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Human attraction to Visual Images

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Visual images are such an important part of our daily lives that we rarely distinguish between what we see before us and what we see reproduced as pictures on television screens or in the printed media, and create as mental representations of things we have seen. In this essay a distinction is made: visual images are distinct from the act of seeing. The visual images include all of those images that are represented in our imaginations or our minds, along with the images that are created by hand, camera, or machine.

A brief glance backward, to the early history of humankind, reveals that visual images are at least as old as the images of animals that were drawn on the walls of caves in Spain. The masterful cave drawings of antelope and bison, and a caribou wading in a salmon-filled stream, look very much like animals seen today.

A continent away, early inhabitants along the southeastern coast of Alaska were creating petroglyphs, stone carvings of animals common in their environment, and people who were prominent in traditional stories. A petroglyph depicting a salmon is still located by a river mouth and thought to have served as a marker to locate a stream where salmon entered to spawn. Other images are thought to have represented ancient tales of admirable and foolish behavior. Some of Alaska’s petroglyphs are estimated to be between five and twelve thousand years old. The animals represented in the cave drawings in Spain, as well as those in Alaska’s petroglyphs, are assumed to have existed as visual memories in the minds of the artists, on two continents. This seems likely because these early artists would not have been able to draw living animals in the way Renaissance artists painted portraits of living persons.

If the animals in pictures created by these ancient artists existed as visual representations in their minds, then those visual memories represent a kind of communication across thousands of years, since they have now become a part of our own visual memories in the 21st century.

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