Affidavit: Thresholds of Visibility
First published at Affidavit
You can’t beat the primitive, electric thrill of unearthing a secret, as breathtakingly depicted in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece, Blow-Up. A fashion photographer, after secretly photographing a couple in the park, notices something strange in the developed images. Curious, he enlarges various sections, zooming into their black and white grains. Concealed in the bushes is the blur of a man’s face, and a gun pointing directly at the couple—or could that just be leaves?
We see the photographer filling in the gaps, constructing a narrative from fragments. He runs around the studio, his exhilaration palpable. “Something fantastic has happened!” he tells a friend on the phone, “Somebody was trying to kill somebody else!” He then returns to another magnification, another blow-up, from a photograph taken moments later: in it we see a body, supine on the grass. Blowing it up once more, the body becomes an indecipherable smear.
Particles, if small and plentiful enough, take on the appearance of a whole. This is true for drizzle, which from afar resembles continuous sheets of fog. It’s true for your own body, made up of cells and atoms. This is true for photographs. Even if we know a photograph is little more than huddled pixels, we still suppose that it is somehow whole, a smooth and exact rendering of a single moment snatched from reality. We talk about seeing “the whole picture,” which of course we might, but it’s a picture all the same. This optical illusion can lead to mistakes.