The Viewing of Images
It seems almost self-evident that how long we look at an image affects what we see in it and how we interpret it. Even if there were no other evidence of this, it has been shown that the eye successively scans an image in a series of fixations. If the time for doing this is cut short, the eye fixes on fewer points and the mind creates a less extensive version of what David Marr has called the "primal sketch." In talking about viewing film images it is useful to place the process in the context of viewing practices generally. How does film-viewing differ from viewing other kinds of images, such as still photographs?
Sometimes the length of time we devote to a still photograph is determined for us, as when a train we are on flashes by a billboard with a photograph on it. The frequency with which we view photographs is also often beyond our control: it is the aim of advertisers to expose us to the same pictures as often as possible, although many photographs, such as those in newspapers, we see only once, and then usually briefly. Others, such as family snapshots, may be seen again and again—and we may choose to study them for quite long periods.
When we watch films we exchange the role of private consumer of images for that of public participant at a spectacle. Our choices become more limited. Not only are the still photographs of the film regulated to 24 or 25 per second, but the length of time we have to view each shot is precisely dictated. We thus surrender an important part of our control over the image, although not all of it. There is still the possibility of searching the shot and interpreting it to some degree independently—for example, by looking for "peripheral detail." How we interpret it depends upon who we are and what assumptions we bring to it. This is a fertile process, the text of the film interacting with the texts of personality, culture, and society that define us. Despite that, there are
habits of film-viewing which will hold broadly true for audiences with a shared set of cultural expectations. If the following description is in any way recognizable, it is because it applies to a quite specific set of film-making and film-viewing conventions.