An impressive thunderstorm congealed in the Durham sky late one recent afternoon. People tilted their heads to gape at the undersides of loaded clouds. But they stuck their phones between their eyes and those clouds. Their apps turned the storm into an Internet event rather than a meteorological one.
While watching television the other night, I figured I'd tally up the ads that had computer-altered footage in them. Every one, without exception, was entirely or mostly the product of CGI. I picked up the magazines from the coffee table to scan the adverts—same thing. Although advertising isn't a realm in which to expect reality, I'm aware of how its manufactured imagery has re-coded my visual expectations through its sheer repetition.
Once you've scrolled through enough snaps onscreen, and once you've apprehended so much computer-generated and enhanced imagery, the real world goes virtual in front of your eyes. And virtual imagery is flat. You don't live in it, you click on it.
Amid all the images, seeing is half-exhausted. This isn't really something to mourn, however. It's something to acknowledge so we might determine how to re-apprehend the world as a participant. Thinking is the new seeing.
CAM Raleigh gives us the opportunity to practice that with its first show of photography, Melanie Schiff's The stars are not wanted now: Selected photographs 2006-2012. In 24 large color prints taken during a period in which she moved from Chicago to the outskirts of Los Angeles, Schiff offers significance over image, challenging you to participate in your engagement with the pictures.
"I'm interested in how we occupy space and how we experience it," Schiff says as we tour the exhibition. "There's a lot of that that's related to the act of making the photograph, because you're noticing and looking at the space and you're trying to both capture it and relate it back to someone who isn't there."
At first glance, most of her images are unremarkable. The front window of a suburban ranch house displays decorative objects centered in each pane. A large potted plant sits in a hot tub's basin, basking beneath a skylight. In dusty scrub hills on that suburb's perimeter, architectural leftovers molder. A bloodstained length of driftwood rests on the rocky shore of a dusky lake.
The images as such aren't as interesting as why Schiff chose to take them. But you have to deduce her impulse before you can see it. By the time I was halfway through the exhibition, I was sorting the photographs into two categories: ritual and light.
"Chimney" (2012) is about as static and formalist as Schiff gets. The image centers upon a standalone stone chimney at the end of a scarred concrete pad. Beneath a featureless near-twilight sky, California hills ascend to either side in the background and leafless trees peer in from the sides of the image. You've seen this kind of image a hundred times—suburban perimeter ruins. But the more you look, the more your eyes go to the atmospheric light rather than the subject. You look around the chimney. The chimney vanishes.
Schiff's concerns with light's substance retrieve the image from being a mere compositional exercise. She guesses that she visited the site at least seven times to try to get the nature of the light to register inside her camera. It finally took an exposure of 10-20 seconds to saturate the film to match the sense she got from actually being there.
Schiff shoots film rather than digital because of how light registers dimensionality.
"I grew up in Chicago, and even when I was in New York, I understood Midwestern light and I had a real reaction to it," she says. "In California, the light is so crisp and different. The light in the Midwest was rounder, whereas the light in California is long. When the sun's coming down, it has more of a length to it than a shape to it."
Long versus round light sounds abstruse, but you can see Schiff wrestling with it in a lot of these photographs. In "Spit Rainbow" (2006), she's standing in angular, late-afternoon light beneath a backyard lemon tree spraying a mouthful of water right at the camera so that it makes a rainbow in the air in front of her.
Schiff's other mode of attention seeks to record a sense of ritual in the image. Almost every picture presents an unpeopled location, but it's one that certain people visit to perform a certain activity. Some of these images might be more appropriate in an evidence locker than on a gallery wall.
"Clay Birds" (2012), shot in the same hills as "Chimney," shows an improvised shooting range. Spent shells and ammo boxes litter the foreground in front of a section of cliff face made red by the fragmentation of the clay targets. Schiff's connection between the shooting of guns and cameras is more than wordplay. She retains lens flare sunspots in the photograph, implicating her photographic act, the act of aiming at something.
I couldn't stop looking at "Glass House," another run-of-the-mill suburban scene, but I couldn't really say why until my inner cultural anthropologist spoke up. Taken from the vantage of the sidewalk, a bay window is divided into 15 white squares, each containing a colorful glass vase or pitcher like a museum display. White vertical blinds prevent you from seeing into the presumable living room behind it.
It isn't a picture of a window full of objects. It's a picture of Schiff thinking about who would collect and display these objects this way. It's a consideration, not an image.
Schiff and I stood in front of the picture for a long time, mulling it. She drives past this house a lot, and every time she notices it. As with "Chimney," she shot this picture many times at different times of the year. It's a double ritual—the resident's curated display and Schiff's iterative photographing of it.
"A lot of my decisions are from noticing something and then going back and trying to capture it," she says. "I've become more interested in that, moving to California. There's a real history in that."
A camera can't see an idea. Film can only register light bouncing off objects. But human sight can do more. A person can see what has happened in a place, and why that has happened, by thinking through the image. A person can see meaning. And Melanie Schiff can photograph it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Thinking is the new seeing."