Imagine if your head was in a metal box and your neck didn’t move. In fact your entire body was rigid, like a quadriplegic locked into a wheelchair. You can only look straight ahead and, at any given time, your eyes are locked on a certain point. Some things are in focus, others are blurry and indistinct.
Fortunately that’s not how you see. But it is how a camera sees. A camera sees only from a one-point, locked perspective that creates a single image of a specific vantage point with certain focal characteristics.
When we look at something, our eyes constantly move about. Even if we are sitting down in a chair, our eyes dart around, passing back-and-forth over different details, noticing one aspect and sliding quickly to some other point, perhaps paying less attention to certain information between. Our impression of what we’re looking at is actually lots of different perspectives all blending into one undulating picture. And because our eyes focus on points that are different distances from us, flexing and bending our lenses, absorbing different amounts of light and therefore changing the quality of information that we absorb, all these different images that we are recording are in fact quite different from each other. One might have a wide-angle perspective, then one might feel like our aperture is more open, while another is focusing more on black-and-white information about edges or shadows, another is saturated by color.
Amazingly our brains take all this information and instantaneously create a sense of what we ‘see’. It’s not a single picture but lots of different impressions that are all blended together. (That’s what the Cubists were getting at, trying to record all those different angles and perspectives into a single painting to simulate the way that we see. They were trying to show the distinction between how humans see and what the camera was introducing. People think of Cubism as abstract art but it actually was an attempt to be even more accurate about literally how we see the world.)
This process of observing is what goes on when we draw too. If we are drawing a landscape, an urban street scene for example, we look at the corner of the building on the left in lots of technical ways quite different from the way we are observing the street sign right in front of us or the blades of grass below or the mass of leaves on a tree above. We look at one section of the view and record it in a certain way and then we change our tools, bend lines, shift focus, let in more light from the shadows, record details all in different ways. An interesting drawing is a record of all those different forms of observation on one place.
Do you see how fundamentally different that is from taking a photograph? The camera is observing everything in the same way at the same instant, with no consideration of what it is. But we observe in a cumulative fashion, first taking the scene quickly and then scrutinizing and observing a myriad of details. When we draw from a photograph you don’t have the benefit of all those different forms of observation. We are locked into that single view the camera gives. It takes time and lots of observations to record the rich scene before us. The image unfolds and gets more detailed from the more perspectives you acccumulate as you spend more time drawing. That’s what gives the drawing life, that someone was living when they made, living over a period of time. Photographs don’t have that advantage, that mystery, that richness.
Photos also don’t include all of the information that go into the experience of the moment. The photographer can’t record the smells, the sounds, the movements, the moments, the moods, that he is feeling and experiencing. His camera is just recording the light waves. But when you make a drawing you have the opportunity to convey all of those diverse experiences and impressions as well. The drawing done by somebody standing in an uncomfortable and cramped position is very different from the drawing done by somebody sitting in a plush armchair. The scene they are looking at is the same but the way in which they are seeing it is influenced by their physical comfort. So the person who is rushed, or in love, or worried about paying the rent, will make a different sort of drawing.
If you focus entirely on creating what you think is an accurate representation, it would seem that using a photograph as the basis of your drawing gives you an advantage. But the fact is the camera see the world differently than human beings do. And that’s why drawings done by people are very different from the mechanical event that is a photograph, or even the mechanical process that is a drawing done from a photograph.
Life is so complex, so rich, so ever-shifting, and the wonderful power of art (that has never been eclipsed by the invention of the camera) is to capture that experience and share it with others who are also alive. See?