David Campany in Conversation with Sebastian Cramer
Sebastian Cramer, Two View on Plants, Hatje Cantz, 2022
Two Views on Plants
English 2022. 192 pp., 130 ills., Hardcover, 29.00 x 30.50 cm, ISBN 978-3-7757-5382-1
The Third Dimension
3D technology is not uncommon—we encounter it in cinema and in the virtual reality of video games. But even though creating an optical illusion of spatial depth, where there is none, is one of the oldest techniques in photography, stereoscopy receives little attention in contemporary photography. Unjustly so, as Sebastian Cramer’s timelessly fascinating works show. It is a unique aesthetic experience that these seemingly alien plants in cyan and red have to offer, which—when viewed through the enclosed 3D glasses—unfold into voluminous photo- graphic sculptures. Two Views on Plants is a book about our visual perception of space that is fundamental to our human experience.
David Campany in conversation with Sebastian CramerJanuary / February 2020, via mail
Sebastian, I am always in two minds about stereo photography (excuse the pun). In one sense it seems oriented towards the future, looking beyond the flat image to something more immersive, perhaps even virtual. At the same time, it seems to point backwards, to the Victorian fascination with stereo imaging in the arts and sciences. So, whenever I put on stereo glasses, I sense I’m looking into the past and the future simultaneously. I’m being offered a new spatial experience, but it also feels like time travel. Is this something you feel too?
There is definitely a retro aspect to it. I had a little stereo viewer when I was a child with images of the Austrian Alps, and each time you clicked, the image switched. Probably everyone has seen those Victorian stereo cards. I also remember an old NASA card from the Apollo mission I had, which was in lenticular. So, you are right, a lot of people think of stereo images as something from the past.
On the other hand, there is stereo vision in virtual reality, in remote surgery or in autonomous driving and all sorts of high-tech stuff. It has some very modern aspects to it. It’s a bit of both, experiencing the past and the future at the same time. Ideally, it’s something beyond time.
Most of the Alcoplants represented in this book have been preserved in alcohol prior to the First World War, at a time when stereo photography was still high in fashion. It’s like looking into a time capsule where history has been preserved.
Your images seem to be a source of pleasure and knowledge, for you and for the viewer. That is to say, they are aesthetic works and documents, with all the ambiguities and potentials this might imply. You have one foot in the arts and one in the sciences. Again, this seems to lead us back to the beginnings of photographic imaging, and the realization among its pioneers – figures such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins – that this ambiguity, or duality, is somehow built into the medium. Photography cannot avoid being document and art. And it’s interesting that at various points in the history of photography, plants have been the subject matter that best exemplifies this. It’s there in the work of Talbot and Atkins. It’s also there in the modernist New Vision photography of Karl Blossfeldt and Albert Renger-Patzsch, and in the work of post-war photographers as varied as Irving Penn and Thomas Struth. In front of the camera the plant becomes an object of study and of aesthetic appreciation. Do you see your own work in these terms.
The fascination for plants across the history of photography and art all together is due to the fact that the image freezes a moment in time. The beauty of a bud, a blossom or a decayed leaf is a reminder that nothing will last as it is. Transience scales this beauty, because the image could only have been captured in this particular moment. The plant’s beauty reflects the plant’s death and even more, our own death.
On the other hand, the lens of the camera is like a magnifying glass, presenting a flower which we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Looking at it in full detail reveals its aesthetic beauty as well the perfection of nature from a scientific point of view. There is pleasure in discovering innocence and purity in unexpected things. This too might have made plants such a timeless subject in art and in photography.
One day I was parking my car close to some railroad tracks in Munich when I discovered an odd white feathery structure in a bush next to my car, looking like a little puffy cloud. It was a ball of Clematis seeds. The images of those single seeds are among my favorite in the book, revealing the most delicate and abstract structures.
You mentioned Talbot and Anna Atkins. It is amazing to see how timeless these very early photograms are. They don’t even appear to be works from the photographic pioneers. In this technique of creating photographic prints without using a camera, dried plants were placed on light-sensitive paper so the shadows of the plants remained white. From a scientific point of view, it was reproducing the exact size and shape of the plant. In the early days of photography, the scientific and artistic approach were very closely linked since photography appeared to be the perfect tool for mass reproduction in research.
The scientific aspect probably became less important in photography over time. More precisely, the approaches of art and science went their separate ways. Photography became the main tool to reproduce scientific images, photography as an art form was now free to further explore its own creative aspects. This is what happened with painting, when photography was introduced. Liberated from its original goal to reproduce reality, painting moved on and evolved into something more abstract.
Blossfeldt was neither a botanist nor a scientist, but a teacher in art and the language of form. He valued the artistic and architectural structures of plants while he focused on their beautiful shapes. His style of photography seemed very scientific though.
Dain L. Tasker’s striking x-rays of plants are another timeless expression of poetry and science in plant photography. The chief radiologist at Wilshire hospital in Los Angeles created an amazing artwork in the 1930s, using a scientific apparatus of photography: the hospital’s x-ray machine.
For over 180 years, plant photography has revolved around the fragility of the object and the sophistication of nature. Regardless of the creative approach, you find this in every plant image past and present.
In our era, photography of plants has evolved even further. Irving Penn celebrated the decay of flowers and their beauty in the moment of death. Then there are the amazing abstract images of pressed plants from Nick Knight’s series „Flora, which is an even further step in deconstructing a traditional flower image.
Today nature is no longer a given thing which will last forever. It is precious and in need of our attention and care. My series of pickled plants in jars reflects the preservation of nature. They had been primed for scientific research at a time when science was innocent, as an attempt to preserve nature in its original form. But what we look at today is rather the ghost of a plant, still beautiful though, but surreal. Viewing the Alcoplants in 3D further enhances the feeling that the flowers are gracefully trapped in their crystal blocks. like Sleeping Beauty.
The fine structures of the decayed leaves in the beginning of this book look like a chaotic mix of lines, when viewed in 2D. The moment you put on the glasses, those lines transform into the leaf’s skeleton, which almost looks like a delicate lace. Photography in general is not only attracting the viewer’s attention, it’s also an invitation to spend time with an image to discover hidden aspects, which may have gone unnoticed otherwise. Adding true depth in 3D will let you discover even more aspects.
What you say about plants in relation to time and the image is important, I think. Yes, in the history of the still life, the ephemerality of the plant was always a symbol of the fleeting character of life itself. But today, of course, any image of a plant is understood under the cloud of ecological catastrophe: it’s not just the individual specimen that is ephemeral but perhaps the whole species. The image of the plant becomes a record of potential loss. And in this scenario, the more detailed the image, the more poignant it becomes. The image becomes the substitute for the missing object.
Yes, this is how I see my work. On one hand you have these fragile objects of grace and perfection in the images of the plants or leaves, on the other hand there are those bottled scientific specimens, trapped in an attempt to preserve nature. When you look at them in depth (here’s another pun), you virtually sense their crystal coffins. So, in a way, the project comprises images and sculptures of potential loss at the same time.
I find these images fascinating, which is a word that is often used in relation to photography (the American art writer Max Kozloff even published a book titled Photography and Fascination). Fascination relates to curiosity, to mystery. Certain subjects for photography, or ways of taking photographs, or ways of looking at photographs may strike us as fascinating. Fascination is a response that to some extent is beyond judgment, beyond any distinction between visual pleasure and visual displeasure. To be fascinated is to be seized, to have one’s critical faculties suspended, or at least put beyond aesthetic criteria, if only temporarily. Sometimes fascination comes from the sheer, compelling strangeness of the photographic appearance of things. Do you feel this way about your project?
It’s actually funny that the word fascination derives from the Latin verb fascinare – to bewitch. Kant referred to fascination as a mental weakness, although that negative connotation has gradually disappeared over time. Fascination triggers curiosity for the obscure. It triggers the subconscious mind to investigate or to let yourself be seduced. Fascination for an image could entail the imagination of possible stories. Wim Wenders considers photos as „stills of films which have never been shot.” Or, like you said, in a more abstract approach, fascination is generated by the pure aesthetics of an image.
In a way those quirky red and cyan lines generate curiosity. Quite a lot of people don’t perceive them as stereo images at first glance. Some don’t even take them for photography at all. Actually, those imprecise color fringes are best known as style elements from Andy Warhol’s famous screen prints. As for the aesthetics of my work, I wanted to create something which is equally satisfying in 2D and in 3D. As you mentioned, the 2D versions are not just alienating the photo with a visually interesting effect in some sort of l’art pour l’art style. You sense that there is some reason to those odd colored fringes, even when you are not relating the images to stereo photography.
In terms of my own fascination with this project, I love the fact that the images morph into photographic sculptures in 3D. By definition, a sculpture is not only a three-dimensional object. It also stands out as an isolated object. I took the same approach in my work by isolating the plants from any background, focusing solely on the shapes, even though some background would have helped a lot from a 3D point of view. I ended up with a simple black or white setting – and a black and white edition. Switching from flat (2D) to volume (3D) means perceiving the same image in two completely different ways with different emotional experiences. Even if one might consider this transition trivial, I still love the moment when flat structures form a spatial order. This hasn’t changed throughout my work on this project.
Being able to experience the same image in completely different ways puts the viewer in a more active position – he has a choice. I often get the feeling that a dialogue between the viewer and the image has started.
What you say about choice is interesting, because there’s such a lot of oscillation going on here, and it makes me think that terms like ‘2D’ and ‘3D’ are too definitive to really get at the in-between qualities your work suggests. After all, when we look at a 2D image that is even slightly illusionistic in its depiction, we don’t see it in 3D, but it’s not exactly ‘flat’ either. Similarly, the sculptural quality of a 3D stereo image isn’t quite 3D. It’s nearly 3D, and this ‘nearly’ must be part of the fascination.
I’m reminded of the stoned character played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts. Someone asks her “What is virtual reality, anyway?” She thinks and replies slowly. “You know what virtual means? It’s like really real. So virtual reality is practically… totally… real …but not.” We are often encouraged to think of the “but not” as a kind of failure of representation, a falling short of the reality it is attempting to describe or recreate. But it isn’t at all. It is the necessary gap that allows us to think about the difference, to oscillate, to choose.
True. And I like oscillation better than choice since we are not having an either/or situation here. Every photo in general provides loads of depth information. It’s in the focus, depth of field, distorted lines, size of objects, contrast, shadows and overlaps. The 3D in my work is not extremely immersive either. When you move, the object bends, slightly distorted. In addition, holding those glasses is causing a rather distant stance since you are not eliminating the surroundings as you would in VR.
It’s also true that a ‘but not’ is evident since it is not a complete restoration of reality. But not… if you look at it as an object which is changing its character, offering a rich blend of options in between. It’s an important aspect of presentation in an exhibition as well. The viewer is not getting glasses to put on, but just those flat paper ones, similar to those in the book. Without this option of switching or oscillating, you would lose the viewer’s experience.
When I first studied photography, one of my tutors said: “If you want to turn the world in front of you into a photograph, close one eye. But if you want to turn a photograph into the world, close one eye.” It was a brilliant insight. A monocular look at the world makes it appear flatter. But when you look at a photo with one eye, the brain tries to fill out the three dimensions.
Great statement! It’s odd, what our brain does with depth perception. On one hand it seems to be somehow addicted to binocular vision. It wants to experience the world with two eyes so much that it is getting very creative in providing this feeling, up to a degree, that it almost recreates the third dimension, when we look at a photo with one eye.
When it is offered binocular vision, the brain reacts with relief, or let’s call it the Wow moment, which can be considered as pleasing or cheap, depending on what you think of 3D in general. But after a while the brain gets used to it, it gets lazy and the three-dimensional view wears out. I mostly find the first 10 minutes in a 3D movie fantastic but after a while, I almost forget I bought a ticket for the 3D version. An experienced stereographer in cinema is reducing deliberately the amount of 3D in several scenes to reset the brain to work against this wear-out effect. I guess, we desperately want to see the world in three dimensions but when we do, it doesn’t matter so much anymore.
I wonder if that dynamic of great excitement turning to familiarity somewhat explains the curious status that stereo photography and stereo cinema have had for a long while now – never quite being accepted, yet never disappearing, and so resurging regularly.
3D has been through a stormy relationship with the public over the decades, with its ups and downs most visible in cinema. One of the reasons for those waves might be that it is so easy and tempting to create visual excitement by aiming a spearhead directly into the viewer’s face. The brain will react immediately with some satisfaction, but once you understand it is not embedded in the story or context, it will leave you disappointed and betrayed.
But there are some brilliant and thoughtful 3D films like Wim Wenders „Pina“, Ang Lee’s „Life of Pi“, or Alfonso Cuarón’s „Gravity“, which are completely different in genre and style. But what they have in common is a deep understanding for the specific requirements of 3D storytelling. To make an example: the most common setup in film since sound was introduced is the classical over shoulder shot in a dialogue scene. While in 3D the worst possible setup you can imagine is the classical over shoulder shot in a dialog scene, because you end up with a half cut back of a person, sticking out of the screen, interfering with the frame edges and gaining too much importance. You cannot work in 3D just by using a 3D camera. It’s so much easier to abuse 3D than to use it carefully.
I guess with stereo photography there’s also the feeling of being ‘locked in’ to a technology of vision. When viewing stereo images, it’s not possible to simply look away, avert one’s eyes, displace one’s gaze easily onto something else. One has to commit to it, with a kind of intensity that can be liberating or oppressive. Like being in a tunnel. Perhaps this is another reason why stereo imaging has never, may never, become the norm of visual culture.
The dependency on tools is a serious drawback. Even when stereo photography was blooming in the 19th century, it was criticized as a selfish pleasure since the experience is somewhat isolated. Denis Pellerin points this out in his introduction to this book. 150 Years later, we are facing exactly the same objection in VR. I never thought a classical 3D viewer would be an option for what I had in mind, because I wanted to work with large scale prints, allowing the gaze to wander around, exploring the details. The prints are roughly 4 by 5’, so there is quite a lot to explore.
Having those light paper glasses seemed to be the least intrusive form of looking at the work. You’re free to look around wherever you’d like. You can switch from 2D to 3D in a split second and find out if a poetic secret is embedded in the space between you and the image. You have a point when you say that stereo photography never even got close to being the norm of visual language. Quite the contrary, stereo photography has been more or less expelled from photography for more than hundred years. Which appears strange, as it is so close to how we see the world.
Binocular vision works best within arm’s length. The further away things are, the flatter they seem, because the parallax is less effective. Does this mean stereo imaging is most effective with relatively small objects/spaces? And is there an optimal size for the final images? You make your work for the scale of the book page, and larger for the gallery wall. Is one scale more effective than the other?
The answer might get a little technical here. The amount of stereo we are seeing in a photo or on screen is determined be the viewing angle, which is the ratio of width and distance to the image. My images are composed for a viewing distance of something like 1,5 times the width of the image. This means the stereo works as well in this book as it would on a wall with large 4×5’ prints, because they maintain the same viewing angle.
It’s funny, but it actually seems that the viewer intuitively adjusts his personal viewing distance according to the size of an image, probably to perceive the entire composition as a whole. He might step closer after a few moments, to see something in more detail. But it looks like there is an ideal viewing angle for images in general, regardless of their own size. It could be interesting scientific research, but I would assume an ideal viewing distance is somewhere in the range of 1,5 times the width of an image. Does size matter? Yes. But not in terms of the stereo. An Andreas Gursky photo in a book is not a Gursky on the wall. Being able to face the images in large format and letting the view wander around is certainly more impressive.
But it’s true, the distance matters as well, since it is affecting the viewing angle. Stepping back from the image increases the stereo effect and coming closer makes it flatter. I’m working on a series of 3D portraits, not quite as big as Thomas Ruff’s work, but still about 4 x 5’. If you come really close to look at the eye of the person, it is obviously getting flatter, but you still see enough volume in the pupil, the iris and eye lashes.
I love the idea of looking at a single eye in stereo! But it makes me think of another matter, and that’s to do with the fact that we cannot look with our two eyes at the two eyes of another person. Clear vision, binocular vision, only works because our two eyes converge to focus on one point. We cannot actually “look someone in the eyes”; we have to oscillate, although we can look them in the eye, one eye. Now, I am guessing here, but I suspect that when we look at a regular photograph, we intuit that its origin is a single eye, a monocular source, the individual lens (even when the camera is being operated by a binocular person).
But with stereo imaging we are confronted with the idea of a double origin, a split origin, two lenses. This double origin is at once similar to our own vision and yet it’s a disturbing idea. We cannot quite come to terms with it.
True, you cannot focus on two eyes at the same time. You are unconsciously swapping from one eye to the other. Unless you are really close to the other, it’s hard to tell which eye your vis-à-vis is looking at. As a child I felt uncomfortable looking someone in the eyes until I got told: „Boy, just look at their nose and they won’t notice.“ It worked and helped me to deal with this anxiety for a long time.
If you look at a photo, your eyes are constantly scanning the image. They jump from shape to shape and from contour to contour, ignoring flat surfaces. Your brain compares the information and comes to the conclusion that the distance between those contours is not changing between the left and the right eye. In other words, both images are identical: this must be a flat photo.
If you are looking at a stereo photo your eyes proceed the same way. Again, your brain compares the information, yet coming to the conclusion that the images are not identical. We have contours here that are closer or further away from each other, which is visible in the offset of the red and cyan lines. These contours must be somewhere in space and the brain is merging it all together to an image with full depth.
This works well if the separation between the two eyes is good (which is not super ideal with red/cyan) and the cameras are well aligned and not too far away from each other. Otherwise, the brain is at its limit: it refuses to process the information: „Sorry, I don’t have a clue how this all can relate, I’m out.“ It might start to question the process of how this image was shot at this point, but not earlier.
The way we see a 3D photo or film is not different from our normal vision. As long as you are offering information which makes sense to the brain, it is not questioning whether it was shot in binocular vision.
So, is the best stereo image the one that “works” best?
The best stereo image is a good photo in which depth is adding something to the emotional experience. The technical aspect of stereo should work, but I consider it as a rather uninteresting aspect. No one would ask a photographer how he is setting his aperture.
Agreed. Transcending novelty has been hard to achieve in stereo imaging. I guess it is much easier in still imaging than cinema, since cinema’s budgets, especially for stereo, tend to push the product towards mass entertainment and spectacle. Have you seen Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D film, „Goodbye to Language“? I think it is remarkable. Decades ago, Godard had argued that great depth of field (he was thinking of Welles’s film Citizen Kane) was in itself a kind of utopian montage or collage, because the viewer was free to look at anything in the frame. Background, foreground, faces, objects, spaces. „Goodbye to Language“ is a film about everyday life, everyday relationships, everyday things. But it is a profound shock to see domestic settings in 3D on the big screen, rather than monsters, or arrows or spaceships. Of course, it’s not a populist movie, and screenings of it are very rare.
No, I haven’t seen it. I heard a few things about the film. It seems to break the rules of filmmaking and stereo imaging even further. I’m not sure if it goes in a direction of how I could or would like to work, but obviously it is proving that this medium still holds tremendous potential for new aesthetics and correlations.
Despite the economic issues in cinema, it seems there has been more far more experimentation and exploration going on for a few exciting years in film than in photography, where I can hardly see anything at all. As you said, this comes as a surprise, considering the high costs of 3D in filmmaking compared to photography.
What you are bringing up here is quite interesting. I am even touched. The time around the end of the first decade of the new millennium was a moment when 3D reappeared extremely strongly in film, mostly related to the crazy success of Avatar in 2009. But even before, you could sense there was something in the air. I founded a company about six months prior to the release of Avatar to develop and build gear for 3D films. It was an exciting time. I actually took quite a risk, as I put virtually everything I had into this business. One of the most intriguing aspects was the feeling of breaking ground together. No one really had an idea if and how this new technique would influence storytelling, but it was clear it somehow would. It was obvious it needed some form of rethinking and a new definition of rules. One could not refer to something already existing and repeat the medium itself, but how hard is it to find unexplored territory in our time? I felt I had to take the chance, as it might not come again. And yet, looking back at those crazy years leaves me with a feeling of a missed opportunity. The majority just switched from a 2D to a 3D camera without rethinking what they were doing. They kept shooting the same over shoulder dialogue scenes like they did for the past decades. In general, the lack of exploration and experimentation was one of the main reasons why 3D failed in film.
A last question. What have you found in photography?
When the craze for 3D cinema was in full swing, I was wondering at some point how photography would be dealing with the creative issues of stereo imaging. The more I researched, the more it became obvious there were no answers, because no questions had ever been raised. This left me curious. I started experimenting with stereo photography in 2013 and realized that the rules of 3D in cinema could not be applied here. New rules had to be explored, rules to follow or to break. An area of unexplored creative territory lay ahead of me. In photography I found what I had been looking for in film.
After the economic pressure and the creative restraints in film, I created for myself a heaven of freedom. I became an auteur of my work and I haven’t been able to stop working ever since.
We live in a time which is getting faster and faster. We constantly have to deliver in almost every aspect of our life. Photography slows you down and allows to rethink what you are doing. It’s not only in the process of making photos. Every photo is a frozen moment of time, but finally somehow separated from the flow of life.
The greatest benefit in photography is the fact, that it offers unlimited access to the most valuable asset needed in a creative process… TIME.