, you are so lucky" but of course I can't, because he'd think I was either a) completely stoopit or b) having him on or c) both. And in a cultural sense, I would be all of those things, so I don't. *sigh*

I'm starting to learn to draw a little bit, lo, after 51 years on this Earth. I've been thinking I'll need to start paying more attention to light, and here you are, inspiring me all over the place. I dig synchronicity.

Finally, I wanted to share the following, which is from last month on my AmberLotus Publishing calendar. It's Rumi:

In every gathering,
in any chance
on the street,
there is a shine, an
elegance rising up.

Today I
recognized that
that jewel-like
beauty is the

our loving

the glow in which
watery clay gets
brighter than fire,

the one we call
the Friend.

Translation by Coleman Barks

The Light you see is the glow of the indwelling Presence, hm?

So anyway. Enjoying this. Carry on, if you will. ^_^

Date: 8 Dec 2010 08:02 am (UTC)
trickster_tree: The impressionistic painting of a woman in draped garments with her head bent forward against her upraised hand. (Pensive)
From: [personal profile] trickster_tree
I'm fascinated and not a bit touched by the fact that your line of thought in regards to a failure of recognition led to an appreciation of what can't be recognized rather than the dismissal of it. I suspect I'll be looking closer at the fall of light for a while, as well.

      ... absolutely every single one of you is beautiful when you smile.
I'd sing this from the rooftops. In fact, it's one of the most-repeated sentiments in my fiction with regards to beauty. Given motivation I can recognize faces well enough, but I tend to fail to look at all; a smile is one of the few things that will prompt me to register another person at all.

Date: 8 Dec 2010 01:11 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ravensilver
As always, I'm totally fascinated by your entry. I've never considered looking at faces in terms of photography - in terms of light and shadow - instead of as *faces*, complete, whole, a sum of their parts.

Instead of working, I ended up trying to take some black-and-white photos of parts of myself... *gg* I was so inspired by your entry.

I don't have a problem with faces, but I really need to do a reality-check on myself the next time I'm among people, to see whether I tend to categorize (and write them off as x or y) them as quickly and conclusively as you've described. It will be interesting to see...

I just *love* your entries... They always make me *think*. ^___^

Date: 9 Dec 2010 07:49 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] maire
Most interesting!

I found the part where you talk about skin colours interesting, because it didn't match the way I think.

My skin colour can be matched fairly well by mixing yellow ochre, zinc white, and a tiny bit of crimson.

My husband's (and both my ex-girlfriends') is more of a burnt sienna than yellow ochre, still mixed with the white and a bit of crimson.

My ex-boyfriend's has almost no brown or yellow in it at all -- just the pink one gets from the crimson mixed with the white.


I knew, growing up, that assuming one knew someone's ethnicity by looking at them was nonsense, because I knew people who looked one thing and were another: white or blue-eyed Maori and Samoans; Sinhalese/Pakeha children, one of whom looked Melanesian and the other Arabic, and so on.

The more people are able to travel, the harder it will be to assume one knows a lot about someone's culture from their face.

Date: 11 Dec 2010 05:53 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] roseya19
Well... wow. Just... WOW! I love it when you analyze things like this. A couple of my best friends in college had a photography business, and despite all the time I spent around them, I never did ever get straight what an f-stop was. I'd rather just sit and draw or paint something than photograph it. ^__^