Saturday, August 25, 2007

Territory V: Spatial Displays for Information

Illusionist pictorial space operates on a small set of foundational principles. The most basic of these principles is called vertical placement, which can be described thusly: the lower on the picture, the closer to the viewer. The reverse is true, too: the higher the position, the more distant the item. Everyday experience confirms this. Other fundamental principles include overlapping and proximate color contrast, the latter a component of atmospheric perspective which holds that items closest to us will be characterized by the highest color contrasts, of both value and chroma (or saturation). Ditto for distinctness: crisp in front, smoky in back. Conventional landscape pictures operate according to these principles. Distant mountains are hazy and bluish. One of Philip Guston’s best social realist paintings reproduced below provides a demonstration of these principles in a modern spirit.

This Frederick Richardson from the Volland Edition Mother Goose emphasizes spatial separation through the atmospherics of contrast. In this case, darker denser things in front, smokier low contrast passages far off. The vertical placement rule is used to exaggerated effect, due to the point of view above the children. Both the Richardson and the Guston employ a horizon line, the latter restricted to the upper left corner of the format.

These rules apply to pictorial spaces which aspire to engage us experientially. (And of course there are many more such rules, especially the assortment of rational procedures that go with linear perspective, but they are not of concern here.) But there are other kinds of spaces which are more symbolic and readerly. We perceive these spaces very differently. The picture plane cannot be pierced by imaginary participation; rather, mentally we scan and span the conceptual surface of the image. Below, an 1851 instructional card by John Emslie for James Reynolds and Sons:

In pictures like this one, image units operate like visual integers or language characters. They relate to one another in the structure of the diagram, but they retain their integrity as individual units. And of course that’s where pictures started, back in the mists of proto-language.

These pictures start out editorially as visual lists, but become pictorial sets. The distinction has value. A list is a linear progression, while a set is multipolar and relational. Visual thinking tends to be more relational. (The linearity of the comic strip is an exception). Such images often appear in children’s picture books or reference works. Below, a charming spread from J. Otto Seibold’s Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe which provides such a set of boat types.

Note that the rule of vertical position does not apply in this case. The gondola is no closer to us than soda-pop boat.

But sometimes these distinctions are less clear. Some pictures operate in a synthetic mode which combines informational space with traditional pictorial space.

Mr. Lunch paddles across the world under a sky of constellations which are arrayed in an informational format. Plainly the stars are “behind” the globe. Vertical position rules apply.

Here is a fascinating example of an image which pretends to operate in a traditional pictorial format, but really doesn't. This beautifully crafted chromolithograph from 1894 exists for the sole purpose of displaying a large number of bugs for reference purposes. Said bugs are frolicking in a meadow near the base of a tree. The image provides the traditional foreground, middle ground and background which we associate with landscape painting. The horizon line is clearly established a little more than two-fifths up the format rectangle. But this traditional backdrop is accomplished through a crazy manipulation of scale and point of view. We'd see no such spatial sweep, were we focused on a raft of buzzing crawling critters. The horizon would disappear well above the upper edge of the format, because we’d be looking down at least by a few degrees. So the backdrop is pure illusion which plays no role in the informational work of the picture. That work is done by the image units which are systematically arrayed on the visual surface of the image—I hesitate to use the word foreground, because the entire space is fake. Drop everything behind the bugs, and you get an informational array, not unlike Seibold’s boats, albeit with more scale variation and less hieratic arrangement. The image below is my schematic of the visual data points in Schutzeinrichtungen II.

Slightly greater densities occur toward the bottom of the image area, which one would expect, though to a much much greater degree, in a landscape approach. All in all the distribution of units is quite uniform.

Finally, the combination of informational and experiential spaces finds an especially pleasing and appropriate home in children’s literature. Here, the classic domestic array of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight, Moon.

The happy sigh we associate with this book has a great deal to do with its perfect blend of knowledge and experience, of itemization and immersion. Informational images embedded in experiential contexts provide a meeting place for epistemology and ontology. May sound a little grand, but I actually think this. More soon…

Images: Stuart Davis, Landscape with Garage Lights, 1932; Philip Guston, Martial Memory, 1941; Frederick Richardson, “Cold and Raw the North Winds Blow,” in the Volland Edition Mother Goose, 1915; John Emslie, “The Earth’s Annual Revolution Around the Sun,” James Reynolds and Sons, London, 1851; designer uncredited, infographic on the development of the letter E, The World Book Encyclopedia, 1964 edition; J. Otto Seibold, Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe, 1994; illustrator uncredited, Schutzeinrichtungen II, Lexicon, 1894; Clement Hurd, spread from Goodnight Moon, 1947.

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