"White and Pink Chrysanthemum" by Eric Rennie
To discover God in the smallest and most ordinary things, as well as
My world has gotten smaller as I’ve gotten older. This is not uncommon for people my age (I am in my mid-70s at this writing), but it can be a limiting factor if you are a landscape photographer. I am not likely to go trekking in the wild the days; then again, I never did. I was already pushing 60 when I became a serious photographer. Although I have made up for lost time in many ways, that has not included any globe-trotting expeditions. I am still able to get out and about. But there is only so far I want to go lugging heavy camera equipment. And after I took a bad fall while tramping out in the middle of nowhere, my wife made me promise not to venture too far from the beaten path.
"Dead Man's Swamp in Fall 1" by Eric Rennie
Sometimes I get the uncanny sense that the subject of my photograph has been lying in wait for me to take its picture. I say “its” because I am primarily a landscape photographer, and my subjects do not normally smile for the camera. The photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson advised that “your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you,” as if there were an active collaboration between artist and subject. Similarly, the ceramicist Mary Caroline Richards once said the artist’s task is to “allow the centered clay to live into a form which it would itself declare.” Was she suggesting that an inert lump of clay was somehow giving shape to the vessel formed at the potter’s wheel?
As with any visual arts medium, photography is not about trying to impose an idea upon one’s subject – in fact, it is more nearly the opposite. As Richards says, you are allowing your subject to declare itself to you. I get the sense sometimes that what I see though my lens is what I am being shown. Not that my subject is nudging me and whispering, “Hey, look at me.” It’s more that the act of seeing and the fact of being seen are one and the same. There is no longer a sense that the photographer stands apart from what is perceived.
When you look through the viewfinder of a camera, it’s easy to objectify what you see through the lens. The world exists “out there,” and you’re in here looking not at the world itself but at an image of the world captured on your camera. In effect, there is not one world but two – or three, if you count the image in your mind’s eye. However, quantum physicists would tell us there is no real boundary between what we normally think of as the exterior world and the interior world of thoughts and perceptions. “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived,” wrote physicist Erwin Schrödinger. “Subject and object are only one.”
English philosopher Owen Barfield concluded we are deluded in thinking “the mind of man is a passive onlooker at the processes and phenomena of nature.” He theorized that human consciousness is evolving and has reached a stage he called “camera civilization.” Like the workings of a camera, we believe “the mind is something which is shut up in a sort of box called the brain” – a “mere recorder of an external world, not a participant in its creative life.”
According to quantum theory, subatomic particles exist in an indeterminate state until they are observed. In a classic double-slit experiment, you can shine light on a barrier with two slits that allow the light to pass through to a photographic plate on the other side. If you position photon detectors beside each slit, the light will behave like photon particles, passing through one slit or the other and leaving two parallel lines on the photographic plate on the other side. But if the photon detectors are absent, the light will pass through both slits simultaneously and leave a striped pattern on the other side characteristic of a wave. It is as if the light had decided to smile for the camera when the photon detectors were in place and appeared as particles.
The late John Wheeler, the physicist who coined the term “black holes,” believed the same game of peekaboo between subject and object may be playing out in the macroscopic world as well. He theorized that we live in a “participatory universe” in which consciousness is not a bystander to physical reality but is an essential element in its formation. In a sense, you could say the world comes into being because we are here to witness it. It is as if every time I snap the shutter the world is taking a selfie.
Photography had been around for nearly a century before it began to be taken seriously as an art form. Photographers were essentially viewed as skilled craftsmen.Â They worked with mechanical devices, after all. And while it took some expertise to operate a camera, especially in the early days, the only talent required was knowing when to press the shutter. Nowadays, of course, any idiot who knows enough to remove the lens cap can take technically competent pictures, because cameras are basically nothing more than a computer with a lens attached to it. Smart phones make it even easier to take pictures, and people do so bythe trillion. As anyone who has scrolled through the images posted on social media will tell you, most aren't worth a second look; indeed, many aren't even worth a first look. Granted, they're usually not intended as works of art. Most are essentially snapshots that might once have been destined for family albums but are now immortalized in cyberspace.
So what separates a work of art from more pedestrian imagery? Hint: it has little to do with the camera per se— and never did. Sure, fancy lenses might come in handy if you’re photographing wildlife or sporting events. But there are plenty of hobbyists loaded down with expensive equipment who think this alone will guarantee exceptional results. It rarely does. Nor does mastery of Photoshop or other add-ons for digitally manipulating images after they are taken.
"Duck Swimming in Fog" (2016)
I live near the Conncticut River, so we get a lot of fog early in the morning, particularly when the days are warm and the nights cool. I was taking pictures down by the river soon after sunrrise some years ago, when a solitary duck swam into view. This is the result. The image has been selected for an exhibtion at the Decode Galery in Tucson, AZ called "Blue." The show runs from June 10, 2023 to July 1.
Mercado do Bolhão, Porto, Portugal, (1955) by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Even physicists themselves acknowledge that “quantum weirdness” is an apt description for the strange behavior of subatomic particles — and nothing is weirder than the phenomenon known as “wavefunction collapse.” Einstein was the first to report that light (photons) behaved like both particles and waves. So which was it? Succeeding generations of theorists pursued the question, concluding that elementary particles remain in an indeterminate state with regard to such measurable qualities as mass, location and velocity until there is an act of observation. This triggers a “wave function collapse” that causes photons and other elementary particle to take on measurable qualities — a phenomenon that physicists refer to as the “observer effect.” It was as if the building blocks of physical reality were waiting around for an audience before strutting their stuff.
Both Einstein and Max Planck — who between them had laid the theoretical foundations for quantum physics — were profoundly disturbed by its implications, which indicated that the universe did not exist independently of an observer. "No reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit this," Einstein protested in paper he wrote in 1935 with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen. Nevertheless, nearly a century of experimentation has confirmed that elementary particles do indeed play peekaboo with physical reality, even though physicists remain sharply divided on the whys and hows. Many subscribe to the “shut up and do the math” school, rather than waste time trying to explain the seemingly inexplicable.
John Wheeler, a theoretical physicist on the Manhattan Project who coined the term “black holes” for collapsed stars, has suggested that if an act of observation is required to bring elementary particles into existence, the same must be true for everything else. He theorized that we live in a “participatory universe” in which consciousness is not a bystander to physical reality but is an essential element in its formation. In a sense, you could say the world comes into being because we are here to witness it. We become collaborators in what Wheeler called the “genesis of observership.”
You might say the universe is reborn at every moment through the action of human consciousness. If so, then artists are surely its midwives. “Things are because we see them,” the writer Oscar Wilde insisted, long before quantum physicists did the math.
I doubt the iconic street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson knew anything about quantum mechanics. But his description of the creative process dovetails nicely with what physicists say goes on at the subatomic level. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.” If, as Wheeler suggests, we live in a participatory universe, then that “decisive moment,” as Cartier-Bresson characterized it, becomes the equivalent of a wave function collapse. Click! In that moment, color, form, texture, light and shadow come together just so to capture a tiny piece of reality. In that moment, as the physicist Erwin Schrödinger might have put it, “subject and object are only one.” But his colleagues in the scientific community might just as easily have said, “Shut up and take the picture.”
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