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 this doesn’t work because gravity would bend the beam and a black hole would suck it in. (This is a mind game, so I can change the rules).
Irrespective of my position on Earth and no matter where I pointed the laser, there’s so much universe, it would eventually contact something solid. It would never get through to pure, empty, dimensionless space—if there is such a place. Despite the current estimate that only 5% of the universe consists of solid matter, the picture this painted for me was of a universe that had some solidity to it. It suggested a boundary. But now we now know better.
Anyway, I played on. Might the laser beam penetrate into another universe, the multiverse or other dimensionsions? Of course none of this can be known for now, so the game ends with these questions. But contemplation is its own reward. In particular, the simple act of thinking about immensity generates deep wonder, appreciation and perspective because at both ends of the spectrum 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 both 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 probably be photographing down as well. The above image is an example of the former. In contemplating this image, I imagine the vertical lines of the buildings as vectors that extend into the atmosphere and then space indefinitely—going, going, going… until they converge at the Big Bang. Scientists regard it as the beginning, and that may be true of our local universe, but if there’s an eternal multiverse as is being postulated, it wouldn’t have a beginning or an end. Given these perspectives, I never stop marveling at the fact that we are creatures who walk on the surface of this planet, and that overhead is unimaginable immensity, there to be observed and explored, day and night, just by looking up. To my way of thinking, it will take the integration of science and spirituality, 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? And what does it mean?
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
Title: Above & Below
File # DC3780
One of my long-term creative challenges has been to make photographs that evoke the sensibility of immensity, of space and the many forces 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.
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 eye 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 what her work about, perhaps even see what she sees.
I used to tell my students, the world doesn’t need another photograph—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. Artistic expressions of these lift us up. And by association, the world.
- Geene, Brian. (2005). The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. New York, NY: Vintage Press.
I invite you to visit my recently updated portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography