Last month I began to talk about the journey we make in photography, and how the machinery of production (our cameras and processes) teach us to see things their way, and thus put us at the mercy of the engineers who designed them. What happens then, when we want to move beyond this and begin to move the process back to where we were in the beginning, to photographing in a place where we set out to express our view of the world?
The answer is to look beyond your eyes, and realise that they are both limited in their receptive range and suspect in terms of the truth they convey to us. The challenge then, is for us to think of ways in which we can explore and utilise that understanding.
The human eye is receptive to a fairly narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum, to wavelengths between around 300nm and 600nm. We could easily say that nothing exists beyond that, because we don’t see it. Yet we know that south of 300nm is ultraviolet radiation, and that north of 600nm is infrared radiation. We can’t see it, but we know it is there.
When we point our TV remote at our giant flat screen and push a button, the channel changes. We know that infrared radiation has been used to carry the ‘change channel’ signal, however we are unable to see it with our eyes. They simply haven’t evolved to detect it, probably because there hasn’t been a need. Try telling that to certain snakes, like the pit viper, who can detect it and use it to target their prey. They need it, so they have developed it for their survival and the continuance of their species.
We don’t need it, so we don’t have it.
Our world is illuminated by the sun during the day, by white light, composed of those aforementioned wavelengths, which our mind interprets as colours, or, more correctly, hues. Thus the ‘colour’ green is a super narrow band of light between 495 and 570nm. Our eyes don’t see green; it is our brain that does the interpreting. Furthermore, green is a label we have learned, perhaps when our mothers pointed at some apples in a shop window, when we were very small, and repeated the word ‘green’ until we had made the mental association.
And, of course it is cultural as well. Someone growing up in the Amazon will have a completely different and perhaps more complex understanding of the word, and probably a wide variety of words in their vocabulary to describe ‘green’ than someone born and raised in Sub-Saharan Africa, who may only have one.
What happens then, when we begin picking up the paving stones upon which we have walked throughout our lives, and to which we have given little or no thought, when we begin to examine them closely and even question their veracity?
It seems to me that when we begin to do this, we are taking back control of our infernal machine and bending it to our will.
Where I am living at the moment rainbows abound. Perhaps it is a function of the climate here in the Far North of New Zealand, or perhaps there is a deeper mystery. They are plentiful and abundant. And of course, as we all ‘know’, a rainbow is white light separated into its component colours and wavelengths; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
One morning however, I caught the ferry to the other side of the Hokianga Harbour. As often happens here, on a still morning a dense fog forms above the water lasting until mid-morning before it burns off. I took my camera.
As we neared the other side, something caught me by the heart, a flash of recognition. I sensed a white rainbow, and so I made some captures. It was not the usual rainbow, with the component wavelengths carefully unpacked, but more a white-bow, one where the colours were still grouped into a single unit, combined to make up white light.
The question that, for me, begged to be answered was this: were the colours still there and was it possible to find them in the apparent chromatic unity of the fogbow?
Would my digital process show me that which my limited eyes could not?
Could I turn the infernal machine against itself?
It turned out that they were, it could, and I did.