The image on the retina is almost never static. Eye, head, and hody movements, and externally generated motion create rapid and continual changes in the retinal image ("active vision"). Virtually all vision in animals such as primates, which make saccades as often as 3-4 times/s, is based on information that must be derived from the first few hundred milliseconds after sudden, global changes in the retinal image. These changes may be accompanied by large changes in area mean luminance, as well as higher order image contrast statistics. This study investigated how retinal ganglion cell responses, whose response properties have been typically studied and defined in a stable stimulus regime, are affected by sudden changes in mean luminance that are characteristic of active vision. Specifically, the steady-state responses of retinal ganglion cells to static or moving square-wave grating stimuli were recorded in an isolated, superfused rabbit eyecup preparation and compared to responses after saccade-like changes in luminance. The manner of coding after luminance changes was different for different ganglion cell classes; both suppression and enhancement of responses to patterns following luminance changes were found. Brisk-transient Off cells unambiguously signaled the darkening of the overall image, but were also modulated by the subsequently appearing grating stimulus. Several types of On-center cell behavior were observed, ranging from strong suppression of the subsequent response by luminance changes, to strong enhancement. Overall, most ganglion cells distinguished static patterns after a luminance change via differences in their spike discharges nearly as well as before, although there were clear asymmetries between the On and Off pathways. Changes in mean luminance in some ganglion cells, such as On-Off directionally selective ganglion cells, could create large phase shifts in the response to patterned, moving stimuli, although these stimuli were still detected immediately after luminance changes. The results of this study show that the image dynamics of active vision may be a fundamental challenge for the visual system because of strong effects on retinal ganglion cell function. However, rapid extraction of unambiguous information after luminance changes appears to be encoded in differences in the spike discharges in different retinal ganglion cell classes. Asymmetries among ganglion cell classes in sensitivity to luminance changes may provide a basis by which some provide the "context" for interpreting the firing of others. Copyright © 2005 Cambridge University Press.