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The Power of Images


Nicholas Howe, Computer Science
Fraser Stables, Art

The Power of Images

We are a visual species:  the human visual cortex is the largest sensory system in the brain. Humans have intentionally created and manipulated visual stimuli to construct images with a specific depictional purpose for at least 35,000 years. Around the world, human beings have long relied on images both to make sense of their environment and to tell stories to one another.  The production of images—imaging—has played a central role in our search for beauty and truth in many fields, scientific and artistic, and yet we also create images that are meant to deceive, beguile, and enchant us.

This project will explore the social, aesthetic, and technological aspects of imaging, investigating images as conveyers of meaning, whether innate or contrived.  In virtually every field, images have a complex resonance. Within scientific and documentary traditions, certain images may be created or utilized as neutral bearers of information, but in what ways do these same images conceal or limit understanding?  What can studies of human culture and society tell us of the human use of images, and how do cultural and social forces impact the way that meaning is experienced?  Do spontaneous images differ in kind from those that are composed or planned, or can the circumstances of production matter in some other way?  Artists and media producers create images whose essence lies in the varied psychic, emotional, and cerebral responses of the viewer.  Certain artists are interested in the phenomenology of images, while others may be more invested in the semiotic content.  Within different areas of study, what are the points of convergence between disparate approaches to the image?  How can images created for one purpose shape our very memories and beliefs in other unforeseen and unintended ways?

Across disciplines, image manipulations result from wide-ranging methods and intentions, with effects ranging from the most blatant to the very subtle, sometimes even passing unnoticed.  Whether by the simple ravages of time or the artifice of Photoshop, by accident or with motive, images can change and transform from their original appearances into related but different forms.  Conversely, properly preserved, an image can remain materially unchanged for centuries.  How do different disciplines approach preservation, and in what ways do they reconcile the paradox of one moment being preserved for an eternity?  Can the transformation of an image create new meaning out of old, and what information is lost?  How can we describe the nature of that which persists from one transformation to the next, even as the superficial appearance can change drastically?

We seek to bring together scholars from a wide range of disciplines, whose research involves the use of images to discover truth, scientific or otherwise; those who create or manipulate images destined for human consumption; those who study the creation, role, and function of images in the world; and those who examine the effects of images upon the observer, either to understand how the brain processes them as sensory stimuli or how they affect our subsequent attitudes and beliefs. We believe that by sharing the ways we make, use, and interpret images across disciplines, we will deepen our understanding of both their potential and their limitations.

The call for student fellowships in the Regarding Images project will be sent in the spring of 2013.


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