Taking Our Minds Off Our Existence

September 19, 2021

"The I Is Not an Object" by Eric Rennie

We can only exist by taking our minds off the fact we exist.
— Thomas Bernhard 

“The ‘I’ is not an object,” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote.  Wittgenstein was famous for turning overblown philosophical abstractions into bare facts and exposing them as essentially nonsensical.  He advised his peers to stop thinking and to start looking.  On most subjects, the less said, the better.  As far as the self— or the “I”—was concerned, there was really nothing to discuss, since the self tangibly existed only as subjective awareness and not as the object of one’s awareness. Or as Wittgenstein put it,  “I can objectively confront every object. But not the I.” 
Wittgenstein, an avid photographer, might have appreciated this illustration.  It is impossible to take a self-portrait where you are looking at yourself through the viewfinder of a camera.  You can photograph your reflection in a mirror or set up your camera on a tripod to take a picture using a timer and automatic focus.  But you cannot be on both ends of the camera at the same time.  If you are looking through the viewfinder, your actual face can’t also be in the frame.

Wittgenstein's point is that we often think of ourselves as if there were two of us, the “me” that thinks thoughts and perceives the world and the “me” that is the object of those thoughts and perceptions. You can trace this strange bifurcation of self to what French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan first identified as the “mirror stage” of child development, when toddlers fall in love with their reflections in a mirror, signaling the emergence of self-awareness.  This is the point at which the self becomes both the subject and object of one’s awareness – a condition that the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer regarded as “the most monstrous contradiction ever thought of.” 

“How I wish I could separate myself from my body,” Narcissus sighed upon seeing his own reflection in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  In a sense, that is exactly what we do when we become self-aware.  We turn ourselves inside out, simultaneously seeing the world from the inside and yet viewing ourselves as if from the outside.  And if you want to make people feel self-conscious, just point a camera at them.  Most people reflexively put on a “camera face” whenever a camera is pointed in their direction, a faintly pained expression that passes for a grin in photographs.  I find this to be true even when I am trying to take my own picture.  There seems to be no way to avoid viewing myself as if from the outside. 

As a photographer, I much prefer shooting people when they are just being themselves, which is usually when they are not aware I am taking pictures, if only in the moment when I am pressing the shutter.  Their features may be the same either way. But there is always some essential quality that is absent when they pose for a picture. Actors or models learn to present a convincing impersonation of themselves; still, it is a mask. The soul is eclipsed by our self-consciousness.

The paradox is that you can only truly be yourself when you are not self-conscious.  In Buddhist terms, the person I think of as “the real me” is an illusion.  This does not mean I don’t exist.  It just means that the thoughts I have about myself are just that: thoughts. The “I” I think I am is “a mirage that perceives itself,” to borrow a phrase from cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter.  Even as a serious photographer, I find that I cannot take my own picture without reflexively striking poses. 




Freeze Frame

August 27, 2021

From Stainless -- 42nd Street, Video by Adam Magyar

In Adam Magyar’s video series, Stainless, the camera pans slowly across a long line of commuters frozen in place on a subway platform at the 42ndStreet station in New York City as they wait for a train to pull in. But what appears at first to be a startlingly lifelike high-definition still image turns out to be something else altogether. As the camera scans the faces of the commuters standing motionless on the platform, there appears to be the slightest movement from one of them.  Did that woman just blink?  Did that man’s hand move ever so slightly as he tugged on the strap of his shoulder bag?  It turns out this is no still photograph but a panoramic sequence filmed in hyper-slow motion using an industrial video camera capable of filming at up to 100,000 frames per second. At such a rate, played back at normal speed, a moment becomes a minute, and an 11-second clip of a train pulling into the station becomes an 11-minute video.   As a result, the world is revealed in ways that normally escape our notice because they happen too quickly to be comprehended.

I am reminded of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ecstatic description of a photograph in an article he wrote for The Atlanticin 1861.  He was describing a stereopticon slide of a street scene along Broadway in New York City.  This was still in the early days of photography, and until then exposure times had been so slow cameras couldn’t capture motion at all.  A photograph of a busy street scene would have appeared empty.  Yet here was a street scene bustling with life, the way you would see it with your own eyes – except nothing moved.  “All is still in this picture of universal movement,” Holmes wrote. “Take ten thousand instantaneous photographs of the great thoroughfare in a day; every one of them will be as still as the tableau in the ‘Enchanted Beauty.’ Yet the hurried day's life of Broadway will have been made up of just such stillnesses. Motion is as rigid as marble, if you only take a wink's worth of it at a time.”

Holmes might well have used the same words to describe Magyar’s video of passengers on a subway platform, a tableau made up of tens of thousands of stillnesses captured on a high-speed industrial video camera.  Motion indeed appears as rigid as marble if you take it a wink’s worth at a time, even if you are shooting video.

Time and motion vexed philosophers long before photographers got in on the act.  The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides insisted that all appearance of time, motion and plurality were illusory.  His student Zeno sought to prove it with a series of logical paradoxes, the most famous of which involved a race between Achilles and a tortoise. Zeno postulated that if the tortoise were given a head start, Achilles could never overtake him.  In the time it took Achilles to close the gap between the two, the tortoise would advance some distance farther on. And once Achilles had closed the gap again, the tortoise would have advanced still farther -- and so on, ad infinitum.  There would always be a gap, no matter how infinitesimal; hence, Achilles could never overtake the tortoise.  Zeno concluded from this that motion therefore must be illusory.

We could well imagine Magyar filming such a race.  It would start at normal speed with Achilles rapidly closing the gap with the sluggish tortoise.  But then Magyar’s high-speed industrial camera would kick into overdrive, and suddenly it would appear that the two were frozen in place, with the tortoise still ahead by a nose.  We are now viewing the race in what Magyar calls “in-between time.” At 100,000 frames per second, the blink of an eye on video would take more than six minutes to play back at normal speed.  A ten-second race would last over 11 hours.  And yet, Zeno notwithstanding, is there any doubt that Achilles would be first to cross the finish line?  

Since no sane person would ever bet on the tortoise in a race with Achilles, we might well conclude Zeno’s paradox is disproven by reality. If motion is real, then something else has to give.  And since time and motion are the two variables in question here, the only alternative is to conclude that time itself is illusory.  How can this be?  Time obviously exists as an abstract measure of change.  The problem comes with instantaneous time, those discrete instants when time is frozen to reveal Achilles straining to close the gap with a sluggish tortoise he can never quite overtake.  

But what if there are no instants in time?  A young theorist from New Zealand named Peter Lynds argued as much in a paper published in a physics journal in 2003. He wrote, "With some thought it should become clear that no matter how small the time interval, or how slowly an object moves during that interval, it is still in motion and its position is constantly changing, so it can't have a determined relative position at any time, whether during a interval, however small, or at an instant. Indeed, if it did, it couldn't be in motion."

Plot each instant on a line representing the flow of time, and something else becomes apparent.  An instant, by definition, has no duration, any more than a point has dimension.  And, as we all learned in geometry class, no number of points will ever add up to a line.  Similarly, no number of instants will ever add up to a flow of time.  Yet we all have a sense that time is passing, even if we can never point to exactly what it is that passes.  Lynds believes temporal progression is no more real than instantaneous time. “It's something entirely subjective that we project onto the world around us,” he writes.

St. Augustine, curiously enough, arrived at a similar conclusion in the 4th century.  "I say that I measure time in my mind," he wrote.  "For everything which happens leaves an impression on it, and this impression remains after the thing itself has ceased to be....When I measure time it is this impression that I measure." In modern terms, Lynds maintains that time is a neurobiological process, principally a "persistence of vision," that causes the mind to string together a series of impressions to create a perception of movement, much like still images threading rapidly through a projector to make a movie.

Magyar’s subway panorama forces us out of the flow of time into an in-between place that appears to be neither movement nor stillness.  He says, “I’m extending the moments—the present, the now—because as humans we live only in the past and the future. But the only existence we have is now, and that is something that we don’t even consider.”   This in-between time that Magyar presents is not the same thing as an instant – a slice of time in which all movement is brought to an absolute standstill – nor is it the normal persistence of vision in which we are swept along by the unblinking currents of time.  For want of a better term, call it eternity -- or the closest we can come to a graphic depiction of eternity. 

Theologians – Augustine among them – have long argued that God exists outside of time; he is the “high and lofty One who inhabits eternity,” as the Prophet Isaiah once put it. This characterization was no doubt meant to place God well beyond the reach of time-bound mortals.  Except now it turns out that we mortals may also inhabit eternity, whether we realize it or not. It is in plain sight in the interstices between past and future, between memory and expectation.  It may be found in what the philosopher George Santayana once called “the essence of nowness [that] runs like fire along the fuse of time."

We live eternally in the present moment, yet we think in time; indeed, we have no alternative except to think in time.  It is literally embedded in the grammar of our thoughts, each thought carefully segmented into past, present or future, like the still frames of a motion picture.  So if it is God we seek – the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, as the Prophet Isaiah put it -- then we must likewise inhabit eternity.  Yet it is not as far as we think; in fact, it is best not to think at all. Then we might just find we can get there in no time at all -- or perhaps I should say, we can get here in no time at all.


July 19, 2021

"To Wither into the Truth" by Eric Rennie

My photograph, "To Wither into the Truth," appears in an online exhibit entitled "Color" at the Photoplace Gallery in Middlebury, VT.  The juror was photographer Arthur Myerson.  The show runs from July 23-August 13, 2021.  The image is part of my illuminated flower series.  I borrowed a line from a W.B. Yeats poem as the title of this photograph, which captures the flower in its death throes.  I was struck by the delicate colors and the blossoms folding gracefully back on themselves.

Trolley Museum at Night

June 19, 2021

"Trolley Museum at Night" by Eric Rennie

My photograph, entitled "Trolley Museum at Night," is among 40 works (out of 500 submitted) in a juried competition that opens June 19, 2021 at the Dallas Center for Photography.  The juror is Western documentary photographer John Langmore.  My image was taken 11 years ago on the grounds of a trolley museum in East Hartford, CT. There's nothing like a night scene, illuminated by a single light source, to add drama and an air of mystery to a setting that might be quite ho-hum if photographed at noon. The title of the exhibition, appropriately enough, is "Light" and it runs through July 10, 2021.  

Blooms Twice in June

June 15, 2021

"Witches Cauldron" by Eric Rennie

“A flower blossoms for its own joy,” Oscar Wilde once wrote. This remark came in a letter in which Wilde argued that art exists for its own sake and for no other purpose. “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless.” In suggesting that flowers blossom for the sheer joy of it, Wilde might fairly be accused on falling prey to the “pathetic fallacy,” that is, ascribing human emotions to plants, animals or inanimate objects. It is, of course, humans who find joy in the blossoming of a flower — not the least photographers like me who try to capture their beauty in useless works of art meant to bring some small measure of joy to others. 

My image, "Witches Cauldron," is appearing in two juried exhibitions this month. The first opens today at the Annmarie Sculpture Garden and Arts Center, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, located on the eastern shore of Maryland. Entitled "Shine: Catching the Light," the show runs until August 9. The second show is called "Bloom" and opens June 25 at the Midwest Center for Photography in Wichita, KS.


January February March April May June July August (3) September (1) October (1) November (3) December (2)