Beyond Seeing-a question of wavelengths
Where is the truth in what we see? After all, we are told to trust our eyes. And where are we tripped up by agreed assumptions?
Our eyes, the two organs either side of our nose, are limited things at best. They have a native ISO of 800, an effective aperture of f3.5, and field-of view approximately that of a 50mm lens. Our native format is roughly 16:9. There is a blind spot on our retina where the optic nerve is located, where no data is received. We have cones to capture colour information in light above a certain brightness, and rods to work in lower light, but these only record tonal values. We have probably all written an essay in school which began “it was a dark and stormy night”. I doubt anybody was given an essay entitled” it was a dark and rose madder night”. The reason is simple: darkness is tonal, and only brightness/daylight has words which use hue descriptors. If were to set our camera to see like us, then we would use a 50mm lens, set our frame format to 16:9, our aperture to f3.5 and our ISO would always be 800. However, we don’t. And why is that?
The answer is that we see with our mind. The eye transmits data to the brain and our mind assembles it and derives meaning from it. Amongst other actions It fills in the gap where the optic nerve is located, it composits individual captures to make a montage and then names it as a single image. It focus-stacks and edits out information that it doesn’t regard as important/relevant/desirable. And what remains is a meaning, not an actual image. Along with recorded data, it weaves in life experience, emotions and memories to create the ultimate montage/collage- and then presents it to us as a single image. And we think that is reality? Little wonder then, that our camera can frustrate us.
But wait, there is more. Our eyes have evolved to see a very, very narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum, wavelengths between approximately 300nm and 600nm. We know, if we paid attention in school science classes, that below 300nm is ultra-violet energy, and above 600nm is infrared radiation. And yet we cannot see it with our limited eyes. Does that mean it does not exist? We know otherwise. Science has “proven” it for us. So what are we to believe and/or trust?
There are other assumptions, traps of thinking in to which we fall. We all, I suspect, unconsciously assume that we see the same things in the same way. We assume that our eyes see in the same proportions and in the same way, yet those of us with astigmatism will see differently. Those of us with cataracts will record hue and tone data quite differently to those with perfect sight (whatever that is). We use our language to support assumption. The hue red is an agreed value. My mind perception of red is surely the same as yours. Isn’t it? Or is it? The artist Henri Matisse made understanding this hue a significant picture-making issue. There are many more assumptions, and we use our language to prop up these assumptions. And assumption is the mother of prejudice and the warm hearth of ego.
Some time ago, a dear friend gifted me a Nikon D80, modified to see only in infrared, to respond to wavelengths above 750nm and completely block visible light. All camera sensors can record IR wavelengths, but the manufacturers (wisely) put in a filter which restricts its sensitivity to visible light. I had long wondered what the world would look like if my vision was limited to seeing only in that band of the electromagnetic spectrum, to see the world as some animals do. Now I could. And the experience has been a revelation.
In my birth province of Central Otago, in the town of Wanaka, there is a tree in the lake which is world famous. Every day heavily-armoured columns of photographers daesh along the foreshore to conquer it and then share online. Every possible photographic permutation is out there in cyberspace. The Wanaka Tree (note the caps) even has its own Facebook page, or so I am told! Google it and you will see what I mean. I had stubbornly resisted joining them. I even made a point of NOT knowing where to find it, until a student on a workshop I was teaching in the town pointed it out to me. I cursed him silently. Now I had no excuse. Then, as I reflected on my own response, I realised it was all about my ego and pride (photographers are particularly prone to that and I am as guilty as any). I needed to get over myself.
It was late afternoon, and I had time. The light was autumn-beautiful. I told myself that I just had to go there. I didn’t have to make a picture, after all. No one need ever know I had been there photographing. So I furtively slunk up to it. And saw what all the fuss was about.
Just offshore, the tree leaned against the late afternoon light, tender and diaphanous. It seemed to shimmer. Sir John Suckling’s poem “Prithee, why so pale and wan, fond Lover”, came to mind. Humbled, and with my ego lying in shreds at my feet, I just wanted to make a photograph which would honour the tree’s beauty.
I focused on the energy the tree exuded, and attempted to reach beyond Assumption. At that time, in that place Infrared was the perfect genuflection.
This article appeared in the May 2016 issue of f11 Magazine for Photographers and Afficionados.
A portfolio of my older work published in f11 as a part of the September 2012 issue (pp. 36-60) can be found here.