Lying in Wait

August 14, 2023

"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.

 

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