Saturday, 6 December 2014

About the difference between Oriental and Western Perspective

A Picture of Mount Fuji by Karel van Wolferen

I use here the word Oriental, instead of Asian, because Atmospheric Perspective, as against the Linear Perspective of the West, belongs to the history of China and Japan. Nowadays in Asia they use a camera with built in linear perspective like everybody else on the planet!
Differently from Linear Perspecive that relies on the diminishing size of objects towards the horizon along converging lines Atmospheric Perspective conveys the impression of depth through a colour shift to blue in the distance, and the use of atmospheric haze. You can still observe in Leonardo's portraits, but it is still a factor in more modern painting like Turner's. The fact is that Asians didn't use Linear Perpective until the arrival of the Westerners, notably the Dutch in Japan, which might have imported their camera obscura and the first lenses.

As an introduction I will post a seminal article from Luminous Landscape: The Synthesis of Chinese Landscape Painting and Photography  By George DeWolfe & Lydia Goetze, and their first diagram here:

3 plane diagram. Please check also Lydia Goetze lovely pictures in China.

By comparison this is the well known linear perspective, that we obtain from cameras:

So, three planes, or stages,  instead of lines converging at the infinite distance. One must remember that the Camera Obscura, was originally invented as an optical help after Giotto, in order to help the painter to dispose objects at a distance in a logical, hierarchical order. Before that, even in Europe all objects (saints, their churches, the countryside) were either on the same plane, or two. Therefore they looked very flat.
China being a Confucian country, kept traditionalist views much longer, and transmitted them from the Ming Court to Japan, by the way of trade.

A Japanese view by Ten-Yu Shokei, 15th CE.

George DeWolfe & Lydia Goetze also insist on the role of Negative Space in Chinese Imagery. I have a theory that this is related to the Taoist and Buddhist views of creative emptiness. How could things simply be if they had no empty space and time in which to flow? And since they are so fleeting, what sort of reality do they have? Thus we are introduced to the world of Samsara, appearance, from which the hermit struggles to reach enlightnment, through the intermediate stage of emptiness, distancing from the ego and from there going to the permanent Self, which is Nirvana. Thus the origin of Negative Space.

I find corroboration of this in the Chinese travelogues of John Blofeld, a Western Buddhist who visited most of the ten sacred mountains of China in the 1930s. Look at Amazon for the Wheel of Life, or Journey in Mystic  China.
Blofeld makes landscape descriptions from the mountains which are almost exact equivalents of the hermit view. They are usually plunging views from a mountain shrine offering the colours of dawn, a rainbow of pure saturated colours, from peach coloured to deep purple, before the retreating shadows,For the fasting hermit nature beauty is already a foreboding of Nirvana.
This plunging perspective on coloured peaks which dominates the foreest, above mists rising from the valley (negative space) while human activity awakes in the foreground is almost exactly the theme of many landscape Chinese and Japanese watercolours

Fisherman by Hirosige

Pilgrim by Kumi Yoshi

The lightness of the paintbrush can evoke a contour with just a line, and use colour patches to suggest the material world. The light touch of the watercolour is not going against the subtle perception of meditation. 
In some landscapes you will also see a tiny line of men in the distance climbing steep passes: they are the pilgrims nearing a sanctuary. While the diagonal line conveys a sense of movement and depth it also shows the pious effort the pilgrims to ascend and reach the steep sancuary of their faith. Note that personal effort is the key of buddhism, where it is also known as 'accumulation of merit'.
Can modern photography even catch such subdued and spiritual feelings? Curiously the photographer I find nearest is Andreas Gurtsky, because he uses masterly the dual aspect of material reality and illusion which is specific of Photography. 

Andreas Gurtsky, Engadine

 Thus I contend that there is a lot to learn in Oriental painting even for a modern photographer. There are also some young Chinese photographers that I follow on flickr, which seem to still use traditional iconography. Let those forgive me if I use some of their pics for didactic use.

Chinese Landscape by  五味雑陳

by  五味雑陳 flickr

In both you will notice the importance of Negative Space.
I do suspect that the mists they make use for Atmospheric Perspective, might be in some cases simply be heavy pollution. Never mind it is still part of reality. :) But enormous rivers like the Yang Tse can also contribute, with their evaporation to plunge the plains in mists.
Let me end here by some other striking difference between our worldviews.
Linear Perspective has emphasized the separation between objects, which are disposed like troops for a review in front of a general.
In so doing it has reinforced our modern sense o duality between subject and object and between matter and spirit (or soul) which is the exact opposite of the Asian concept of Wu Wei: let things be, let them flow, be part of them. 

In Taoism the observer is always part of what he sees. The only Western equivalent that comes to my mind are some descriptions of solitude in the wild in Walden, by Thoreau.
But  he too had to become a hermit, and restrict consumption, to enjoy fusion with nature.
This 'being part of the whole' also helps other photographic genres. It's only when you stop feeling separate from things and beings that you begin perceiving  what is happening. Seeing situations instead  of mere objects.
Because of this fusion with the flowing reality you will soon be able to predict in advance how the flow will progress. Blofeld explained very well how hermits found clairvoyance a very minor consequence of their years of meditation. 
It is not a coincidence then if HCB quoted the book the Zen and the Art of the Archery, to explain his extraordinary awareness. It really has to do little with intellectual perception, the body is involved too in total perception of the whole.
HCB's was Magnum emissary to Asia, and he made good his encounters there. The decisive moment is nothing else than a Zen moment, he discovered. And Negative Space in photography is the canvas of illusion on which you project an image. Thus there is a lot to learn from Oriental painting, especially because it relies on a different worldview from the West.

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Women of Srinagar

Just to make an example, in some languages, Chinese I suspect, one  would never say that one 'shoots' a person or a landscape. It would seem a very unlucky thing to say. And yet Buddhist believe in the instant nature of reality, so meditation is no restriction to the instantaneousness of Photography. One must feel connected.

If one does not feel connected to the landscape one is facing, perhaps a moment or two of meditation might obviate the separation. There is really no separation between Self and landscape if one can suspend exploitative, aggressive attitudes, and concentrate on vision only.
 That might be the teaching of Oriental Art to a mechanical world that got caught in the dualism between subject and object.

To conclude, don't miss this fascinating feature about Nature in Chinese Culture, from the Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, here:


 American Postmodern photographer Jeff Wall makes a peculiar use of a 19th century Japanese print by Hokusai, patiently rebuilding  a windy day  for a photograph, as discussed in my article on Postmodernism

A fleeting world really, which took ONE year to re-compose by computer, by placing each leaflet in a consistent way! Quite a different concept from the original Wu Wei!

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