Here’s Looking at You
By John Warden
This article was first published in the Fall 2015 edition of Nature Alberta Magazine.
In the early years of the Second World War against the backdrop of a foggy Casablanca airport in French Morocco, Humphrey Bogart touches Ingrid Bergman’s face and utters one of the top ten movie quotes of all time. “Here’s looking at you kid”. The camera closes in on Bergman’s face, a three quarter profile, her teary left eye, placed exactly on the vertical center line of the movie screen.
The movie Casablanca was released in 1942; but the technique of placing a portrait subject’s dominant or closest eye on the vertical centre line originated some four hundred years earlier. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa as an early example, but other master portrait artists like Sandro Botticelli, Titian, Peter-Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn, all used this same technique in their portraits (Tyler, 2007). Christopher Tyler, a psycho-physicist and head of the Brain Imaging Center at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, explains that this was an intuitive technique of the master portrait artists that was purposely used to create a sense of engagement between the portrait subject and the painting’s audience. After scientifically analyzing the paintings of 282 portrait artists, covering a span of 600 years, Tyler is able to speak with some authority on the importance of this technique:
The details of the analyses make clear that the vertical centered eye principle is only one of many operating in portrait composition and should not be [considered] as an obligatory principle for portrait design, but rather, as a power locus that can be used to generate the sense of a penetrating consciousness in the [subject], if that is the artist’s intent.
Art critics have long been talking about the penetrating consciousness of Mona Lisa’s gaze, of how her eyes seem to follow you anywhere you move in the exhibition room, and the position of her dominant eye at the center line of da Vinci’s canvas is perhaps one of the reasons.
The Renaissance Masters chose people as the subject of their portraits, but their technique of a vertically centered dominant eye, crosses genres and applies to wildlife photography as well.
I was eye to eye with a young coyote one morning at Elk Island National Park and trying to capture that sense of a penetrating consciousness is definitely what I was hoping to achieve when I pressed the shutter release on my camera. I’d been sitting on the edge of the parkway watching some ducks dabbing in a nearby pond when I noticed the coyote approaching. He was nose to the ground, following a scent of some sort and wasn’t at all interested in me or the ducks. He passed within a few feet of me and as he did so, I got some nice close-up shots.
In after shot editing, I followed the lessons from Leonardo, and placed the coyote’s dominant eye on the vertical centreline of my frame and then cropped the image for maximum effect. The coyote’s eyes are certainly the resulting centre of attention and there is definitely a sense of penetrating consciousness. Part shadow, part light, the coyote’s face conveys a self-assured sneakiness. This is the coyote from the stories of the Cree and the Blackfoot; the shape shifter and trickster. This is also the coyote of Norse legends, Loki, the mischievous one, laughing to himself saying “you didn’t think I’d come this close did you? Here we are, me looking at you.”
What a moment, what an opportunity, what an image. The penetrating consciousness of coyote distilled to its very essence in a digital portrait. Capturing that essence and in doing so, telling its story, is the purpose of portraiture and such opportunities abound for the wildlife photographer. My mountain goat portrait, photographed at the Kerkeslin Goat Lick on the Icefields Parkway uses the same dominant eye centering technique, but here, the goat’s essence is of a soft thoughtfulness that speaks to the heart. This is da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in the tranquil guise of a young mountain goat.
My last example is a photograph from what was the Tangle Ridge View Point on the Ice Fields Parkway. You can’t stop there to see the goats anymore; the viewpoint has been replaced by Brewster’s Glacier Discovery Skywalk. Eight years ago though, there were goats there and this young one seemed to be trying to communicate with me.
“What do you know about this skywalk thing?”
“Nothing good. In the people world, there was a guy named Aldo Leopold, who knew a lot about ecology, the environment and ethics. He said that ethical behaviour is doing the right thing when no one else is watching - even when doing the wrong thing is legal. It seems to me they’re going to do the wrong thing here.”
And they did.
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman would, as they said in the movie Casablanca, “always have Paris”. Me, I’ll always have the look on the face of that young mountain goat, from the time before the Skywalk.
“Thanks for the conversation and spending some time with me little goat, you got me thinking about what’s right and wrong and what’s ethical. Well, time for me to go, but before I do, you know I’ve got to say it ...here’s looking at you - kid!”
Tyler, C. W. (2007). Some principles of spatial organization in art. Spatial Vision, Volume 20, Issue 6 , 509 - 530.