Questions and answers are powerful means of gleaning information and opinions. Still, while answers are often scrutinized and validated before being accepted as truth, such examination rarely is applied to most questions. If an answer seems plausible, the question is seldom deconstructed. Thus, it is quite easy to lead a curious mind down a futile path by providing well-reasoned answers to nonsensical questions. This does not necessarily imply ill will on the side of either party, but it does suggest a responsibility on the part of anyone addressing important topics to also recognize those situations when the questions are flawed and should not be simply answered as asked.
Especially suspect are questions containing statements of fact. For example: “Since the Earth is flat, how come nobody ever falls off the edge?” If the stated fact is patently incorrect, it is far more useful to address the fault in the question (however well-intentioned) than to venture an answer within the constraints of error or ignorance.
One such question that seems to come up often with regard to photography is: “How can you distill the richness of a multidimensional real-life experience into a two-dimensional rectangular frame?” The correct answer is, obviously, you can’t. But when examined closely, the question itself, no matter how you answer it, does little more than affirm an ignorance of how images are perceived by viewers. The experience derived out of an image is always a different one from that of the photographer present at the scene. But, neither is it limited to two-dimensions.
While seemingly a reasonable question, one has to wonder why writers are never asked how they can relay complex experiences using just a two-dimensional page covered in strange little symbols; and musicians are not asked how they can stir the hearts of listeners using one-dimensional invisible waves.
The more helpful answer is this: The question is meaningless, since it relies on two false assumptions: that photographs (and photographers) are limited in their expressive powers to simple objective recording of appearances, and that the evocative powers of an image are limited to its visual aesthetics alone.
Let’s start with the understanding that an experience is not derived exclusively from the senses. An experience is always the product of a mix of stimuli, sensibilities, memories, beliefs and states of mind. Therefore, an experience, whether triggered by a real-life situation or a photograph, is always multidimensional. It can, therefore, be said that artists don’t just record experiences, they create them for their audiences. These experiences are derived not only from the raw materials, tools and processes used in the creation of a given work, but also from interpretations and meanings originating from the artist’s mind and expressed in their creative choices (from composition to the use of color, line, tone, etc.).
More important is an understanding of how we recall memories. Connections in the brain link data together. A scent may trigger a memory, which is linked to other memories – perhaps of sounds, moods or sensations – which, in turn, may be linked to others. The dimensions – visual, emotional, auditory – are all there in memory. The image is only a starting point for a greater experience.
Taken a step further, though, the actual memories really only exist in the mind of the person who was literally there. An image may tap into more than just memories, though. Color, line and tone may be linked to visceral sensations, to emotions, to moods and concepts that are common to given audiences, perhaps even to all people. This is how we can convey deep meanings through the use of symbols, sounds, euphemisms, etc.
In photography, as in every other medium of art and communication, the finished work can never explicitly contain every related fact and meaning. If the artist is skilled enough, though, they may unfold a complex story by merely arousing the right kind of connotations in their audience, through an understanding of visual perception, of effective metaphors, and of common sensibilities.
Through the power of perception, an artist may literally control the brains of their viewers, prompting them to produce a desired experience and reaction, oftentimes far exceeding the simple graphics contained within the frame.
Viewers of a work of visual art are no different from viewers looking out a window. They may not have the actual experience of being on the other side, but they have enough for their minds to form an idea of what it feels like. Art goes beyond that, though. More than just a window, it is a deliberate arrangement that can be consciously designed to prompt desired reactions.
The missing dimensions are not missing at all; they are manufactured in the mind of the viewer. An artist may opt for the ease of simply relaying objective experiences associated with easily-predictable interpretations, or they can assert control over more nuanced responses by taking the time to study how visual information is converted into perceptions of meaning. The two-dimensional image can answer so much more than simply “What did it look like?”; it can very clearly suggest what “it” sounded like, what it smelled like, what it felt like, or better yet, what the artist wanted the viewer to hear, smell, touch, taste or feel.