'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.

Eye Chart

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Author: William Germano
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-09

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.