For some time, I've been considering how a visual
metaphor—to explain a scientific concept, for
example—can be more than just a tool for communication.
The process of creating the metaphor can itself be a powerful
way for the metaphor's creator to develop a deeper understanding
of the concept. The steps involved in thinking about whether a
certain metaphor works or, perhaps more important, how it
doesn't work, offer their own revelations.
When I first saw Viktor Koen's photo illustration in the
New York Times Book Review section, I was impressed by the
cleverness with which he communicated the complicated idea of
"emergence." The whole (the apple) is visually
different from the parts (the mechanical mechanism) that make up
the whole. "The whole is greater than the sum of the
parts" is one definition of emergence in complex systems.
Viktor's approach in creating metaphors is an artist's
technique, not necessarily science-driven. He may not have
intended to be precise in his visual definition. But in my
opinion, he hit the nail on the head; his clockwork apple
inspired me to do a great deal more thinking about the power of
the visual metaphor in expressing complicated ideas.
Viktor Koen (http://viktorkoen.com), born in
Thessaloniki, Greece, holds a bachelor of fine arts degree from
the Bezalel Academy of Art & Design in Jerusalem and a
master of fine arts (MFA) degree with honors from the School of
Visual Arts in New York City. He serves on the faculty of
Parsons School of Design and the MFA program of the School of
Visual Arts. His images are regularly published in the
Times Book Review, TIME, Newsweek and
Esquire. Other clients include major book publishers,
corporations and newspapers. His award-winning prints are
exhibited in galleries and museums in the United States, Europe,
Japan and Australia. His work is featured in numerous books and
publications, and is part of private and institutional collections.
F. F. Viktor, let's talk a little bit about how you
work. How do you get your assignments?
V. K. Well, the art director gets in touch with me
and asks that I read a review and come up with an idea for some sort
of image that suggests what the book is about. For this particular
assignment, there wasn't enough time to send him a sketch of what I
had in mind. I had to produce a finished image in two days.
F. F. Two days? I would go nuts. When you were
first given this assignment, were you familiar with the concept of emergence?
V. K. I didn't completely understand the idea and
had to read the review a couple of times. At first I was confused as
hell. Usually what I try to do is get a "spin" on the
concept, and that will depend a lot on the reviewer's tone. This was
a tough one. I am an analytic person, and I believe there always
needs to be a logical explanation for everything, so this was
troubling to me.
F. F. How did you go about coming up with this idea?
V. K. I'm sort of a one-trick pony. I have the same
process whenever given an assignment. I need a method to make
it work. What I do is boil down the idea into three or four words
and then try to translate the images in an unforced way. It's
important that it not be forced. For this one all I needed were two
words that made sense. They were "nature" and
"mechanics"—mechanics meaning the way things work.
I love toys, and I collect antiques. I collect all kinds of things
and have a photographic library of pieces that I shoot so that I can
later put them together. I like to shoot insides—hidden parts
… the guts of things.
It just so happened that my friend Liz gave me a clock as a gift.
The back of the mechanism was really what interested me. In fact,
that's how I display the clock in my house, showing the back rather
than its face. So, for this assignment, I photographed the mechanism
of the clock ("mechanics"). I then thought about the
"whole" aspect ("nature"). It had to be
recognizable, so I used an apple from my refrigerator. I needed a
flat surface (anticipating combining this image with the other), so
I cut the apple in half. And then, in PhotoShop, I played with the
pieces so that there was a play between the whole and what was
embedded. I think the shapes work well together. I didn't have to
jam the pieces to make it work. Combining difference pieces has to
feel right, and it did in this case on the first try. The apple
clock becomes one. There is a symbiosis.
F. F. Would you call yourself a photographer?
V. K. Not really. I am not trained in photography.
I call myself an artist. I am obsessed with details. I am crazy when
it comes to those kinds of things. When I go to Greece, where most
people come home with images of the beautiful water and
architecture, all I have to show from my trip are industrial details
and rusted surfaces.
F. F. Did anything in particular motivate your
thinking about this particular exercise?
V. K. I think Chuck Close's work helped me
think about it. You know, when you look at his paintings, the
details have a completely different feel from the whole. It was a
good beginning for me.