Seeing in the Dark

The poet Goethe argued that colour is formed by the boundaries between light and darkness. He argued that it was possible to see in the dark — that colour (or light) were not requirements for “seeing”. Two hundred years have passed and these theories have just been proven at the University of Zürich, by the researchers Matthias Rang und Johannes Grebe-Ellis, who demonstrated the  multi-colour nature of shadows. They showed the stability of the colours purple, yellow and blue within shadows, even after being passed through two prisms, in a counter-demonstration to Newton’s, which showed the stability of green, red and blue in the same circumstances. Grebe-Ellis and Rang succeeded in a proof where Goethe failed at one (and fell out of favour in physics), because they used three-dimensional shadows, rather than the two-dimensional light which Newton employed in his experiments with light. If you read German, here’s a link for you. What does this mean? Well, it means that our cameras are not recording the world — only the addition of human intention to the photographs made with them can return three-dimensionality to shadow and make each photograph what it is to the human body: a room for light, rather than a record of it. The room is the darkness, which is not a force but a space. The light reflects off the boundaries of the space. And what is the room? Why, what all things in sculpture are: the human body. This is the human body:

P1380770 Walnuts at Dusk

So is this, a half hour later:


West Arm, Okanagan Lake, Looking Towards Shorts Creek

In both of these images, the human body has intersected differently with light. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that the universe is modelled after the human body. Rather, the human body is a part of the universe: the universe is revealed through it, as it is in all of its forms, including lettuce leaves and the rings of Saturn. Here are some words that Goethe wrote about this, in his A Theory of Colour:

No longer do we believe (although it does sound a little strange) that the eye sees no shapes at all, in that light and darkness and colour together build up material, which contrary forces separate into distinct parts for the eyes. This is how we build up the visible world from these three principles — it’s even how painting is made possible, which is able to bring forth the real world out of the completely visually-oriented one.

OK, the translation is rough and his sentences are rather convoluted (despite my botched attempts to straighten them out), so let me try to break it down:

1. The eye does not see shapes or things.

2. The interaction of light, dark and colour (and not light, dark or colour in themselves) interact to separate the parts of objects into visible components, which humans can see.

3. Humans intuit the objects that this process has sketched out.

4. Painting, which is colour laid down over shadow or against other colour, replicates this process and creates the real world out of a mere visual representation of it.

This, in other words, is not light:


Old Orchard Fence, Bella Vista

Those are thousand-year-old Old Growth coastal red cedar trees, those are.

It is darkness, which light, interacting with darkness in three dimensional space transforms into visual signals which humans can apprehend and move through. It has also been given to you on a screen of light, after being captured in a two-dimensional light-capturing mechanism (a digital camera). In the absence of a darkness-capturing mechanism, the photographer and the viewer must work in reverse of the original impulse. Instead of viewing the intersection of darkness and light as the world of colour, as I did when I walked out into the snow, we must now view a world of light and colour and imagine moving through it, trusting that the dark is still there. It is a lot like walking in the dark, except this time it is really walking in the light. It means that a photographer must work very hard to put himself or herself into the picture, so that it remains a three-dimensional body, capable of capturing light and leading viewers into the world. In the image above, the body is captured by the way in which the photograph frames the fence. In the one below, it does the same with leaves, colour and texture…

Staghorn Sumac and Filbert Leaves in the Snow

The next step is to walk out of the frame of the photograph into a world that replicates these effects everywhere at once. That is the vision I am working towards. It is not hard to see with the human body. It is impossible to see by any other device. You could thus say that the space outside of the frame of the photograph above is the human body, which stands to the photograph in the same place that darkness stands to light in Goethe’s conception. If you walk out into it you are in the world. It is, as the images above show, unknown, but if you walk into it you will apprehend it. When you do, remember this one thing: the fourth dimension of space is time. Here’s some time:

P1380705More Old Growth Forests!

You could say that it takes 5 minutes to walk the half kilometre along this fence, which separates a field of weeds from another field of weeds, or that it takes a half kilometre to cross 5 minutes of time. It’s the same thing, but you cannot experience either form of it by standing still in front of a view. In a view, there is no time or space at all. Time and space (and thus the earth) are outside of it. Because they do not move, they do not interact. That’s why I include words with these photographs. These words too are representations of human bodily space, but unlike photographs they are rich with time. The combination of time and space that I employ on this blog to illuminate human presence in the earth and earthly presence in humans is like Goethe’s combination of darkness and light to illuminate colour, which serves to lead humans towards the world which cannot be seen but which we all know as intimately as we know the location of our hands in the dark. Goethe called this space God. For the purposes of this blog, I am calling it the earth, because I want to point out that in a world over-saturated with humans the lack of a conception of the human body that includes the earth and all things living on it, the earth will be lost, and with it the human ability to see in the dark. And what’s that? Why, this:

icegrow2Ice Crystals Seeing in the Dark




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