See the world through some­one else's eyes

A his­tory of the hu­man gaze is il­lu­mi­nat­ing, but has lit­tle to say about to­day's im­age over­load, writes Sean O'Ha­gan

The Observer - The New Review - - BOOKS -

The Story of Look­ing Mark Cousins Canon­gate £25, pp432

In De­cem­ber 2013, Helle Thorn­ingSch­midt, the then Dan­ish prime min­is­ter, briefly be­came an in­ter­net sen­sa­tion when she was pho­tographed at the me­mo­rial ser­vice for Nelson Man­dela tak­ing a selfie with Barack Obama and David Cameron. In March 2016, a 26-year-old Bri­tish man, Ben Innes, a pas­sen­ger on an Egyp­tAir flight, man­aged to per­suade the plane’s hi­jacker, Seif Eldin Mustafa, to pose with him for a selfie. In the photo, Mustafa is wear­ing what ap­pears to be an ex­plo­sives vest (though it was later found to be fake).

If the in­ter­net has rad­i­cally al­tered the way we think, the smart­phone is si­mul­ta­ne­ously al­ter­ing the way we look – and are looked at – in ways that would have seemed unimag­in­able a few decades ago. As both these ex­am­ples il­lus­trate, our be­hav­iour has changed ac­cord­ingly: we seem to have be­come less self-con­scious and self-aware. Thus, pos­ing for self­ies, snap­ping to­tal strangers and film­ing al­most every­thing we do, from eat­ing lunch to at­tend­ing a con­cert, has be­come so com­mon­place as to be rarely com­mented on.

Writ­ten by film-maker, critic and one-time tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter Mark Cousins, The Story of Look­ing is cer­tainly timely. It roams freely across his­tory, art, film, pho­tog­ra­phy, science and tech­nol­ogy. His jour­ney into look­ing be­gins with him imag­in­ing how an early Homo sapi­ens’ baby might have seen the world – as a “soft-edged” and “im­ma­te­rial” shad­ow­land – and ends, more than 400 pages later, with a med­i­ta­tion on Géri­cault ’s still shock­ing paint­ing,

Head of a Guil­lotined Man . In be­tween those two well-cho­sen ref­er­ence points – the birth of hu­man look­ing and the un­flinch­ing gaze of an artist – Cousins cov­ers so much dis­parate ground that it is some­times hard to see the wood for the trees.

He is il­lu­mi­nat­ing on the var­i­ous ways artists and film-mak­ers look at the world, but his style, a kind of the­matic free as­so­ci­a­tion, made me long for the con­cise­ness of John Berger in his game-chang­ing book, Ways

of See­ing . A sec­tion en­ti­tled Atomic Look­ing shifts in the space of 10 pages from Luis Buñuel to Satya­jit Ray, by way of Al­bert Ein­stein, Piero della Francesca, John Sayles, Max Planck and Van Gogh. The ef­fect is daz­zling, but dis­ori­ent­ing, not least be­cause the im­ages re­ferred to, whether still or mov­ing, of­ten re­quire a de­gree of pa­tience, at­ten­tive­ness and slow look­ing from the viewer. Un­like Berger, Cousins does not have an ide­o­log­i­cal axe to grind so his book of­ten reads like a primer for art and me­dia stud­ies stu­dents.

For all that, there is much that is sur­pris­ing here, not least in Cousins’s re­mark­able abil­ity to make you look again at the act of look­ing, of­ten through ar­rest­ing jux­ta­po­si­tions. A sec­tion en­ti­tled Zoos and Morgues con­trasts the ways in which an­i­mals and hu­mans be­came ex­otic spec­ta­cles for western au­di­ences in the early 1800s. In one pho­to­graph, a row of well-dressed men in shiny shoes stare at a re­con­struc­tion of a Su­danese vil­lage fea­tur­ing ac­tual Nu­bian men, women and chil­dren. “Did they make eye con­tact, even for a mo­ment?” he asks. “And if so, what did each side think? Did the pol­ished shoe peo­ple feel ashamed? Prob­a­bly not, be­cause the ideas of the time led them to be­lieve that oth­ers should be avail­able for their in­spec­tion.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Cousins is in­ci­sive about cin­e­matic ways of look­ing, be­gin­ning with the no­to­ri­ous mo­ment in Buñuel’s 1929 film, Un Chien

An­dalou , in which a ra­zor blade ap­par­ently slices a young woman’s eye­ball. The scene, he writes, “can be taken as a metaphor for the vi­o­lent in­crease in look­ing and imag­ing” in the 20th cen­tury. It could also be read as a metaphor for the ways in which deep look­ing has been as­sailed by the un­prece­dented profli­gacy of 21st-cen­tury im­age cul­ture. We are be­sieged by pho­to­graphs that of­ten drift un­moored from their con­texts and no amount of look­ing can ac­count for their ba­nal­ity. One could go as far as to say that we are be­ing blinded by the sheer ubiq­uity of of­ten ba­nal im­ages in the age of Face­book and the selfie. Cousins dis­agrees, ar­gu­ing that “it is too easy to over­look how lib­er­at­ing and af­firm­ing the ef­fects of the for­mer can be”, and “self­ies are mainly a sign of how fas­ci­nated we are with see­ing our­selves in groups and in the world”. No men­tion of the down­side: our in­creas­ingly nar­cis­sis­tic cul­ture or the blam­ing and bul­ly­ing that also in­fects so­cial me­dia. For stu­dents of art and film, The

Story of Look­ing may well prove in­dis­pens­able as a ref­er­ence book, but it seems a rather well-man­nered and all too for­giv­ing re­sponse to the tur­bu­lent times we live in.

To or­der The Story of Look­ing for £21.25 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

All­star/Video Yes­ter­year

The eye-slic­ing scene in Luis Bunuel's 1929 film Un Chien An­dalou.

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