‘Eye Chart’ Is About Much More Than Just Identifying Objects Near and Far

The "Object Lessons" series continues with this brief but rich exploration into why we see, when we see, how clearly we see, and what we understand about the things we see.

If we read for both enjoyment and edification, a combination which seems rare these days, then Bloomsbury Publishing’s “Object Lessons” series, edited by Christopher Shaberg and Ian Bogost, is a rapidly growing collection of books about the unrevealed lives of basic things that will meet both those needs. Take things like Drones, Remote Controls, Golf Balls or Hotels. The goal of this series seems not to be a history of the subject so much as what they represent. What do they mean?

William Germano’s Eye Chart is a surprisingly compelling and at times quite poetic examination of this now ubiquitous technological innovation. Why did this collection of letters — the original Snellen Eye Chart usually 11 rows of letters in descending size and amount — come to represent true clear vision? How was vision measured before Herman Snellen’s 1862 optotypes, developed in the Netherlands, became the “gold standard” of visual testing?

Germano begins his exploration of the eye chart with a simple question: “What can you see?” Soon, though, the reader understands that things are more complex than simply providing a concrete response to a clear question. It’s not just about identifying objects near and far. It’s also about why we see, when we see, how clearly we see, and what we understand about the things we see.

For Germano, “…eye charts are nocturnal creatures, like vampires and ghosts. They belong in the dimness of the examining room.” It’s an effective way to set the mood here. More so than any other indication of health, how we interpret the information on the chart is something only we control, information only we can provide to the eye doctor. That it exists more commonly (and perhaps comfortably) in the darkness of the room, a few yards ahead of us, projected on a wall as we squint from the examining chair and try to interpret the figures, can make its mere presence intimidating. We want to pass the test, but there are no concrete answers.

Like any great narrative about medical pioneers, innovations rarely come from a lone rider. Herman Snellen created the chart, but Austrian Eduard Jaeger developed the handheld card with text on it. We are told to hold it at a comfortable distance in front of our eyes and read the text. Snellen’s goal was eyesight at a far distance, and Jaeger’s was about near sight. While this connection may not have always been made, Germano notes that by the mid-20th century, “…they eye chart began to take on a graphic and social life of its own.” Snellen’s initial goal may have been just to assemble letters as characters in a logical formation so that visual acuity could be accurately measured, but combining the context with content made his original chart an artistic statement:

“Modern design has mined the Snellen chart for its graphic ingenuity, disassembling and repurposing it for humor, exhortation, satire, politics, and even devotional purposes.”

This inclination for art to appropriate medical diagnostic tools for creative purposes is a perfect fit when words are involved. Germano beautifully builds on this argument later in the book, in the “Eye Poetry” chapter. “A lot of texts,” he writes, “poetry included, are eye tests.” We know this when we open any electronic device or try to identify writing on directions folded like intricate origami inside pill bottles. Fine print means troubling details of consequences if ingested, or obligations if we sign on the dotted line. Germano effectively reflects on Lewis Carroll’s “A-Caucus Race and a Long Tale”, chapter three of his classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He notes:

“The ‘tale’ is shaped on the page like a tail, the slender column of text swerving left and right, the type growing smaller toward the end of the passage, mimicking the narrow conclusion of a mouse’s tale and the slim fate of the mouse itself.”

Equally fascinating here is not just the exploration of the typography and the difficulty any of us might have following it across the page but also the fact that Carroll and Snellen were working at the same time. Germano continues:

“Snellen’s chart resolutely tells a story, but it organizes its non-story in an orderly fashion that follows a deliberate and precise trajectory.”

Germano nicely combines the obligation to wax poetic (as he does with the Lewis Carroll digression) and background history. In Chapter Two, “Reading Stars, Reading Stones”, he notes the connection of today’s LensCrafters vision products with the ancient art of polishing stones to improve vision. It’s logical to note how the ancient art of illuminated manuscripts and magnified texts demanded great vision. “Early Modern eyesight may have been better than our own,” he notes. He goes on to connect reading and depictions of vision in early art. It was “a principal activity of figures in Old Master’s paintings.” The oldest known depiction of eyeglasses, Germano notes, “…appears in a fresco painted by Tommaso da Modena in Treviso, North of Venice, in 1352.”

While this background history is important and effectively incorporated into his examination of the roots and meaning of the eye chart, it’s later in the same chapter that Germano’s approach proves most effective. It’s 1636. Poet John Milton travels to Italy and meets the aging astronomer Galileo. The latter was working on telescopes and trying to understand what the eye can do. Thirty years after meeting Galileo, the now blind Milton would allude to this meeting with “The Tuscan artist” in a Paradise Lost passage. Satan lands on the edge of Paradise and sees something greater than any telescope could uncover.

“For Milton, poetry triumphs even over telescopy, as poetic vision must triumph over even the greatest lens making.”

In “How to Choose Eyeglasses (circa 1623)”, Germano notes that the Early Modern’s understanding of vision deficiencies was part of the self-regulating individual, the growth of man in an age of enlightenment. In “The Persistence of Memory”, Germano reveals the roots of the famous “Lorem ipsum” passage of text vision testing. It was Latin gibberish. Words are split, meaning is attributed, and a nonsense phrase becomes an embroidered sampler, a T-shirt, and bumper sticker.

The connection between Snellen’s eye chart and the British army is explored in Chapter 5, “Eleven Lines, and Nine Letters”. Germano notes: “With Snellen’s chart, the British military could study scientifically which potential recruits could be entrusted with firearms.” He makes a clear connection between the rigid formula the eye chart represents and military conformity: “It’s an event-confident-hierarchical… a display with stars and corps.” That Germano is able to so effectively apply the eye chart to a poetic statement and the absolutism of military life is a testament to his graceful, intelligent approach to the subject.

Logically, with any medical test for which there are absolute answers, the question arises: couldn’t you just memorize the order? Deeper into that same chapter, Germano notes that the eye chart had importance not just in the size and arrangement of the letters but also their very disposition: “Each letter is of equal width and height. Snellen devised a chart with letters that could be mapped onto a grid, as if each letter sat within an invisible box.”

There are other charts, the Tumbling E chart and the Landolt C. Germano notes their form and function and we see how they’re different from Snellen’s original. From that identification, he segues easily into an examination of Dr. Landolt’s many patients from that time, including Impressionist painters Degas and Monet. What Germano notes of the Impressionists could easily apply to the arrangement of forms in the eye chart and its variations:

“…it’s not just the color and the brushwork, it’s the seeing the color in the world and imagining how to deliver some version of that world to the canvas.”

The idea, as Germano sees it, is that an accurate assessment of the quality of work in the Edgar Degas painting Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey could be directly attributed to his possible Snellen test score. Germano tells us about the score, what 20/20 means. The Spherical number (on top) gives us information about eye strength, and the bottom number informs us about such issues as astigmatism. 20/20, of course, is perfection. “The term developed its own cultural life. The name of the long-running ABC news magazine 20/20 acknowledges this idea of ‘perfect’ vision, and also manages to suggest the idea that perfect vision is balanced…”

It’s this allegiance to balance and perspective that plays at the heart of Germano’s Eye Chart. Rather than providing a dry academic reading suitable for a convention of optometrists eager to impress each other with their understanding of medical visual needs and deficiencies, Eye Chart impresses most when it measures the grace behind how and why we see what we see. If this medical innovation has ever been intimidating, or a measure of increasing failure as you slip into your final years, Germano’s Eye Chart should be a graceful reminder that the art of vision has many levels.