Knox Martin

Knox Martin, photograph by Ronald Lusk (c)2007

Knox Martin, photograph by Ronald Lusk (c) 2007

The below exchange happened via a flurry of emails rather than in my comments section, but I wanted to share so I’ve posted it here. Thanks for sharing, Knox – and Unknown(s) – and please feel free to post comments here, too!

It is not Knox’s claim but an old old fact! Charles Biederman authored a huge book called Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge published in the 40’s, covers this subject a bit. Osa and Martin Johnson, early Pacific island explorers, took photographs of the natives of Fiji Islands, showed the photographs to the natives, pointing out, this is a photograph of your brother, this is your son, this is a photograph of your sister, the explorers were laughed to at, hooted at and put upon by the natives, all who viewed this piece of paper, as an inept joke, an attempt to ridicule them. The black-and-white photographs of their friends and relatives were incomprehensible to the tribe!
It took them some years for them to see the photographs. Get it!
A few years later the Johnsons returned, set up the screen, showed moving pictures of the tribe, Fiji Islanders — — — consternation, some fell to the floor, screaming, some dashed off into the forest — — — for among some of those filmed, some had died.
Whatever is not within the parameters of your experience is incomprehensible!


Thanks for sharing. Hope you are well.
Question: if the Johnsons had showed those Fiji islanders a PAINTING of themselves, rather than a photograph, would that have been more comprehensible to those natives?

Interesting — — — these statements are so counter to our way of figuring it’s hard to take them to a new fresh look

Now I’m really worried about you guys out there! How about stirring those little gray cells???
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that any group whose sole source of survival, Oceanic peoples was three dimensions, to only see in three dimensions????????
Of course, they wouldn’t be able to see the paintings of themselves or anything in a painting. Yesterday a friend came to visit, literally walked into a sculpture. I just finished and asked “is this a bicycle, ”   “No” said I  “it is a sculpture of a cat”  the guy was not stupid. The sculpture, a work of art, was beyond his comprehension!

Hmmm, fun stuff. I wasn’t thinking two dimensional versus three dimensional.
I was think familiar technology (paint) versus unfamiliar technology (photography). But I was also assuming that Fijians were familiar with painting, drawing, etc.
For example, if the Johnsons did a sketch of one of the islanders, that they would comprehend; But if they shot a Polaroid of an islander and a few minutes later a photograph appeared, well, that’s beyond comprehension. The technology, which effectively hides the causality of the creation, appears to them to be magic.
This then seems to be a different argument altogether than my original blog quote eluded of not seeing the new. Those Fiji islanders could clearly SEE the photograph or movie. I was NOT invisible. It was uncomprehensible, meaning the islanders could not understand it.
So this is NOT the same as the Knox Martin story of the Spanish galleons that appeared off the beaches of Central America that were INVISIBLE to the Native Americans. It is not a “2- versus 3-dimensional” argument (Spanish galleons are 3D!), but one of familiar vs unfamiliar.
Even your (Knox’s) bicycle/cat sculpture story confuses this.
1)Your friend walked into your sculpture — That was because he didn’t see it.
2) Then he incorrectly identifies it as a bicycle — That was because he didn’t understand it.
In conclusion, I would now have to say that the statement “It is not Knox’s claim but an old old fact [from] Charles Biederman” is incorrect. Biederman was talking comprehension. Knox was talking vision.
OK Knox, let me have it  – seeing vs “seeing”  – Maybe I’m remembering your story incorrectly?

Fijans, Africans, peoples in that band or equation, didn’t draw or paint on flat things, their effigies, artifacts, sculpture, were 3-D — — — in this way — the absolute, was invited! The earliest cave work was turning lumps of rock into animals the lumps looked like. The next step was to hold a dead animal up to the wall and spray around it with mouth, red earth mixed with water and sprayed. After this the copies of animals, to ensure success in the hunt — hands placed on the flank and sprayed around to leave imprint. Hands on — — — this cup got connected — out of this comes drawing!
HEY not a Knox Martin story, but the account from Christopher Columbus — — — Ninia,Pinta and the Santa Maria. Why not include this communication on the blog?
The Caribbean Indians, the Spanish vessels had nothing to do with 2-D or 3-D! The record holds that none of the natives could discern, see the vessels — — — these high things off the water with ropes, masts and sails were beyond anything they had ever experienced, like the photographs with the Fijians — the faint smudges in the sky turn into galaxies with a population of 350 billion suns when more powerful lenses are employed to view them!


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