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Staving Off Infinite Regress By Way of Interpreting Agee. By Ken Schles

FOAM Blog reposting #1 (this is a reposting of an essay that originally appeared on the FOAM online site. Images coming soon as will more essays in this series)

Staving Off Infinite Regress By Way of Interpreting Agee. By Ken Schles



James Agee, begins his essay, A Way of Seeing (which can be found in Helen Levitt’s seminal book, A Way of Seeing), “The mind and the spirit are constantly formed by, and as constantly form, the senses, and misuse or neglect the senses only at grave peril to every possibility of wisdom and well being. The busiest and most abundant of the senses is that of sight. The sense of sight has been served and illuminated by the visual arts for as long, almost, as we have been human.”


What an awkward beautiful jumble of a statement. The essential thrust being the recognition that the nature of experience is transactional at its root. Experience both forms, and, over time, informs what we know of the world and how we might know the world. The more we experience the world, the more we might come to know it, and the more we know about the world, the more we might see and experience. It is through this mind/sense connection that we subject our understandings to constant qualification, evaluation, interpretation and reinterpretation, making new encounters (possibly) all the more richer and all the more meaningful.


So it may not seem surprising, at first glance, that when we say we “see” something it implies certain knowledge of the thing. The two are many times conflated, at least in the English language. We’ll say, “I see, I understand.” Common phrases centered on our sense of sight and its opposite, blindness, are all about knowing and not knowing. But the link is somewhat specious, if not outright false. Ask any visually impaired person, and you will find that they can “see” certain issues sighted people remain pretty much in the dark on. What we have in our language is a propensity for metaphor. And images of light and dark should not be taken literally. Images can well “illuminate” a higher truth or lead one astray, but they should never be taken at face value. Again, intuitively, innately, we know this. An image, in the form of a photograph, is never taken at face value. At face value an image is a phantom, a mirage, a nothingness, a two-dimensional surface of light and dark, of tone and color. We embellish and project meaning from photographs, into photographs and through photographs. We find in them significance. And the images formed on our retinas and categorized in our minds are perhaps even less substantial (as they are more transient and mutable), but no less metaphorical.



By the time our minds synthesize the raw sensory input of visual stimulation into consciousness, we have already connected the sense data to associations it’s already elicited, already categorized the data of perception into wafting clouds of shifting signifiers that convey mutable and extended orders of significance. This process does not happen mysteriously in an unordered mind full of random events, but in a socially ordered mind full of human associations and human significances interpreted by way of human priorities. All our significances are human significances and all the images we project give meaning to us as human beings filled with human strengths, desires, frailties and fears. We know the world through metaphor as we extrapolate and speculate into the outer reaches of considering what might be possible—and just what might be true.



The world we live in is one of infinite regress, but the constant stimulation of our limited senses and the limited (and delimited) purview of our images keeps endless regression in check and gives focus to our attentions. In other words, not only do our images and senses direct our attentions, they also set us off in particular directions and into particular, sometimes closed, lines of interpretation.


Our images, for the most part, are static and fully formed. But we are not. And we may come back and revisit images whose meaning and interpretation shift and evolve for us.

We must be vigilant to remember that our images are not the world. Images are metaphors that allude to specific things in the world that we may recognize, and that we may not fully understand. Perhaps this is the closest we can come to reality, but as Agee warns us, “[we] misuse or neglect the senses only at grave peril to every possibility of wisdom and well being.”



The above images are unpublished out-takes from my book, Invisible City (1988), Twelvetress Press. A reprint of Invisible City is forthcoming.



On May 14th Claxton Projects will be giving away a signed copy of my latest book, Oculus. I invite all readers to enter the give-away here. The Claxton Projects website is a curated selection of contemporary and vintage photography books from the Claxton Projects library. This archive includes books by some of photography’s most distinguished, imaginative and inventive artists and is intended to provide an introduction to new collectors, whilst highlighting the occasional overlooked title to the more seasoned photography book enthusiast. Above all else, Claxton Projects is a celebration of great photography books and the wonderful images within.




About kenschles

Ken Schles is the author of Invisible City (1988; reprint 2015 and 2016), The Geometry of Innocence (2001), A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures In Our Heads (2007), Oculus (2011) and Night Walk (2015 and 2016). His work has been nominated for the Deutsche Börse Prize, exhibited by The Museum of Modern Art, noted by the New York Times Book Review, cited in histories of the medium (Parr/Badger, Auer & Auer, 10x10 American Photobooks) and issued by some of the foremost publishers of our time (Steidl, Hatje Cantz, Twelvetrees Press). They're considered “intellectual milestones in photography” (Süddeutsche Zeitung), “hellishly brilliant” (The New Yorker). Ken Schles’ work is included in private and public collections such as The Museum of Modern Art, The Rijksmuseum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museo d"Arte Contemporanea (MACRO) Testaccio Museum, and more than 100 other museum and library collections world-wide. 
 Ken Schles is a NYFA Fellow. http://www.kenschles.com



  1. Pingback: Staving Off Infinite Regress By Way Of Interpreting Agee | seeing images, seeing things - October 8, 2015

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