Fog

January 05, 2017

"Two Boats on a Foggy Morning" by Eric Rennie

My photograph entitled "Two Boats on a Foggy Morning" is one of 35 images selected by curator Del Zogg for a juried competition opening this Friday at the Southeast Center for Photography in Greenville, SC.  The exhibit runs from January 6, 2017 through January 31, 2017.    

As a landscape photographer, I love shooting in the fog, but it can be tricky.  The light is softer, more diffuse.  Color saturation is reduced, and contrasts are muted.  Even a high-end digital camera does not come equipped with radar, so it may be difficult to get a good read on featureless terrain.  The camera’s auto focus may not function properly, and the light meter won’t do much better.  I live near a river, so I get plenty of practice working in foggy conditions, especially at times of year when there are sharp swings between day and nighttime temperatures.  I especially like to be out at first light, when the sun has not yet burned off the fog or mist.  But you have to be quick about it, because conditions can change rapidly.  Either you suddenly find yourself in brilliant sunshine, or the fog really rolls in, and you might as well be shooting a blank wall.

For all the technical challenges, photographers know fog can transform an otherwise dreary landscape into something wondrous.  Likewise, film directors can use fog to strike a mood, whether ethereal or menacing.  There was a reason why the makers of Casablanca brought out the fog machines for the movie’s final scenes, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman making their tearful farewells.  This was followed by Bogart and Claude Raines walking off together into the night after the evil Nazi major was shot dead.  To swelling strains of "The Marseillaise," they disappear into the fog as Bogart utters that immortal line, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“One does not see anything until one sees its beauty,” Oscar Wilde once wrote. “Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.”  No doubt Wilde can be accused of overstating his case; it would not be the first time.  And yet there is an argument to be made here.  A photographer points his camera at something that is plainly visible to everyone and hopes by putting a frame around it to make people see.  This essentially is the aim of every artist.

But how far can one carry the argument? “Things are because we see them,” Wilde insisted, “and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.”  Take his first proposition: that things are because we see them.  Philosophers may recognize a restatement of Bishop Berkeley’s famous dictum, esse est percipi, usually translated as, “to be is to be perceived.”   In effect, he is telling us that things exist because we perceive them.  Berkeley’s contention has been the subject of fierce debate – not to mention ridicule --- since it was first proposed in the 18th century.  Then along came quantum physicists in the early 20th century and effectively sided with the Irish prelate.  According to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which governs the subatomic realm, elementary particles remain in an indeterminate state – wave or particle? -- until they are observed. In other words, to be is to be perceived.  Einstein, among others, was greatly disturbed by the implications of quantum mechanics, which he had helped to usher into the scientific mainstream.  In effect, the world did not exist independently of an observer. 

All this may seem far removed from the concerns of a photographer who goes out to take pictures early on a foggy morning.  And yet Wilde had made grand pronouncements about the role of the artist in mediating our sense of the world.  “Nature, no less than Life, is an imitation of Art,” he proclaimed.  He continued in this vein: “Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life.”  Of course, when the quantum physicists speak of observation being required for matter to assume a particular state, they are talking about scientific measurement of elementary particles.  As far as I know, there has been little discussion of its application to landscape photography.  And yet there is certainly a sense in which the world – or at least one version of it – does not exist until its features are first distilled from the morning fog and you snap its picture.