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Encountering the Sidelong Glance

The first time I became aware of the phrase a Sidelong Glance referring to photography was while reading about the work of Robert Frank. In 1955, Frank set off in an old used car to photograph America. A selection of the photographs was published in a controversial landmark book The Americans. The photographs are often askew, partial, unbalanced, definitely giving the impression of being seen from the corner of the eye.

Geoff Dyer in his article The Road to Nowhere in The Guardian, discusses how Robert Frank travelled the US taking artfully empty pictures of 'the most banal things'. The following are excerpts from the article that give some insight to Frank and his photography.

"I love to watch the most banal things," Frank has said, "things that move." Many of the pictures - even those taken from a stable, fixed spot - look like they were taken on the move. [ ] In Frank's pictures, it is as if the camera only just succeeded in stopping time. [ ] The pictures are apparently so casual as to seem hardly worth dwelling on.

The sense of being constantly in motion contributes to what has often been remarked on: the grim, bleak quality of Frank's pictures. But there is also a snatched, self-cancelling lyricism, a grainy yearning that never quite has the opportunity to manifest itself fully.

However unprecedented, there is usually something familiar about Frank's photos, some vestige of an earlier, safer pictorial logic whose packaging has been deliberately discarded.

What makes Frank unique, according to Wim Wenders, is an ability "to take pictures out of the corners of his eyes".

Diane Arbus noticed "a kind of hollowness in his work". "I don't mean hollow like meaningless," she explains. "I mean his pictures always involve a kind of non-drama... a drama in which the centre is removed. There's a kind of question mark at the hollow centre of the sort of storm of them, a curious existential kind of awe."

It is perhaps the most extreme example of the hollowness or non-drama - "a drama in which the centre is removed" - that Arbus had noticed, in that this absent centre extends to the very edges of the frame. Frank had a fondness for what he called "in-between moments"; in this instance, though, the in-betweenness has been extended, like the road in the middle distance, indefinitely.
The full article can be read at:

Defining the Sidelong Glance

Trying to define a sidelong glance is about as difficult as trying to define love. The phrase has many meanings to different people and in different contexts. These meanings carry inexpressible nuances that are nonetheless understood.

A dictionary defines a sidelong as slanting, sloping, toward one side, sideways in an oblique manner and glance as a gaze directed briefly. A cursory definition of a Sidelong Glance could be a brief glaze directed, diagonally, crosswise askew, or askant. Asquint is also sometimes used to qualify such a glance.

If one adds an element of intention, a Sidelong Glance could be said to be rakish or even seductive. If a woman, who is interested in a man, gives a Sidelong Glance, a coy, flirtatious gesture by lowering her head and tilting it away shyly, she says, "Wink!" And he may steal a Sidelong Glance to show he is interested, but not ready to be more direct.

As an image, a Sidelong Glance can be considered from three points of view, the image of the looker, the image of what is seen, and the image of what is understood. My preoccupation with the Sidelong Glance concerns the last two, what is likely seen and recognized in peripheral vision and what is understood seen from the corner of the eye.

In a conversation between John Statham and Bruce Hanks, Hanks talks about an exhibition he made that presents still photographs captured from frames recorded on a camcorder. Some fragments from that conversation express essential ideas of the Sidelong Glance as imagery.

B: What I became interested in was the fact that whereas photography freezes a moment in time, video is in motion, things are always changing. That's the nature of the medium [ ], it's intriguing. The medium is always in motion, and I wanted to arrest that.

J: "Sidelong Glances" says a great deal, and I have a sense of just that as I look at these images, because everything seems fleeting, fugitive, forming and dissolving.

B: Yes, and if it works at all, there is that fluidity that one experiences when watching film or video that is somehow frozen and captured in this body of work.

J: So, curiously enough, you've fixed all these images that imply so much motion and change.

J: Now, as a painter, and I guess with a traditional education in painting, and an attachment to it, I keep trying to apply some known categories to give myself a frame of reference when I look at your work. [ ] I keep trying to get a grip on something - with great difficulty. It's evocative, but ungraspable, disappearing and reforming.

B: I work in a television studio environment, and everything's in motion, and colour [ ] But when you're faced with it day in and day out, looking at a bank of monitors... every once in a while, something really amazing happens. And it is that sidelong glance. You're looking at something obliquely, and images occur on the screen that can never come back. And it's a moment of infinite beauty.

B: They're from my own culture, what I carry within me as I go through and perceive the world. The elements of my past are the references, consciously or not, in the work. I think the human mind, in its natural state, is quite chaotic; we're never thinking one thought at a time. There's always simultaneity J: Stream of consciousness.

B: I've always loved that term. We're very lateral... so the essence of this body of work is - you're correct in seeing it as fractals of culture, random moments I can extract from my life history [ ] Perhaps somehow they take on the pattern of my process of thought.
You can read the full interview at:

Peripheral Vision

Let's look at the Sidelong Glance from a physiological point of view. When we look directly at something, we instinctively direct our Center of Gaze to where we are looking. This Center of Gaze, called the Fovea, has the highest visual acuity. Foveal Vision is used for scrutinizing highly detailed objects but that does not mean that our vision in the rest of the visual field is inferior. When we look out of the corner of our eyes, we use our Peripheral Vision which extends outside the Center of Gaze to the edge of our field of view.

Receptor cells are also distributed on the retina with a greater concentration at the center and lowest at the edges. Although there are about 20 times as many receptor cells in the peripheral area of than in the Fovea, Peripheral Vision is less acute. The receptor cells in the peripheral area are predominantly rod cells that are unable to distinguish colour although they are good at detecting motion and are relatively sensitive in the dark. These characteristics have probably evolved in animals to avoid predators who tend to hunt at night.

There are also differences in the way the information from Foveal and Peripheral Vision are processed in the brain. It has been found that visual stimuli from the periphery are used to detect movement, context and to monitor body position relative to gravity. Peripheral Vision is used to organize perception of the broad spatial scene, giving a greater awareness of surroundings. It allows one to recognise familiar structures, similar forms and movements more readily as well as situate things seen in the Foveal Vision within the environment.

Averted Vision

Peripheral Vision permits one to readily notice small movements at the edge of the field of view. This may be the basis for Averted Vision, a technique for viewing faint objects using Peripheral Vision. It involves not looking directly at an object, but looking a little off to the side, while continuing to concentrate on the object. It has been found that the most effective direction is to place the sighted object on the nasal side of the central vision.

Averted Vision is often exploited by astronomers viewing faint nebulae and star clusters and is a practice that may have been known since ancient times. Aristotle, is said to have recognized and used Averted Vision while observing the heavens.

Photographic Vision

Photographers who recognise and exploit these physiological aspects of human vision can develop special faculties and sensibilities for viewing the world. They can rapidly discern and recognise forms, movement, interaction and balance in order to capture fleeting moments of critical visual content and organisation. Listen to what photographers say about their photographic vision:

In photographing this I find myself looking at things that are somewhat off centre, off to the side - a peripheral vision. Things that are often unnoticed and just below our level of perception. Things seen that are in plain sight yet so familiar or obvious they are usually ignored, unseen, and their existence barely registered - attention no longer paid to them.
- Timothy Atherton
I feel all things as dynamic events, being, changing, and interacting with each other in space and time even as I photograph them.

As I became aware that all things have unique spatial and temporal qualities which visually define and relate them, I began to perceive the things I was photographing not as objects but as events.
-Wynn Bullock
Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.

The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.

To take photographs means to recognize -- simultaneously and within a fraction of a second -- both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one's head, one's eye and one's heart on the same axis.

Inside movement there is one moment in which the elements are in balance. Photography must seize the importance of this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.
-Henri Cartier-Bresson
You've got to struggle against the pollution of intelligence in order to become an animal with very sharp instincts - a sort of intuitive medium - so that to photograph becomes a magical act, and slowly other more suggestive images begin to appear behind the visible image, for which the photographer cannot be held responsible.
-Robert Doisneau
The moment always dictates in my work. What I feel, I do. This is the most important thing for me. Everybody can look, but they don't necessarily see. I never calculate or consider; I see a situation and I know that it's right.
-Andre Kertesz
Photography to me is catching a moment which is passing, and which is true. -Jacques-Henri Lartigue
Photography is an ambiguous challenge to chance.
-Guy Le Querrec
The well-advised eye must obey point-blank, what is present at that unique moment. Nothing is fixed, all is infinite.
- Edouard Boubat
Luckily, life doesn't allow frames to last, reality is a visual chaos, a cluster of shapes continuously mixed and superimposed, a muddle that we must prune in order to find an order that is understandable to others and that can be separated from the rest.
-Marc Riboud
I'm concerned with pushing images to the edge of sanity.
-Tony Ray-Jones
I have a burning desire to see what things look like photographed by me.
- Garry Winogrand

A review of the work of Jay King brings us back to our point of departure:
His discovery of The Americans made Robert Frank his standard to this day. Frank and other Institute of Design alumni gave Jay the validity, perhaps, to capture his world from the sidelong glance. He could recede from his subjects, who were often barely aware of his presence anyway. No intrusion to cause the slightest self consciousness. No invasion of their private moment. Recording these "thin slices of time", as he called it once, has become his art.

Cedric Pearson
March 2009
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