The biology of seeing

I came across this lone maple leaf on a vast lawn of seaweed at low tide. To me this image is about texture and contrast. Not a gorgeous scenic, but an intimate pleasing composition. My eye is drawn to the bottom third of the image where the rock is peeking out amidst three waves of seeweed, and then my eyes naturally wander to the maple leaf and the dark upper patch of seaweed.

On page 78 of her book, “Vision and Art, The Biology of Seeing”, Margaret Livingstone talks about work done by A. L. Yarbus, a Russian psychologist who put trackers on contact lenses on subject’s eyes and monitored where their gaze fell while they looked at a series of pictures. What he found was that people tend strongly to look at portions of the picture where there is fine detail and high-contrast. There is a striking picture on p. 79 of Livingstone’s book where she shows the results of Yarbus’ work. You can see superimposed on the painting exactly where one person looked.

I’ve never forgotten this, and now I try to pay attention to exactly where I look in a scene. A photographer I know (Richard Newton at Univ. of Massachusetts) once told me that a good photograph naturally leads one’s eyes around the image in a pleasing manner. I think this is good advice and Yarbus’ work tells us that we can use contrast and detail to help assist in making pleasing compositions.

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