The Nature of Photography

A camera lens is a device for making images of light. It does not capture the light, as leaves can do. It does not do the other things that a human eye can do: see distance, see invisible space, see with its eyes closed, by either memory or touch, or among very many other things, see texture. Take this poplar leaf lying on the grass before the snow…P1150723

This is a Flat Image of Light

Familiar patterns of shadow and subtle changes of perspective give it the illusion of depth. In contrast to this rather simple illusion, the human eye actually sees depth.

Here is one of her sister leaves, close up …


Black Hole

Notice how the camera has not seen the light through the hole in the leaf. My eyes did. My eyes also saw the texture of the leaf, as well as the relationship between the amount of light within the leaf and the amount it reflected, as well as from how deep within the leaf the light was coming. Instantly. That was not photographic seeing. That was the earth.

Cameras can’t do that. They are, however, useful tools. They allow humans to see mirrors of themselves. This is not a vain exercise. In fact, it’s very useful. Here is an image I showed the other day of a bubble in ice that froze overnight…


An Illusion of Three Dimensional Space…

… rendered in two dimensions. Notice how the boundaries of the image give it a frame. Without that, it wouldn’t be a photograph…it would be an endless, two-dimensional world.

This is an image of what water does on this planet. What it does on other planets is beside the point, because on other planets it is ice, if it’s there at all. To illustrate my point, here it is again …


A little distance, a change of point of view, and the bubble has a completely different relationship to the space around it. Now look at what happens when we back up yet further …


From a greater distance, the bubble reveals itself as part of larger patterns. Reading them in their own terms will lead to an understanding of how this planet functions, or, rather, how the human mind functions. This paired relationship can be quite complex…


This complex pattern of rounded and angular shapes, water, soil, leaf, stone, gravity, time and light is not only instantly readable by the human eye, but makes a successful photograph because the human mind (well, blush, mine) selects patterns of balance that align with the way it works. In other words, when beauty, which is a function of human intelligence, is found, the earth is found as well. This is because humans (yes, even me) are from this planet and think according to its processes. In other words, rather than being a portrait of the earth this is an image of what human thinking looks like:


The beauty of it is that it is the same thing as the earth. It is the rigour of the mirroring of photography, and the technologies that underpin it, that focus attention on the physicality of the scene. Weekly, of course, but it’s a start. The image above, for example, does not show the differing textures between the sand, as seen in depth through ice, the ice, with the bubbles suspended in it in depth, the vertical walls of light along the seams in the ice and the complexity of the crystals the water makes as it lays down light in its own patterns. Should it be a surprise that plants developed photosynthesis on this planet? Water is almost there, on its own. And what are the scientists doing?

roverThey are Taking Self Portraits on Mars

The Curiosity Rover is teaching us a lot about our sister planet, which should allow us to create more honest appraisals of our own. But moving there? That’s fantasy. We are this planet. If humans can’t learn to be that, they will only repeat the mis-colonization of the American West on a different world, while this one, with human attention diverted from it, will continue to die. By all means, move to Mars, if it means moving to Earth at the same time. To think on a planetary scale, we have to think on a planetary scale. There is no way around that. To put it another way, rather than being a self portrait made by the Curiosity Rover on Mars, the above image is the earth, peering at a structural representation of itself, and imagining itself as its brother, Mars. That’s powerful. It is, however, not innocent, and it is certainly not merely a bit of cool tech. Neither is the Lumix camera I go out with every day. I get that. As I pointed out yesterday in a related context, it’s not about us.

5 replies »

  1. Harold, Your blog is poetry; I enjoy it daily. You are able to embody the curiosity of a child with your wonder of our world, and I thank you for that. In this blog you mention that beauty is a function of human intelligence. Do you really think so? I believe beauty is an expression of harmony. Pythagoras was one of the ancients to pursue this idea. I believe if there were no human intelligence there would still be beauty because there is always harmony.
    Thank you for your wonderful prose and images. It evokes a curious spirit within me and helps lift my spirit when I sometimes don’t take the time to experience it first hand.


    • Thanks, Kurt. Good to see Pythagoras paying the Okanagan a visit. It’s a good idea you have there. I must agree. Thanks for helping me be clear. I guess I’ve wrestled with these perfect forms long enough that, without realizing it, I’ve wandered to a place in which I’m drawing a line between that harmony and the word beauty used to describe that harmony. It’s like poetry, which is everywhere, and in humans it takes the form of certain verbal constructions, for example (among other things), and in sparrows something else. Same with this harmony. In humans, it takes the form of this ‘beauty’, and in elm trees it takes the form of different harmonies. But that’s splitting hairs. I’m only trying to remove humans from a position at the centre of the earth, and placing us among our fellow travellers. It is intriguing, though… without humans to call it beauty, is this harmony beauty, or is it some non-human thing? I think our words have long histories. What would the words of a citizen of the seas of Europa (the moon) say? We could say, oh, pshaw, same idea, but is it? Or is it the context, and an expression using the terms of that context? And on quandaries like this I have hurt my head for years. You have a way out of this tree-fall-in-the-forest scenario? I’d love to hear it, really. best, Harold


  2. You have a wonderful playfulness in your thoughts again Harold. It’s nice to read because you don’t limit where you can go, again the curiosity of a child. It seems like sometimes you get yourself stuck in a positive feedback loop, although that can be fun or exasperating. I have a thought about this to get you out, but I don’t know how you’ll take it.
    Stop. Direct your curiosity elsewhere. Isn’t that what kids do? As you’re aware, there are endless possibilities, so you’re never going to find an end or an answer. It’s the journey not the destination.
    I live in Vernon too. I think it would be fun to get to know each other a bit better. I spend a lot of time in Kalamalka Park. I have a sit spot there, where I sit and listen to the birds tell their stories, open up my senses, feel the weather, and experience the stories unfolding around me from all of the beings that share this place with us. I would enjoy telling my stories if you’re interested. All the best. Kurt


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