Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Revealing Power of Light

Light is by any measure astonishing stuff. Its effects are profound and universal. Without the powerful, energizing influence of the sun's light, life on this planet would not exist. And, yet, it cannot be touched or grasped. You can't open a mason jar at high noon, wait until it is full of sunlight and then close the lid, hoping to store some of this wonderful elixir until the dead of winter when the sun is low. 

Arguments have raged on for centuries concerning light's fundamental nature. How should we define it? What is it, down at the core of its reality? For a long period of time the best minds believed it to be a particle. Then, more detailed experiments demonstrated it to be a wave. And later yet many claimed it was both. Clearly, it is not just a particle, nor a wave, or even both (these are simplistic and very limited analogies), but it is simply what it is– light– in all its glorious mystery, and unable to be defined conclusively by men.  

The art of photography obviously depends intrinsically on light, as its very name declares: drawing-by-light, or making images through the agency of light. Most other arts also make great use of light, albeit in less obvious ways. The painter who views an incredible natural scene and strives to interpret it on canvas is making great use of the sunlight which reflects and refracts from the portion of the universe within her field of view, is focused onto the retinal sensory apparatus within her eye, and which finally forms a model of that universe within her mind; modified and manipulated by her experiences, beliefs, and moods. Even after she has completed her work, the viewer and appreciator of her art relies completely on the light to illuminate the work, and to repeat the process of perception. 

Bright Idea, © Bill Brockmeier
All rights reserved
Although we will never fully plumb the depths of the true nature of light, we can certainly appreciate some its more obvious aspects.  I have titled my blog here "Revealing Light" because of light's marvelous ability to bring forth understanding where something was previously hidden. It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of this revealing power of light. In fact, in day to day conversation we often directly (without fully realizing what we are saying) refer to this unsurpassed power that light possesses to bring forth understanding from darkness. We use terms and phrases like "illuminate," "bring to light," "enlightened," "it dawned on me," "shine some light on it," and one of more recent vintage: "focus like a laser beam." 

Photography depends upon this unique revelatory characteristic of light for much of its artful power. Countless photons stream from various directions onto the photographer's subject and into the scene. As they interact with the material surfaces they encounter, they either become diminished, bounce off, shift angle, or are otherwise modified by the subject. Some of these altered photons make their way into the entrance pupil of the camera's lens, bringing with them new information that came from the subject. Just as humans are affected as they interact with each other, or with the things and ideas swirling around them and are changed somehow by the interaction, so photons are forever changed as they encounter objects and conditions in their path. One of Solomon's Proverbs says that "as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." That is, people are profoundly changed as they "rub up against" each other. And so, light is changed as it "rubs up against" the universe around it, picking up information and understanding of the things it has encountered. 

For the photographer, the final piece of the interactive power of light is when these photons, carrying information about the subject, encounter the photosensitive material surface within the camera– whether that be silver-based film, or the highly purified silicon from which the photodiodes of a digital camera are made. When this final encounter happens, the photons deliver their load of information and the photograph is crystallized– made manifest as an artifice. The photon, then, is no more. It has given up its life for a new existence: the image, the photograph.  

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