In this image I reflect on the notion of “reality,” that it’s both individual and a construct. There’s the reality that I, as the photographer, experienced—the bright sun and the people on the hill. Part of that reality includes cars in a parking lot and an observation platform to the right of the walkers, so the reality within the frame is a small fraction of what I experienced. The realities of the individuals walking down the path are entirely different from my experience, each having a unique perspective based on a complex of references, preferences, relationships and motivations. Then there are the realities that you and other observers will read into this image: perhaps humanity’s exploration of the planet, it’s advance into the future or the scale of the Earth and human beings relative to the immensity of the sun. Yet another reality is the image itself, experienced differently on a screen or on paper. These and other realities are quite easily seen and understood because our senses provide our brains with input that constructs meaning based on both our personal and consensus experiences.

What we do not see is an (or “the”) objective reality. While our sensory systems evolved to maximize the potential for survival and growth, they do not detect the realities that give rise to life and form, the worlds of atoms and quanta. For instance, the photons stimulating our retinas as we look at this image. Objectively it has no color. What the brain interprets as color has everything to do with the reflection and absorption properties of surfaces. We say a fabric is “red,” for instance, because the combination of threads absorb the colors of the visible spectrum other than red. Put another way, “Blue” is the experience of a lack of yellow. So while eyes perform the critical task of providing wavelength input and generating stimuli accordingly, it’s actually the brain that “sees” color. The same is true of shape, texture and dimension, properties the brain uses to interpret and construct our visual reality.

Even the experience of a solid is a mental construction. In the quantum realm nothing is solid. In metals and even diamonds, the hardest of rocks, there’s far more space within and between the atoms than there is matter. Same goes for the universe—as we know it. Dark matter could change that perception. At  the that level matter reduces to “quanta” and energy “fields.”

For whatever reason, this image reminded me that the realities of everyday life are personal constructs, moment to moment interpretive creations where all my sensory inputs are filtered through a myriad of past experiences and influences including physiology, ethnicity, psychology, family, education, peer associations, socialization and work to name a few. Even the realities and the symbols that represent them are momentary constructions. Consider how your personal reality would be changed without the words “television” or “time.” I’m reminded of the indigenous people who experienced Spanish galleons for the first time, interpreting them as sea monsters or monster canoes and regarding rifles as barking sticks and fire sticks. New realities rely upon established ones to make sense of them.

On the one hand, the awareness that reality is a construct is humbling. It leads to the observation that we live somewhere in the middle between the ephemeral and immensity. It’s also empowering because, if my personal reality is a construct, I can alter it—make it better. What’s more, the leading edge of consciousness and technology that’s expanding our understanding and capabilities in both directions suggests that something grand is in process. From this perspective, and in the image above, I see us walking into that light with enthusiasm and determination.

If an almost limitless field of action lies open to us in the future, what shall our disposition be, as we contemplate this march ahead? A great hope held in common. 

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin S.J.

About This Image

Title: The Leading Edge

Theme: Realities

File #: DC4620

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

I’d been photographing the magnificent landscapes in the Badlands of South Dakota when I saw a turnout where people were walking back and forth on a walkway that led to an overlook and a grand vista. That particular landscape had been and will continue to be photographed by thousands of tourists each year. I’d seen many like it days before, but because there were so many people I had to see for myself what was attracting them. Also, a lifetime in photography has taught me that unusual and powerful images are much more likely to occur when walking rather than driving.

And, it isn’t always the spectacular or unusual subject matter that makes a good photograph, it’s  more about the manner of looking. And as Henri Cartier-Bresson said, it’s about “being there,” being present and prepared for what he called “the decisive moment” when the angle of light, a gust of wind or a fallen rock presents a composition rich in beauty or expression. Happy accidents happen so often, it didn’t matter to me that this lookout was crowded with people taking pictures. Yes, I set up my tripod on the platform and shot the vista like everyone else. And I’m glad I did. But of the exposures I made at that location, the one that eventually spoke to me was this one.

After shooting the vista, a range of pink and red peaks with long shadows, I was back at the car changing batteries and putting the camera in its case. Before closing the trunk lid I took a drink of water and noticed how low the sun had gotten to the horizon since I arrived. Seeing the people in silhouette on the walkway was irresistible, so I got out the camera again and steadied it with my elbows on the roof of the car. The bright flare of the sun was about all I could see on the viewing screen, so I made several exposures hoping to get a pleasing configuration of the walkers that I could barely see at the time because I was facing into the sun. By using a zoom lens the sun was made bigger in the image, but I still had to crop in order to exclude cars in the foreground and the wooden beams of the overlook platform to the right of the walkers.

(Originally posted March, 2013)

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