What Do You Think You’re Looking At?

Seems everywhere we go these days, we either can’t be without our “smartphone”, nor can we avoid anyone else’s. While on vacation, watch your step so you won’t trod in front of someone trying to capture that special moment with their HD camera phone. Conversely, how often have we excitedly focused in on that great catch at the ballpark, that rare butterfly, or some other magnificent specimen of flora or fauna, only to have it ruined by someone’s head positioned oh-so-unaesthetically within your memorable dream shot? Fortunately, if you are just a tad bit tech savvy you can avail yourself of a nice variety of photo editing apps and software options to enhance that hi-tech cam that conveniently fits in your shirt pocket or purse.

The photo above represents one of my quick attempts at snapping a decent shot of the ocean at the Jersey Shore. It was a sunny and windy day, which meant that I felt greatly hindered by the iPhone cam’s lack of any kind of backlighting or even basic anti-glare features, so I just clicked away and cropped and straightened the spot with the built in iPhoto OS, all the while only vaguely aware of just exactly what it was I was shooting. Upon returning home I added just a little image sharpening, but actually felt pleased with the slight fuzziness of my shot by the water. Additionally, l think the man-made structures and Boardwalk pedestrians appear arranged across the seascape in a pleasant way.

Lately, this particular beach scene has caused me to reflect upon some of the more powerful works of art I’ve experienced in my lifetime. I’ve grown up in a world where the Golden Age of American Television led to 24 hour worldwide live, “real time” video news coverage; where cinema verite became “reality TV”. From within their vast  “social networks” people find themselves eager to be seen and wanting to see everything! But historically, many of the greatest geniuses of the visual arts seems to have concerned themselves, not with what they wanted to show you, but more so with provoking you to closely examine what you think you see.


Consider the mid 17th century painting, Las Meninas by the Spanish painter Diego Velasquez. I remember like it was yesterday, when my freshman Spanish teacher introduced her class to this incredible work of art in a classroom slideshow presentation. In the early nineties I was fortunate to see it up close in the Prado Museum during my first trip to Europe. To desribe this work from the “Spanish Golden Age of Painting” as a very early example of “picture-in-picture” would be an understatement. The scene involves the viewer on so many levels beyond just the depiction of the “little maidens” of the Royal Spanish Court. The artist seems to look right at us, so it is in part self-portrait. And of course, what is he painting, what are we really looking at, AND where are we anyway, really? Look in the mirror. As the king and queen sit for their portrait so do we become them!


I did not have to travel to Spain to see Salvador Dali’s Figure at a Window, and in fact had never heard of it before viewing it at the travelling exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s an earlier work and not typical of what one thinks of as being Dali-esque as with melting clocks, dreamlike freakish creatures, etc. The viewpoint is a deceptively simple one. Her living space seems quite sparse, almost barren, her attire very basic, almost plain, as she stares into a narrow opening onto a vast widening seascape. Is it a hopeful scene pointed at a brightening future of smooth sailing, or one of quiet desperation and grayish skies?


The painting was positioned chronologically near the beginning of the exhibit in Philadelphia, and upon seeing it for the first time, Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World immediately came to mind (which was created a couple decades later). Many Americans have seen Wyeth’s famous painting (at the very least in print reproductions and in art books) of the young girl, her face (as with the Dali painting) turned away from us, sprawled out across a grassy farm field. Unlike the Dali painting, the young woman doesn’t seem enclosed by her immediate surroundings. I’ve never seen the actual painting but it does seem to challenge the viewer  in a manner similar to Dali’s work. Is Christina enthralled by this natural world with all it’s unforeseen possibilities or will she feel consumed by the sheer vastness of it?

A few years back I attended a college basketball game and secured nice seating by the railing and snapped a few quick shots of player warm ups. This particular seating area adjacent to the main entrance of the building did not offer particularly good lighting for photography. I am always fascinated with bright, bold, vivid colors and so when I returned home to my computer desk I selected and cropped the best shots and experiment liberally with filters, hue and exposure adjustments and especially posterizations. While my initial intent was to capture the exuberance of the players as they formed a circle to rally themselves for the opening tip off, I always came away with a strange feeling regarding the ominous look of the tall, dark slender figure of the head coach leaning off to the side. As it turns out, the coach enjoyed very little success and was eventually dismissed by the University due to, let’s just say, some scandalous, abusive team management techniques.

team warm up

The next time you examine a particularly fascinating piece of art, whether it be a painting, a photo, film, sculpted object, etc. immerse yourself in the artist’s intent and purpose and outwardly emerging creative energies. But ultimately, ask of yourself “What do you think you’re looking at?”

Rubber Soul Album Art

Click Album Art to Play: I’m Looking Through You“- Lennon/McCartney

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