Throughout our numerous stages of knowledge development, we’re taught that seeing something – witnessing it with our own eyes – should directly result in our believing it to be true. The experience of candidly observing an event, situation or circumstance in front of us chips away at our doubts, wordlessly filling in our gaps in understanding the world around us. When photography was invented in the mid-nineteenth century, it was immediately perceived as an extension of this visual evidence. We no longer needed to be there ourselves to absorb optical information—we could instead look at documentation of the moment at a later time, peering down at its recorded details on a delicate piece of fixed paper.
Despite our impetus to submit to visual beliefs, every once in a while we witness an event that give us a moment of pause. When we encounter an optical illusion or magic trick, a series of adverse, conflicting reactions come into play, challenging an alternate pathway of knowledge circuitry: our better judgment. We know a rabbit coming out of an empty hat cannot be possible, even if we just saw it happen in front of us with our own eyes, so what should we believe? For photographer Alexandra Lethbridge, these conflicting forms of knowledge form the foundation of a number of her photographic series, including the mysterious philosophical investigation she calls Other Ways of Knowing.
“Biologically, everyone perceives in the same way,” Lethbridge explains. “The function of the eye determines the visual sensory perception of what we see, but the difference between what we see and what we understand come from cognitive perception, which determines the interpretation of those images. With this series, I question this interpretation and find ways to re-examine what we see, or think we see. I’m interested in how what we expect to see affects what we actually observe, and if that can be manipulated.”
The images in Other Ways of Knowing approach this problem in a number of ways, directly commentating on photography’s role in this reliance. While Lethbridge creates some optical illusions of her own – an impossible three-dimensional shapes or warped spoons, for example – some images also address common glitches in the photographic medium, and how we obsessively point to visual details as though they hold some ultimate truth that’s been forgotten.
While an allusion to magic is also alive in each photo, its role in the series is multifaceted, and doesn’t just start and stop with Lethbridge’s pictures. Magic is also about the relationship between a subject and its audience, even when that subject is another person. Lethbridge explains, “Challenging logic, magicians intentionally exploit how their audiences think. Their illusions force us to reconsider our environment and how we interact with it. Other Ways of Knowing is a visual representation of deception and misdirection, designed to promote uncertainty in the viewer’s understanding of what they see.”
At the end of the day, Lethbridge hopes this work prompts her own audience to question their reliance on photography’s ability to capture objective truth, as well as our assumed ability to witness it ourselves. She reflects, “This series focuses on visual perception—against that of our own instinct. Adapting these methods by concentrating on aesthetic judgments rather than abstract reasoning, the photographs play with intuitive understandings of what we’re seeing, and ask us to judge for ourselves whether what we encounter is fact or fiction.”
— Cat Lachowskyj