Going deep to gain insight and expand awareness
Connoisseurs of fine wine and vintage cars relish detail. They follow the lines of interest and attraction as far as they can because observation, knowledge and reflection improve both the breadth and depth of experience. In addition to “contemplating” a finished photograph, which has been the emphasis of my offerings so far, I thought I’d provide some descriptions of going deep into aspects of my creative process itself.
When processing film I turned off the stereo, telephone and dehumidifier. Although I could have used “daylight” tanks, which allows the lights to be turned on when changing chemicals, I much preferred to work in total darkness and process the film in trays. I allowed me to go deeply into imaginative—contemplative—space.
Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Indeed. It is also true that knowledge of a subject—a sport, cooking or an art form—feeds the imagination. For instance, the more I learned about photographic “materials and processes”—we had a class by that name at R.I.T.—the more adept I became at using them. Over time, as I shifted from thinking about what I did was “Fine Art Photography” to “Contemplative Photography” the knowledge and experience I gained triggered what I call acts of “immersive” contemplation.
I offer the following an examples. Because most photographers work in the digital domain, I include descriptions relating to both digital and chemical processes.
In total darkness I slid sheets of 4×5 film into clear water, a “pre-wash” that swells the gelatin emulsion so the film will more quickly and evenly absorb the developing solution. In total darkness, like looking through a high-powered microscope, I imagined the emulsion absorbing water like a sponge. The anti-halation backing—a layer of red dye between the emulsion and the acetate substrate that prevents light from reflecting back through it, otherwise creating flare—dissolves and through agitation floats away in billowing red clouds.
As the sheets of film are immersed in the developing solution, I begin to soar as if on an underwater scooter, moving through the emulsion. Like flying through the rings of Saturn, I pass by a myriad of silver halide crystals, “T-grains,” looking like thin geometric icebergs that clump together to form islands. Their flat surfaces were ideal for absorbing radiant energy—light. I observe the crystals oxidizing, some more quickly than others, turning gray and black according to how they were exposed to light.
All around, as individual grains become more dense, the islands they’re attached to grow darker and darker. After six minutes or so the environment has become very dark. I turn the scooter around and head in the direction of brighter islands. Like swimming from the depths of the ocean toward the surface, the gelatin field begins to brighten. The transition appears to be gradual, but when I zoom out, as it to the sky, it’s a sharp edge. Contrast! (See the dotted rectangle in the photograph of the sphere photograph).
Zooming in again, a single grain of silver halide catches my eye. The surface looks smooth, so I descend slowly, somewhat like a soft approach to the moon. Closer yet, grooves and channels become apparent, then there’s a landscape of mountains and valleys, and some of the grooves turn out to be deep crevasses.
From the bottom of a crevasse, the walls on both sides look like Superman’s crystal palace, but with spires arranged more orderly. I detect movement, like pulsing within the walls. The dance of molecules? Like the aurora borealis, there’s a brightness that modulates, and I notice dark spots on the walls, looking like blemishes. Curiously, the imperfections are attracting neighboring crystals—like the way water vapor forms around a dust particle in the atmosphere to form a raindrop or snowflake. And suddenly they turn black.
On the surface of the emulsion, I’m startled as the slippery and caustic environment I’d grown accustomed to becomes acidic. The “stop bath,” a weak solution of acetic acid solution halted the development. Outside as an observer now, I watch as a flood of sodium thiosulfate washes away the silver crystals that had not been exposed to light, and the density of the others becomes “fixed,” rendered no longer sensitive to light. At this point I turn on the room lights and wince because of the sudden brightness, the shift between worlds.
Here’s another example of taking a deep dive into the details of a medium. In this case, rather than a journey, it evokes a contemplation. Sitting comfortably in front of my computer with an image on the screen that I particularly like, I use the image processing software—Adobe Lightroom in tandem with Photoshop—to magnify it 11:1 so I can discern the individual pixels.
Moving this image to a place where there’s a distinct transition from light to dark tones or from one color to another, I focus my attention on a single pixel, and make it my avatar. (The medium gray pixel, top right).
I imagine being surrounded by family avatars—the nearby pixels—and a vast community of others. Some are darker than me, others are lighter. Because I’m familiar with the photograph, I see how well we fit together to form the whole. Although different, none is better and each is necessary.
In the image we began with at the top, here again is the section enclosed in the box. Zooming out a bit from the family of pixels, I reflect on the part-whole “relationship.” If my avatar or any of the others were excluded or even changed, the whole picture would be changed. There would be a hole or a dark spot that would be out of place. And so my contemplation moves to considerations of “community.” Is it simply a matter of proximity? Or individuals who share an interest? If the whole is to have integrity, diversity becomes a necessity—as does respect for one’s uniqueness and place in the scheme of things.
Zooming in again to consider my avatar, I imagine its physical components, the interacting and vibrating atoms, within them the subatomic particles and within them the quanta that are blinking in and out of existence. Suddenly, I’m reflecting on matters of constitution and identity. Am I merely a composite of these vibrating energies? What is it that distinguishes me from everyone else? Or is there no distinction at this level? The deeper I go, I see less of what sets me apart from everyone else, and then reach a point where there is no difference. Yet all are present. We still know each other. And at any moment we can zoom out—shift our awareness—and see the whole picture again. Having descended into the depth of my being, I can now realize what we are together, where we are, how each of us fits perfectly in the whole and how together we are creating the picture.
The contemplation reminds me about one of the observations of quantum physics, that we find what we’re looking for. For what should we be looking? What do I want to see in me? Where do I fit in the big picture? What picture am I creating?
Photography Monographs (Click on the pages to turn them)