Approaching the perennial questions
A mind game that has enhanced my appreciation of the scope of the universe began when, on a clear day somewhere in the 60s, I sat on a park bench overlooking the Ohio river. Having recently read about optics and laser technology, I pointed an imaginary laser into the sky and wondered how far the beam would travel before it would hit something solid. Practically, of course, this wouldn’t happen because gravity would bend the beam as it neared massive objects and a black hole would actually suck it in. (Being a mind game however, I can change the rules).
Irrespective of my position on Earth and no matter where I pointed the laser and assuming it would travel in a straight line, there’s so much matter in the universe it would eventually contact something solid. It would never move on infinitely, despite the current estimate that only 5% of the universe consists of solid matter. The picture this painted for me then, was a universe that had some solidity to it. It appeared to have a boundary. But now we think we know better.
Anyway, I played on. Might the laser beam penetrate into another universe, the multiverse? Of course, none of this can be known for sure, but there’s the hope that the recently launched James Webb telescope will shed some light on the subject. Anyhow, contemplation is its own reward. The simple act of thinking about immensity generates deep wonder, appreciation and an expansive perspective because at both ends of the spectrum, micro and macro, matter vanishes into mystery.
According to physicist Brian Greene, “If the entire cosmos were scaled down to the size of earth, the part accessible to us would be much smaller than a grain of sand.” On the one hand, that unfathomable scale and the awesome beauty it evokes can make human beings, even the Earth, seem insignificant. On the other hand, we experience an inner universe which, according to some spiritual traditions (notably Hindu Vedanta), regards consciousness and matter as One, constituted of pure awareness.
My fascination with immensity transfers to photography, often by pointing my camera up. If I had access to an electron microscope I would likely be photographing down as well. The photograph of these buildings in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio are an example of the former. In contemplating it, I see their vertical lines as vectors that extend into the atmosphere and then space indefinitely going, going, and going… until they converge at the Big Bang.
Scientists regard that as the origin of our local universe, but if there’s an eternal multiverse as is being postulated by some scientists, there wouldn’t be a beginning or an end. The same conclusion was reached millennia ago by Indian Vedantists, authors of the Vedas, who saw (and see) the manifest universe as a projection or expression of consciousness, which is One.
The nameless, formless Reality, the transcendent awareness in which you are now permanently awake, is precisely the same Reality that you perceive blossoming around you. Brahman is not different from Shakti. The perfectly peaceful Absolute is not different from the playful relative universe. They are simply not two realities. Nor are they two dimensions of the same reality. They are not even two perspectives. Not two! Absolutely not two!
Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Hindu mystic
(Brahman is pure consciousness or God. Shakti is the fundamental creative dynamism that gives rise to universes).
Given these perspectives, I often wonder at the fact that we are creatures who walk on the surface of an awesome and beautiful planet, while overhead there’s unimaginable immensity there to be witnessed day and night just by looking up. To my way of thinking, it will take the integration of both science and spiritual wisdom, objective investigation and subjective experience, before we can even come close to answering the perennial questions: Who are we? Why are we here? How does the universe work? What does it mean? And are we alone?
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
Antoine de Saint Exupéry
About This Image
One of my long-term creative challenges has been to make photographs that evoke the sensibility of immensity, of space and the many forces and fields that pervade it. The sky has therefore become a regular subject for me. I often compose landscapes so the elements under the sky are tiny or small, secondary to the immensity of sky.
Because my work is largely oriented toward introspection and expression, the skies in my photographs are almost never about the sky or clouds or airplane trails. Although these can be present and are what others would say they see, my imagination goes beyond them—to deep space as if the photograph was three-dimensional.
The contemplative approach to photography is very personal for those who pursue it. While the above image is evocative for me, for someone else it’s just an ordinary photo of buildings. That’s why, when an artist makes images for personal rather than professional reasons, descriptions of purpose, approach and objectives can help others understand the significance behind the work, perhaps to see what she sees.
I used to tell my students, the world doesn’t need another photograph or video of anything. What it does need are individuals who, by engaging in a creative process, exercise and develop higher capacities such as love, caring, compassion, empathy, appreciation and meaning to name a few. Irrespective of the medium, artistic expressions of virtue, beauty and truth in particular, feed the soul of the artist and viewers. And by association, the world. The value is less about what we do, more about what we put into it.
- Geene, Brian. (2005). The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. New York, NY: Vintage Press.
Photography Monographs (Click on the pages to turn them)