Arts & Humanities English

Ways of Seeing

This article was written by Dr McEwan of the RGS English Department

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

This article was written by Dr McEwan of the RGS English Department

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

Given the necessity for screens during blended and remote learning what follows is a discussion of how seeing is always framed in particular ways. 

Dr McEwan – English Department 

According to Anne Friedberg ‘how the world is framed may be as important as what is contained within that frame’ (2006: 1). To comprehend how ways of seeing are always framed in certain ways it is necessary to look at how the frame has evolved. To do this one must go back to one of the earliest forms of frame, the window. If we take the window at its literal meaning we discover that the window is an opening, an aperture for light and ventilation and that it also provides an opportunity to look out onto the three-dimensional world beyond it. A window shows what is physically beyond the pane of glass, yet it is ‘also a frame, a proscenium [and] its edges hold a view in place’ (Friedberg, 2006: 1). As such the window provides a seemingly extensive view of what is beyond it, but it does in fact limit the visual scope of the viewer. When viewing a window in terms of its frame as a boundary we can draw many parallels between other cultural objects. At its most basic definition, as an ‘opening in architectural space’ (Friedberg, 2006: 5), the window automatically supplies us with a common metaphor for the various frames that form the frame of a painting as well as of movies, televisions, and computers. By examining the window, and its gradual architectural evolution into the screen, it will be possible to determine just how ways of seeing are always framed in certain ways. 

Leon Battista Alberti argued that a painting could be seen ‘as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen’ (cited in Friedberg, 2006: 27). Rather than speaking of a painting as an image that is painted onto a canvas ‘Alberti invokes the image of the window as an instructive substitute for the rectangular frame of the painting’ (Friedberg, 2006: 12). The result of this is that rather than the window being one thing and the painting another they lend meaning and substance to the other until the relation of images is bidirectional. In other words, the window is like a painting as it frames an opening onto the world and the painting is like a window as the painter frames the view as if it were being viewed through a window. This is the basis for Alberti’s argument that the window is predominately used as a metaphor for the frame as it creates a certain set of relations between a fixed viewer to a framed view. The crux of Alberti’s argument was to use the window ‘not as a “transparent” “window on the world”’ (Friedberg, 2006: 12) but rather as a device to focus on the frame that surrounds that window.  

Often disregarded are the everyday frames through which we see things such as the “material” frames of movie screens, television sets, computer screens, and car windshields. It is these frames that usually go unnoticed that ‘provide compelling evidence of the dominance of the frame and its visual system’ (Friedberg, 2006: 13-14). There are now many more possible ways to frame images, whether ‘projected on a large screen, transmitted via broadcast, cable, satellite, or seen on computers, portable DVD screens, or stream[ed] online’ (Friedberg, 2006: 4). Along with the beginning of the projected image a new form of spectatorship was formed, although the basic model was still adhered to, that of the immobility of the spectators and the aperture of a fixed frame. This meant that although the moving image was confined to a frame it ‘provided a virtual mobility for [the] immobile spectators’ (Friedberg, 2006: 5). Rather than a window being the barrier it is the frame that ‘becomes the threshold – the luminal site’ (Friedberg, 2006: 6). Within this particular frame it is possible to be shown an ever increasing array of images and as such the screen has replaced the window in terms of prominence. Screens have become a fixed feature of daily life, buildings are adorned with screens as exterior walls computers interface with other screens and phones take and transmit photos. As well as fixed screens mobile screenic devices have added mobility to the screen’s face in the form of objects such as mobile phones, ipods and now Surfaces. As we shall see it is evident that the window has become a metaphor for the screen and conversely the screen has become an actual substitute for the window. 

It is when talking about computer screens and similar technologies that the metaphor for the window becomes blurred as the window in ‘computer software relies on a different set of assumptions’ (Friedberg, 2006: 1). Rather than the window being used to talk about the computer screen it is used to refer to a ‘subset of its screen surface’ (Friedberg, 2006: 1). This difference when talking about computer technologies is also made apparent in the fact that ‘the Microsoft version of windows has in many ways overtaken its architectural referent’ (Friedberg, 2006: 3). As each new media is introduced there is an attempt to link it to more familiar language with the hope that wrapping the newly strange in the familiar language of the past will render the new cultural object less strange. It was in this way that screens became a ‘component piece of architecture, rendering a wall permeable to ventilation in new ways: a “virtual window”’ (Friedberg, 2006: 1). Yet, on a computer screen it is possible to have open a multitude of individual windows with each one contained within its own frame. A result of this is as the beholders of multiscreen “windows” we now receive images in spatially and temporally fractured frames. Friedberg asserts that this way of framing is both postcinematic and posttelevisual, and yet remains within the delimited bounds of a frame and is still seen on a screen (2006: 7). In other words, no matter how advanced the technology the frame will always be visible as the boundary between what is seen through the window or shown on the screen and what is on the outside of that frame. 

However, we can also consider situations where the frame is more abstract than this. Drawing on film as an example Friedberg states that ‘[t]he frame functions for the film as the field of our bodies does for us’ (2006: 16); if this is the case then it is vital to consider the affects that framing has on the identity of an individual. As we can see from Sturken and Cartwright’s arguments within consumer culture windows are present most dominantly in the form of shop display windows as ‘[s]tores [are] designed with an emphasis on the visual display of goods’ (2001: 194). The shop front plays on the most basic desires of the consumer in that ‘[w]hat one can see in the light of day is always less interesting than what happens behind a pane of glass’ (Charles Baudelaire cited in Friedberg, 2006: 5). Following on from this view we need to consider precisely what message comes through a window to the consumer. People are no longer identified by where they were born but by what they consume, and as such consumption has become about constructing an appropriate identity for ourselves. When viewing products through a shop window the objects on display are both framed and placed behind the physical barrier that is the window itself. Yet, unlike with a painting or a screen it is possible to pass through that barrier and to immediately obtain what we desire. As a result of this shopping has become a key leisure activity where the consumer buys things because they are wanted and not because they are needed. The commodities we purchase frame us as they will ‘become part of one’s self-identity and how one projects that self into the world’ (Sturken and Cartwright, 2001: 198).  

It is essential to remember the frame as it is often forgotten completely in favour for what is contained within it. According to Hubert Damisch ‘“our period is much more massively informed […] thanks to photography, film and now video, than was the fifteenth century’ (cited in Friedberg, 2006: 2) and as such we cannot ignore the frame as it is ever present within all these technologies. Wittgenstein stated that ‘“[t]he limits of [our] language are the limits of [our] world”’ (cited in Friedberg, 2006: 7) and Friedberg extends this to encompass the idea that the limits of our frames of vision determine the boundaries of our world. Therefore, it is not only in technologies such as computer screens, television and movie screens where framing can be considered, ways of seeing are also framed within the identity of the person doing the viewing. It is due to ways of seeing always being framed in certain ways that the viewer is left ensconced behind the window and as such is relegated to the role of ‘spectator against a world which becomes a spectacle’ (Romanyshyn cited in Friedberg, 2006: 16). 


Friedberg, Anne (2006) The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, Cambridge MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press 

Keenan, Thomas (1993) ‘Windows: of Vulnerability’ in Bruce Robins (ed.) The Phantom Public Sphere, London: University of Minnesota Press, p. 121-141 

Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright (2001) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press    

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s