This is the 2nd in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.
Atmos is a Greek word meaning “vapor.” Sphaira in Greek means “sphere.” Combined, scientists use the word “atmosphere” to describe the layer of gases surrounding a planet, held in place by gravity. Artists refer to “atmosphere” when weather conditions become apparent within a work of art.
Perspective: Scientists have said that Earth has an atmosphere impossible by the laws of chemistry. Its gasses should have burnt each other up long ago. Yet if they had, Earth would have no living creatures. As it is, every molecule of air we breathe has actually been recently produced or recycled inside other living creatures… Earth’s creatures make and use almost the entire mixture of gases in the atmosphere (which is) held very nearly 21% oxygen all the time. A little more and fires would start all over the world, even in wet grass. A little less and we, along with all other air-breathing creatures, would die.
Outdoors, atmosphere usually occurs naturally in the form of condensation, precipitation, or particulate matter such as steam, smoke, fog or smog. One of my favorite times to photograph is when the weather changes abruptly so there’s early morning fog; being on location before sunrise can extend the shooting time to two hours or more. Fog creates diffusion and the softening of elements closer in. At greater distances, it reduces color saturation and creates blurring.
In the studio, an atmosphere can be created in a tabletop situation with an aerosol spray called “Atmosphere.” I haven’t used it for health and environmental reasons, but it’s sold in camera stores and online. I’ve never been a fan of fog filters either. They apply the softening effect evenly over the entire image, which looks unnatural. To make the above image, I set a clump of weeds on a table about four-feet from the computer, which was displaying a photo of a storm taken in South Dakota. The image on the computer was sharp, so to blur it and increase the effect of distance, I set the camera’s aperture to wide open, thereby reducing the depth of field. I made the exposure solely by the light of the computer image.
Because of its propensity to soften and blur by reducing the acuity or sharpness of objects, atmospheric effects are best used when the objective is to express, to create a mood or feeling rather than convey information. Atmosphere contributes to mood and reduces information.
Reflections On Atmosphere
The atmosphere of a place is its “sensibility,” the impression we get when we enter an environment. Consider the distinction between a restaurant where the floor is concrete, the furnishings are metal or hardwood, the tables and utensils are plastic, the lighting is harsh, and the bare, hard walls and loud music make conversation difficult, with a restaurant where the floor is carpeted, the furnishings are soft and comfortable, the tables are wood with cloth coverings and the napkins are cloth. There’s silverware, soft lighting, barely audible music, and acoustic features that dampen the sound of multiple conversations. These are examples of “hard” and “soft” atmospheres.
Home and workplaces have characteristic atmospheres. They can be ordered, cluttered, noisy, spacious, sparse, inviting, off-putting, busy, dynamic and more. The same with the meeting, entertainment, and sports venues, gatherings of all kinds. Atmospheres effect us personally. They can depress, confuse, exhilarate, empower, or suppress. I’m reminded of the time Linda and I, curious on a vacation to the Bahamas, entered an upscale casino. In less than three minutes, we turned around and walked out because the rooms were permeated with cigarette smoke. Toward the other end of the spectrum, there are individuals, groups, and places that are conducive to the life of the mind—like libraries and lecture halls, atmospheres where we can experience ideas and values that uplift, empower, educate, and inspire.
As human beings who seek a variety of experiences, many of us, at one time or another, explore the full spectrum of available atmospheres. With age, I find a definite propensity toward those that are quieter, softer, and gentler, more inspirational than informational, more meaningful than entertaining. It only takes seconds to read an atmosphere.
A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy dare live.
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