Abstract optical games

I took this photo two weeks ago because the reflected light was so striking.

And then I promptly forgot all about it until the other night when I was at Boswell Books to see Austin Kleon. As the event began, I took a photo of him. Later, while waiting in line to get my copies of his books signed, I scrolled through my camera roll and noticed this picture again. Briefly considered putting it up on my blog but decided against it because, really: another picture of office building windows?

Today I took a closer look, though. Maybe that photo wasn’t completely hopeless after all. What if I could manipulate it to focus more on the thing that had caught my eye in the first place?

So I cropped it to cut out the tree and the ugly ventilation grates up at the top. Which gave it a whole new personality! Suddenly it was less “office building” than a slightly absract collection of lines along a varying brightness spectrum that was kind of fun to look at.

If I stare at it long enough, for example, the dark gray lines start to look much wider on the left and narrower on the right. Plus they start to diverge, as though they’re rays coming from a point far to the lower right and then opening outward in shallow but ever-expanding angles as they move to the left and up. Kind of like the rays in the Japanese “Rising Sun Flag.”

Via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

All of which makes sense, I suppose, since I took the picture from a sideways angle. Perspective and all. Still, I don’t see that effect at first glance, only after I stop thinking and let my eyes relax.

Several years ago I posted a photo that similarly created some cool movement; you can see it here. It’s the first photo in the post, and you have to scroll up and down really fast to see it, but when you do, it looks like the building is breathing. The lower floors seem to expand and contract.

When I was a kid I realized that if I stared at geometrically-patterned wallpaper or floor tiles, crossed my eyes, and then slowly and carefully uncrossed them, I could pull that pattern closer to me almost as if I were looking through binoculars. It was like a new plane of existence had been created several inches to a few feet closer to me than the original wall or floor it was duplicating. If I reached out to touch it, the image vanished as soon as my eyes were forced to focus on the real physical object (my hand) that had invaded that temporary, illusory space. It fascinated me that I could create this completely false but very real-seeming image that floated in front of me like a photograph on glass.

I can still do this. Which statement reveals, obviously, that I still do do this.

Yeah, I’m pretty easily amused 🙂

If you enjoy optical illusions as much as I do, you should check out this site sponsored by The Optical Society of America. (Aside: They call themselves “The Optical Society” now, apparently not wanting to restrict themselves to America? But their acronym and logo still include the “A.” Kind of a metaphorical-allusion illusion right there, when you think about it 🙂 )

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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