Year 5, Piece Forty-Six: 26. Green Blue
The artifice of eye contact
Just to see what would turn up, I googled “green blue”.
This search mostly returned flat squares of color, all different shades of teal and seafoam and even forest green. Above these Google suggested another related search that might be relevant: “green blue eyes.”
Well, my own eyes are green blue, or at least greenish blue, blue with a yellow ring around the center that makes them look green. So I clicked. Up popped a whole bunch of close-up images of eyes, including one that could have been my own linking to an article about something called central heterochromia.
I had heard of heterochromia, where someone has two different colored eyes. Many huskies have it. David Bowie didn’t have it. But apparently two different colored eyes is called complete heterochromia, whereas central heterochromia is two eyes that have the same coloring as each other but with a different color from the rest of the iris around the center of the pupil. It’s not particularly uncommon, but I hadn’t known it had a name.
When I got to lists of celebrities with central heterochromia, I knew I was going down an internet rabbit hole, fast. So I got up from the computer, grabbed my phone, and immediately set to work photographing my eye before the kids came back from an outing.
Have you ever tried to photograph your own eye? It’s not easy. Especially using a phone and no tripod, even a really nice new fancy phone. Especially a really nice new fancy phone: I didn’t even know where to look. Using the camera on the front wasn’t high resolution enough to get the detail in my iris that I wanted (incidentally, the detail that I am now paranoid will let someone hack my identity, but art is worth it, right?). When I flipped the camera over I didn’t know which lens to look into. And because I couldn’t actually see what I was photographing, I had to guess through trial and error, hanging my face over each lens in turn, clicking and hoping for the best repeatedly. Most shots were either uncentered, unfocused, or both. And then there were the reflections. Eyeballs are wet and shiny, making whatever light source is in the room show up in your picture.
But you know what’s harder than photographing your own eye? Photographing a five-year-old’s eye.
Later that afternoon as E was napping and I was editing and animating the pictures of my eye in Photoshop, D came over to see what I was working on:
She thought it was cool, which always makes me feel cool. So I told her about central heterochromia, and realized that she had it too. Realized that our eye color is actually quite similar, and wouldn’t it be cool to animate her eye too? “Yeah!” she agreed enthusiastically.
So I took her into some better light and directed her to go from looking surprised to smiling while moving her eyes without moving the rest of her face. That took a long time to figure out. Once we did, the lighting was still wrong. Once we got the lighting right, enough time had passed that she simply couldn’t keep still anymore, blurring all the pictures. She went from inadvertently fidgeting to waving her arms in the air and doing somersaults while I pleaded with her to sit still.
Then I realized that I was just shooting an eye arbitrarily, when left or right would actually have a huge impact on the final image. I made the quick decision that it should be the same eye as mine, so that juxtaposed in the animation our eyes would look like they were fading into each other. Like they were the same eye, like we were the same person, just aging and youthing and aging and youthing.
I somehow determined that I had photographed my right eye, so I started shooting her right eye.
But telling left from right is hard, especially looking at someone else and telling their right from your right. So I got it wrong. I had actually shot my left eye, and now I had shot her right.
I think it turned out better that way.
Somehow when it is a left eye juxtaposed with a right, we perceive the animated image as two opposite eyes looking at each other. And so with the artifice of the camera, and the artifice of arranging shots frame by frame, I can manufacture a representation of intimacy that actually feels kind of authentic.
And somehow when I flip and align the frames so that the shot is each of our “right” eyes, it doesn’t look like we are looking at each other anymore. It changes the tone of the image completely, transforming the narrative or eliminating it entirely.
Even beyond engineering it for the moving image, eye contact is itself a kind of artifice. You can never with both of your own two eyes look directly into someone else’s two eyes. You can look at both of someone’s eyes, focusing in that general direction, but you can only ever really look into one eye at a time.
Go ahead, try it with someone. You can even try it with yourself in the mirror. If you try to look into both eyes at once, your eyes blur and you focus on neither, or else you end up focusing in between the two eyes.
I learned this from my friend Dr. Daniel Steinbock, from whom I have been lucky enough to hear multiple presentations on the topic. (Though he has never published these, googling “Daniel Steinbock eye contact” did turn up a transcript of a commencement speech he gave in which he made eye contact with each of the students.)
It has to do with the way we see, which is binocular vision. Humans use their two eyes to create a 3-D image of their surroundings. One of these eyes is our dominant eye, either left or right. Usually when we are making eye contact with someone, we will unconsciously settle into a gaze where we find and focus on their dominant eye and they will find and focus on ours. As it turns out, my dominant eye is my left, and D’s is her right.
Whichever eye you settle on, you can only ever really look into one eye at a time, or else be kind of looking in between someone’s eyes without focusing on them. Eye contact is more like the idea of looking into someone’s eyes.
A similar complication of eye contact is video calls. To make it look like you are looking into someone’s eyes over video, you actually have to look into the camera. But then you are looking at a camera, not at that person’s eyes. And if they returned the favor, they would also be looking at a camera instead of at the image of your eyes. So then on the screen would be two images of people who appear to be looking at the person on the other end, only neither of them could see it because they’d be staring into a tiny black marble instead.
Apple has already “corrected” this problem of course, by adding an “Eye Contact” setting to its FaceTime video chat. With the setting turned on, your phone’s AI alters the video to make it appear as if you are looking the other person in the eye. Cool! And weird!
We use smartphone AI to alter our images in real time regularly. You’ve done it if you’ve ever used Portrait Mode, where your phone’s camera keeps who you are shooting in focus and blurs everything else. I use this setting often, and there is nothing bad about it per se. But as this article in Fast Company points out:
What that really means is that your phone’s software is essentially green-screening your loved ones. I get it—many people love this feature because it allows you to focus on a subject, not the background. Yet still, on some level, it makes my stomach churn: it means the software on our phones is inventing pixels when it couldn’t capture them. What it couldn’t do in the analog world it just faked in the digital one. And that’s a slippery slope.
“Green-screening your loved ones.” I had already literally put a green screen on top of an image of my child’s face before I read that line. Of course an actual green screen goes behind a subject and is digitally replaced by something else during editing. The green hue is used for its difference from human skin, for ease of digital deletion. Green is used precisely not to be seen.
But that’s why green is fun to play with. Layered over skin, it calls attention to its own artifice to emphasize what is real. That these photographs may not capture real time connection itself, but that they might capture the idea of connection. Even if it were in “natural” color, the eye contact in this animation never happened.
Green is Love and also Family. Blue is Communication. Whether we are with them in person or looking at them over screens, whether we are connecting or not even making contact, the Holidays are a collective exercise in family communication. Some parts might be lovely, some parts agonizing. Not least of all this year because COVID may have upended carefully laid travel plans and forced even more strained conversations about boundaries and protocols, or battles with illness or worse. But also because family is just challenging.
If you are around your family of origin during the holidays, you are bound to find yourself regressing into old roles. We are staying with my mother-in-law right now, so I’m not regressing myself. But I am here with my young children, where everyday just by living we co-create the family roles into which they will one day regress.
I can already start to see where the folds of my relationship with D might one day become wrinkles. Ways that we already frustrate each other, already communicate past each other. She is still very much becoming who she is, just as I suppose I am always still becoming who I am. As time goes on and we grow not just to become ourselves but to understand ourselves more, I hope we also grow to understand each other more. Or at least not less.
Looking into her eyes that have my color but are not my own, I remember that she is a different person. But I also remember that eye contact is how we began to understand each other as different people, learning to connect beyond our bodies.
For Red Blue I talked about the acoustical umbilical cord, how the initial separation of birth teaches animals to communicate through sound. One way we scale our communications beyond our parents and caretakers is through sight, through our eyes. We teach babies how to interact with other people by meeting and holding their gaze. By making faces at them and mimicking theirs, we teach them to read faces.
We are each composites of the connections we make and don’t quite make, frames arranged into lives that sync with other lives but never quite match. There are so many ways that my daughter and I might not connect in the future, like the ways I don’t connect with my own mother, or certainly like my mother with her own mother. But at least for now, my connection with D can often be as simple as eye contact. D and I can look into each others’ eyes and it just clicks. Through our eyes, we communicate love. I hope we can sustain that contact.