Order And Coherence

Sphere 754


Initially, this image evoked in me an appreciation of the organizing principles that underlie manifested reality, from sub-atomic particles to the universe. The consistent spherical shapes, irrespective of size, and the way the light raked across them suggesting mass and texture and that led to considerations of order. Upon further reflection, my appreciation widened to include the forces of coherence that are displayed between and among the spheres.

I tend to think of ordering as the arrangement of parts within a system, and coherence the adhering property of those parts. Combined, the result is a balanced dynamic, a whole system that functions according to its design. Here, I observe subtle forces, a dance of pushing and pulling that maintains the shape and integrity of each sphere of oil as it seeks a comfortable place on the surface of a hostile environment—a graduate filled with water. This image captured a moment of adaptation in a turbulent situation. In a sense, the cells (oil drops) are “learning” about their identity and place, how to “live” in relation to the other cells given the reality of their environment.

Coherence in us means health: the optimum functioning of the body. When the body is coherent, its immune system is strong and resistant to disease. Everything we do either promotes or counters coherence and thus our and our environment’s evolution and development; it is either healthy or unhealthy, and is either constructive or destructive.

Ervin Laszlo

Perhaps because the larger sphere in the center of the image contains texture, I’m reminded of the processes of ordering and coherence that took place when the Earth was forming, struggling to  take shape and establish coherence at a time in the planet’s history that was so violent we can barely imagine it. I marvel at the improbability of that happening. And yet, out of the chaos came order and coherence, the combination allowing the development of higher organisms and intelligent life.

The probability of life evolving through random genetic variation is about the same as the probability of a hurricane blowing through a scrap yard assembling a working airplane.

  Fred Hoyle


For atoms to bounce together haphazardly to form a single molecule of amino acid would require more time than has existed since the beginning, even a hundred times more than 13.7 billion years.

Mary Coelho


The chance that a livable universe like ours would be created is less than the chance of randomly picking a particular single atom out of all the atoms in the universe.

Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner

About This Image

Sphere 754

I positioned a 4×5 camera over a light table, filled a tall, one-quart graduate with filtered water and set it on the table. Using an eyedropper, I deposited drops of vegetable oil on the surface to form a two-inch “cell.” After some experimentation with lighting, I cut a hole in a sheet of black paper so it was a little larger than the circumference of the graduate and placed it under it. This created the contrast between the light and dark bands.

The out-of-focus edge of the cardboard—due to short depth of field—resulted in the gradations, giving a sense of depth to the spheres. With a little manipulation of the cardboard, and by adding more drops of oil, the image took on an organic as well as cosmic sensibility. But there were problems. The oil cells kept drifting to the side of the graduate and out of the camera frame. Worse, dust particles kept settling on the surface. I dismantled the setup and started again from scratch after creating nearly clean-room conditions—including working in my underwear.

To gain control over the composition and the dust I substituted an electronic flash for the incandescent bulbs in the light box. Still there was dust, and it was visible on the surface because that was the point of critical focus. The solution was to quickly cover the graduate with a piece of clear glass between exposures. With a cable release in hand and the shutter cocked, I removed the glass, made the exposure and quickly covered the graduate to prepare for the next shot.

After several exposures, I experimented with a variety of substances to see how they would interact with the large pool of oil in the middle of the frame. I dumped the water and reconstituted the oil drops maybe fifty times to get it right. In the end, it was a single drop of lighter fluid deposited in the center of the oil cell that created the texture. And it was dramatic! Within the sphere there was a highly active cauldron of swirling lines and craters. Whereas oil and water do not mix, oil and lighter fluid actually do battle with each other to establish coherence. Eventually, the oil won because lighter fluid evaporates.

I shot over 100 sheets of 4×5 film to get about 40 very different images—by using different vessels, types of oil and lighting setups. I did this in two, week-long sessions separated by about four months, the second one taking advantage of what was learned in the first. What prompted this project was my insatiable desire to make images that exhibit varying degrees of gradation.

A full description of this process and more of the spherical images can be found in LensWork Magazine #39 February-March, 2002. For readers who approach photography as a medium of creative expression, I can’t say enough about LensWork Magazine and its many initiatives. I consider it to be the Rolls Royce of photography magazines. It deals with technique a bit, equipment not at all. Instead, the focus is on the creative process. The magazine is only available in select bookstores, so I recommend a subscription.


I invite you to visit my portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography






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