It’s not nothing; nowhere is it empty
Photographing on the American Great Plains was heavenly—not only for what was on the ground but especially for what was overhead. In 2012 I ambled the backroads of South Dakota and Nebraska for ten days, intent on capturing space, in addition to landscapes. My interest in “space” as a creative challenge was sparked by readings in science:
- The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw: “What we call ‘empty space’ is really a seething maelstrom of subatomic particles. The vacuum has an incredibly rich structure made up of all the possible ways that particles can pop in and out of existence.”
- The Higgs Boson Discovery by Lisa Randall: “Empty space is not truly empty. It can have energy and charge. It just doesn’t have matter.”
- The Fabric Of The Cosmos by Brian Greene: “Empty space is teeming with quantum activity. It is far from empty. Particles fluctuate. They’re created and destroyed, come in and out of being. Space is “teeming” with fields and particles. It’s so flooded it has been shown experimentally to force things together. One of the properties of space is that it “wants” to expand, faster and faster.”
Scientists writing about the contents of “outer space” being filled with invisible particles, waves and fields prompted the realization that these energies and more, permeate our world and everyday life. For evidence, we need only observe the many and varied electronic towers and satellite dishes that have become ubiquitous. Right this moment, we are bombarded with radio and television waves, microwaves, photons, ultraviolet light, infrared rays, X-rays and gamma rays, cell phone waves and sub-atomic particles such as neutrinos and bosons. And that’s on top of the more subtle and mysterious “stuff” called dark matter and dark energy, which has not yet been identified.
Indeed, space is a teeming maelstrom of invisible energy waves. I observe this, not as a complaint or a cause for distress, but to marvel at the complexities and geometrical beauty of these energies and fields which, although invisible, are natural and powerful components of the universe.
It made me wonder if there was a way that I could capture the sensibility of those forces on film. Linda offered an idea: For space to be seen or noticed, it needs to have a material reference or context. She offered my photograph Solitude—a high contrast black and white image of fishermen in a rowboat surrounded all around by pure white space—as an example. (See my posting of February 8, 2014).
After much consideration and research, the quest for wide open vistas led me to the Great Plains. And I found what I was looking for—vast fields and open skies. Considering that the universe is constituted of only 5% matter, I composed many of my landscape shots so the sky would occupy 95% of the space within the frame. I also emphasized converging lines to convey distance. In a closeup of whisp grass, the wind blurring the feathery strands served to demonstrate that invisible force. And cultivated fields provided a metaphor for, well, “fields.”
Part of the joy of photographing in those wide open spaces, was not contending with visual obstructions such as billboards, businesses, expressways or jet trails. The challenge of working around telephone poles, wires, fences and road signs was minimal. I could set up my 4×5 view camera in the middle of the road with no concern about traffic. There were times when I wouldn’t see a car or another human being for nearly an hour. And the clouds were spectacular, like they knew I was wanting to capture the sensibility of immensity and space. It was a time of great joy, creative outpouring and freedom—being in the flow.
While these images do not actually show the particles, waves and fields mentioned above, they take me to a place where I can imagine them beyond the sky. And that evokes appreciation, sometimes awe.
The non-visible world’s nature differs so radically from the material world that it cannot be pictured. It’s both nonmaterial and non-visible. Even so, it is profoundly real and powerful. The new cosmology depends upon an understanding of the reality and power of this realm.
Brian Swimme, Cosmologist