Peter FitzGerald: Rotated Works: Land, Portrait, Built (e-books 2018)

The artist (he is a painter) selects photographs from archives and turns them 90 degrees either way.

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Ansel Adams: Detail of Cactus “Saguaros, Saguro National Monument,” Arizona; National Archives, #519974

FitzGerald invites the reader / viewer thus:

“Look at a ‘great’ photo – that is, a photo by one of the many great photographers. Rotate it 90 degrees (either way). Are you seeing new things / new aspects / a different story in the photo? Almost certainly the answer is ‘yes’; the photo is showing you something you hadn’t registered before. The message has changed – unsurprisingly – between the physical thing and you.”

In the illustration above the meaning of the portrait of a cactus morphs into appendages of an alien, as if a tolerant monster calmly allows human fingers, the index finger is still pointing, to nestle in the cavity.  It also looks like a torso of a figure in protective clothing.

On what does this morphing depend? The details are clearly defined, there is no deformation of the whole, the acuity of vision is not in any way impaired.  The knowledge what a cactus looks like also collaborate.  I trust there is a secret working of play and imagination.

As children, we would hang head-down from farming instruments, railings and tree branches to see the same world “wrongly”.  In hindsight, it seems like a training in differences triggered by one’s position in the world, but then it was just daring and play.  Growing up, we dare less and play less.

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Carleton Watkins: [Mirror. The Three Brothers.], 1880; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Reflection in water easily triggers both admiration and a strong – almost mythical – force of beauty. Its power is enhanced by the removal of the practical aspect – like safety, a direction of walking, etc.

FitzGerald’s offer is an invitation to recover some of both, they cultivate our powers to recognise differences and to make comparisons. Both are perceived as significant for the cognitive process. Armin W Schultz recently advanced some of the arguments in an example of a decision whether to accept a new job:

“What makes it exciting for cognitive scientists is that, in making this decision, you mentally represent the different factors that go into it (what it is like to accept the job, what your current situation is like, and so on), and then act based on these mental representations.” (

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Ansel Adams: View with Shadowed Ravine, “Grand Canyon from South Rim, 1941,” Arizona; National Archives, #519885

He defines “internal models: intermediaries between the world and your reactions to the world”; it appears as the same space where aesthetic experience lives.  The sublime rock valley appears to overwhelm any viewing angle.  In this right turn the rocks nonchalantly drop the narrative of human presence that is quite strong when seen upright.   Schultz significantly zooms in on the “meaning” of our mental representations: “To the extent that it moves you at all, it does so via the way it is represented in your mind.” 

What is this “via the way”? Is it distinct from knowing what and from knowing how?  I sense that it offers the viewer freedom in constructing a meaning.  This statement holds an implication that there are differences in representation of the world in our mind.  FitzGerald sees it as meddling with smooth perceptions and gives an example from Modernism:

“‘Verfremdung’, ‘making-strange’: by distancing us from the commonplace and making it seem odd, we see the everyday differently and hopefully in a new way. The process is discomfiting. We’re used to perception and interpretation functioning seamlessly, and Verfremdung-like effects mess with the underlying processes on which smooth reception relies.”

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Eugène Atget: [Wheat], 1900; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
In the above cluster  – the smooth reception happens… the wheat in both an upright and rotated variant appear convincingly growing and entangled. The change of viewing angle is subtly disabled by the multitude of directions taken by individual stems.

The concept of making strange has a sibling: in ‘Art as Technique’ (1917) Viktor Shklovsky calls it defamiliarisations / foregrounding.  Also, the aesthetic function’s ability to switch meaning, as observed by  Jan Mukařovský in Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts (publ 1936), introduced foregrounding with a difference: aesthetic function is transparent and can switch meaning by attaching itself to different social contexts. Can it switch meaning by attaching itself to different viewpoints?  No doubt. The European painting offers a multitude of examples between use and not use of perspective.  This image offers an optical illusion: what was the overgrown ground  I see as a sunlit tree on the left – why do the tiny scale of the trees and house at the top of cliff appear like an uneven edge of rock sliced off from the big mass?

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Ansel Adams: Rock Formation, from Below, “In Zion National Park,” Utah; Library of Congress

However, the process is not easily described; Wellek and Warren also referred to it in their Theory of Literature published in 1949: “Poetic language organises, tightens, the resources of everyday language, and sometimes does even violence to them, in an effort to force us into awareness and attention … every work of art imposes an order, an organisation, a unity on its material” (my emphasis).

Turning an image is a kind of violence. FitzGerald proposes that it enhances awareness and trains attention.  No doubt, it does redirect attention, replaces some of the meaning. But not always. So when? What is the constellation of conditions that will secure that change?  When metamorphosis takes over is one of the constellation of conditions.  Below, the monstrous head is convincing. 

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Carleton Watkins: [Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point], 1865 – 1866, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Leonardo defined seeking meaning in stains on the wall and clouds as a training for painters, as an inspiration to make mute poetry.  Here the defining trope caresses the contrast between dark and light.

It is possible that nature is more susceptible to morphing into something it is not?

Schultz questions why we need mental representation on top of reflexes, habits and conditional behaviour. Why does our organism allow it?  He points out that habitual thinking carries a great deal of redundancy.  Whereas mental representations allow reasoning without such waste: “… the organism can streamline its decision-making machinery.” If so it should apply to human bodies. 

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Heinrich Kühn: Miss Mary [Warner] at Her Night Table, 1907; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
The rotated photograph of the woman in her bedroom (above) replaces the atmosphere of the calm private moment with an unexplained upheaval. She is falling or searching under the bed, keeping the certainty inaccessible in the dark nothingness. That creates mystery where there was a narrative.

The question arises, when is the experiential narrative replaced?  And why it works without any change to the detail? What are the constellations of conditions for this convincing lie?  Is viewing angle stronger than the intended composition?

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Gordon Parks: Washington, D.C. Government charwoman; Library of Congress, #20540

There is no metamorphosis. Clarity of the image forbids entry to fantasy – it is what it is. Classicism at work: clarity, order, emphasis on austere linear design in the depiction of classical themes and subject matter, using archaeologically correct settings and costumes.  The authority of the original photography allows me to see this only as unchanged by rotation.  However – something changed, even if subtly: in an upright view I sense the pulse of life, on this rotated version the life form is once removed, it is a print presented sideways. So rotating may also take away.

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Julia Margaret Cameron: The Vision of Infant Samuel, about 1865; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Almost an opposite happens above.  The rotated version conjures up that the subject of the gaze is above that corner. In the original,  its siting is somewhere around there on the parallel in front.

What happens when there is more than one subject? In addition, this photograph turns each of the three figures around a different axis.  Upright the man is the vertical centre, one young listener comes from the depth,  the other from the front and engages me with direct gaze out.  This dynamic of volumes becomes flattened in the rotated version  The volumes flatten, his left hand could be mistaken for hers (in a split second only before the eye attends the signs of age), his other hand orders my eye to get out of frame,  and the little girl is the only one upright, real, domineering. As if standing in front of a painting leaning sideways at the wall.

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Julia Margaret Cameron: The Whisper of the Muse / Portrait of G.F. Watts, April 1865; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The classic principle of “moira” – measure – comes to mind as one key.  In parallel Italo Calvino introduced the value we should protect: “exactitude” as in the ancient Egyptians’ Maat definition of a standard brick and of a fundamental note on the flute. (Six memos…, p55). Calvino lists three conditions:

  1. a well-defined plan: FitzGerald’s decision to turn images by 90 degrees is demonstrably that.
  2. an evocation of … memorable visual image: this is not guaranteed for all of FitzGerald’s samples.
  3. as Calvino thinks of literature he defines this condition as “a language as precise as possible both in a choice of words and in the expression of subtleties of thoughts and imaginations” (ibidem,  p56)


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Berenice Abbott: Chanon Building, New York; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Given our familiarity with flying rotating this image adds height to the viewer’s viewpoint,  a habitual surrender.  Not so when the original image transforms so much that its rotated version rounds on imaginary truth.

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David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Plate 32 – Close, No. 128 Saltmarket, 1868-1871; National Gallery of Art

The windows obediently become flat rectangles on a flat floor with derelict construction that leads nowhere.  Is it sky or smoke? That question is one of many raised by rotation of the perfectly understandable descriptive image.  It amazes me how the rational correctness disappears so completely by turning the viewing angle.   The change is convincing in its clarity, akin to Magritte’s rock in the sky.   Where it indulges in intimate feelings it reminds me of the testimony by Rothko.

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Berenice Abbott: Manhattan Bridge, Manhattan; New York Public Library

In parallel to Calvino’s reasoning, I sense that photography is used in a random, careless manner, flooding our perception. Indeed, we live “in an unending rainfall of images.” He proposes that images are being stripped of the “inner inevitability that ought to mark every image as form and as meaning, as a claim on the attention and as a source of possible meaning” (p57).   I do not doubt that the photographs of bridges are ubiquitous.  In the upright view, Abbott presents form and function with clarity in crisp successful choices.  At first, I ignored the pedestrians, and read it as two roofs at different height, the one on the left unfinished.  The juxtaposition of full and empty harmoniously supported my incorrect identification of what it was I saw.  I prefer it for allowing me to insert different meaning into clear description. The rotation found an opening for imagining what it may be.

There is a caveat: Calvino adheres to Giacomo Leopardi’s thought that “the more vague and imprecise language is, the more poetic it becomes” … and in turn, given Mukarovsky’s offer of a transparent aesthetic, function more powerfully to produce multiple mental representations. Or at least to revive the power to do so.

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Berenice Abbott: Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan; New York Public Library

So – what is the power of Pythagorean geometry?

Elegant equations suggest some perfection, gracefulness and pleasure; the right angle is not formless, random or confused.  A right-angle turn may be sufficient and necessary to create another valuable version of what the lens saw – or insufficient or unnecessary.

(more on a constellation of conditions in  J L MACKIE, The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation, Clarendon Press (1980))

My last example entangles angles and clarity of meaning with morphing with such a freedom that it succeeded in making me smile.

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Eadweard Muybridge: First Order Light-House At Punta De Los Reyes; Wikimedia

No doubt my seeing the head of a medieval warrior with a lighthouse for a hat was not intended.  The rotation freed it from the artist’s intention, making space for mine, as a viewer.

On fast viewing FitzGerald’s three e-books –  Land succeeded more often than Portrait and Built.  In particular, in Portrait there was not enough emptiness to fill or replace,  or  the right-angle turn was not powerful enough to remove the original meaning or to shift the image beyond an awkward to a persuasive new experience.  Those multiple stages of departure from the original intention highlight that the rotation needs to switch on the power to replace the original optical perception.  At times, I concluded, 90 degrees is too feeble to achieve change, but FitzGerald offers contrary evidence.


Images courtesy Peter FitzGerald.


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Slavka Sverakova

writer on art

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