A Mona Lisa Called CheriWednesday, October 25, 2017
Why do eyes follow you in paintings and photographs?
I have asked myself this question many times but thanks to Google I finally have the answer below.
My first practical experience in this not-so-rare phenomenon started by my going in the late 70s to what was then in Vancouver called a show lounge. This was a euphemism for a strip joint. And the dancers in stripper joints were called exotic dancers. The first dancer I saw at the Drake that first time was called Emma Peel. She was just about 5ft tall in later years when I got to know her I found out everybody called her English Anna.
But it was another dancer, Cheri that immediately caught my eye. She had bangs and the longest legs I had ever seen in a creature besides the-to-me familiar Argentine ostrich. In fact some years later she managed to break her nose with one of her legs and aided by her extreme flexibility.
I was able to photograph her not soon after in my crude Burnaby basement studio. And that is when I took the picture you see here in which her eyes follow you.
Why do eyes follow you? I found it here.
The answer is simple: photograph, or paint, the face looking straight out. If it’s a photograph they must look straight at the lens of the camera. In the words of James Todd of Ohio State University, one of authors of the study, ‘If a person in a painting is looking straight out, it will always appear that way, regardless of the angle at which it is viewed’
How does it work? First of all, this is only possible because pictures and paintings aren’t 3D. They are semblances of 3D on a flat surface. This stops our brains calculating depth by comparing the images in the two eyes (how our brain calculates depth in images is covered in the book). Instead, our brains rely on other cues to depth, such as shading (the use of shadows to imply depth) and movement (all this is also covered in the book).
The explanation lies in how we interpret three-dimensional objects portrayed on a flat surface. Real three-dimensional objects look different depending on the angle because of the changing way light falls across them. But on the flat canvas, shading and light are fixed and the image looks the same from every angle. If the face is looking straight out from one angle, it will appear to be looking straight out at whatever angle it is viewed at.
In fact the only clue that the object in a picture isn’t really looking straight out is that the near side of an object should get smaller if you look at it from one side. This doesn’t happen in a natural way with a painting. Theoretically your visual system could use this information to figure out that pictures of objects aren’t real and thus the eyes aren’t really following you around the room, but it appears that they don’t. The contradictory information is either overridden or disregarded.
And thanks to my 13 year-old Photoshop and its patch tool I have minimized the two bits of her chest. Cheri had the loveliest chest around and a smile that could conquer deep depression in anybody. Best of all Cheri danced to the music of one of my favourite Vancouver pop bands of the time Maurice and the Cliches.
I am now 75 and I have photographic information in my brain that I believe I will die with. That seems to be a shame. In the 80s and 90s I was constantly phoned by young photographers with questions on how I had done this or that.
These days I get calls from 800 numbers and I am being offered burial plots at a bargain!
These Cheris and many others of those late 70s and 80s were the only way that at the time I could experiment with figure photography. These exotics were extremely patient and with them I honed my lighting techniques, tried out different films and cameras, and learned stuff that I can now apply without thought as it is wired into my brain.