Back in the early 90s I attempted to write a book. Nothing come of it, I never finished it or attempted to get it published. With my thoughts on photography here lately I remembered writing a passage comparing art and photography while walking on Christmas Eve 1990. The comparison of photography to art is part of a larger discussion on reality. I won't vouch for the accuracy of any of the physics. Here is what I wrote on Christmas Eve 1990. The photos and illustrations have been added now and are not from the original text. Forgive me for the length.
"Cogito, ergo sum."
"I think, therefore I am."
René Descartes, 1641
Yesterday a cold front passed through with high winds and a weird thunderless lightening. All yesterday the temperatures dropped, and over night we got about a half inch of snow. It is Christmas Eve, and I am out walking.
Down here on the road, I am amazed how much water is running because it is cold, low 20's. All down the side of the cliffs and along the road the water runs unimpeded by ice. Where the water splashes, the adjacent twigs and plants are frozen in a crystal wonderland, but the running water shows no sign of freezing. Not all that surprising considering that two days ago the temperatures were in the 60's, and we have had a lot of rain. I can't find the daisies on the S-bend; the cold must have gotten them. At the bottom of the hollow, a horse is out in the field. He is wearing a blanket and seems to want to visit with me. He comes over to the fence in the corner of the field and stares at me. Odd, the horse has never paid any attention to me before; why does he want to see me now? Maybe he knows that it is Christmas Eve, and he wants to wish me a Merry Christmas. I would like to go see him, but he is on the other side of the creek. I snort and whinny at him. He replies in horsey, some nods and hoof stamping. I don't know what he said, but for that matter, I don't know what I said to him either. I hope it passed for a greeting.
It is cold and windy with a cloudless sky, about half past three in the afternoon. I am surprised to be walking into an almost setting sun. I am always at work at this time of day, so this is a different experience. I have never thought much about it before, but the road must follow a south west course despite all the twisting and turning. With the cold air, I try to pay attention to the quality of the sound. I can't really say what the ambient noise is like; it is muffled by the creek and the runoff. But I notice that those sounds are sharper, crisper. Cold air is denser and can vibrate better than warm air. Sound travels faster and has a better fidelity in the cold. Cold clear air also has a crisp visual quality. There is no haze to obscure the view. The sky is extremely clear and blue; everything has a sharpness, a precision, a higher resolution as if somehow you had more rods and cones packed into your retina. Edges are well defined. Although there is less light from the low winter sun, it is reflected back with greater clarity. The cold clear air gives the world the quality of an Ansel Adams photograph instead of the usual murky look of an impressionist painting. I suppose that it is the humidity and the pollution that immerses the view in fuzziness. But not today. Today has a raw edge. The cold has given everything a harsh, austere, and brittle quality. Reality has become more real. It is lonely out here.
How can reality be more real? What does temperature, humidity, and clear air have to do with reality or loneliness? Common sense tells us that a tree is the same tree whether it is viewed through haze or clear air. The tree is the same even if totally obscured by fog or darkness. What changes is our perception of that reality. Nineteenth century physics would have agreed, reality exists independently of the observer. It is there no matter what. But in twentieth century physics, things get strange. Reality depends upon an observer--the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Note! Click on photos for full size.
The act of observation causes a "collapse of the wave function", and thereby creates a firm reality out of what previously had been only a statistical set of possibilities which exist in a wave form of probability or chance. A major tenet of the Copenhagen interpretation is Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Discovered by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, the principle states that it is impossible to know with absolute precision both the position and the momentum of a particle. It is not a problem with the measuring equipment, rather it seems that position and momentum do not exist in simultaneous precision. The uncertainty principle has been expanded to include other properties and is called the complementarity principle. The whole deal comes down to that reality, at least on the subatomic scale, exists only as a throw of the dice frozen in midair until someone takes time to observe what is going on. At that time, the dice land and reality hardens into physical existence. Does a falling tree make a noise if no one is in the forest? According to quantum mechanics, without an observer, the tree and the forest does not exist in a material sense, let alone the noise. How the universe operates when we are not paying attention is something that I don't quite understand. Do you find this a bit hard to swallow? Don't feel bad, so did Albert Einstein who said: "God does not throw dice." Niels Bohr, a founder of the Copenhagen Interpretation, put big Al in his place when he replied "nor is it our business to prescribe to God how He should run the world."
Now if all this seems strange, then consider the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics. This interpretation was developed by Hugh Everett with encouragement from John Wheeler in the late 1950's. Instead of the wave function collapsing into one firm solution of reality, the universe splits and a new independent universe is created for each possibility. Flip a coin and two universes result, one for heads and one for tails. Roll a pair dice and our one universe must split up into 36 different universes, one for each possible combination of the two dies. Imagine how many universes are created by some of the state lotteries.
But they pale in comparison to all the universes that are created by nature. You see a split occurs for every quantum event, and quantum events are rather tiny subatomic occurrences (such as: is a photon absorbed or reflected) that continually occur at a prodigious rate throughout the universe. You don't need anything near as complicated as a state lottery or even a coin to split up universes. Each new universe continues to split and so on. So according to this theory, there are countless and ever increasing editions of you and I roaming about in countless and totally isolated universes. In many of these universes you are not reading this blog: I decided not to write it, Blogger decided not to publish it, you decided not to read it, I am dead, you are dead, the server is dead, I was never born, you were never born, somebody got trigger happy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. . . . Makes you tired, doesn't it? I wonder what big Al would have said about this one. Fantastic as it sounds, it is a viable theory, and intelligent people give it credence.
So is reality more real in the cold? Is it harsher, lonelier, more austere, more brittle? Or are you being victimized by plagiarism--unintentional, but nonetheless plagiarism? How often have we read the Arctic, the Antarctic, or some mountain top is cold, austere, barren, forbidding, etc, etc, and that reality in this cold place is more real simply by the forbidding elements which one is forced to endure? Reality becomes more real because it forces you to pay more attention to it. You are uncomfortable so it's more real. It is a cultural thing, if it's cold, it's more real. It probably goes back to Jack London and the polar explorers. Is today no more real than a pleasant summer day, it just seems so? But if reality depends on the observer, as the Copenhagen interpretation suggests, then today is more real simply because I observe it to be more real. But then again, if I observe a little green man in the middle of the road singing "Ave Maria", is he real just because I observe him? Can I go about forcing figments of my imagination on the world? What about those people who live in the world of their imaginations: children and the mentally ill? Should we regard their claims seriously because they observe an phenomenon? Perhaps what they see is real. Maybe they are caught in a worm hole between two universes. Physically, they are in our world. But mentally, they are in a parallel world, similar to, but not exactly our world. Maybe their delusions are real. Could maturing be the process of learning to keep one's mental life in the same universe as his physical being? Maybe the mentally ill have never learned the process, or through some trauma have forgotten. Possibly they are victims of an oddity of super-space rather than psychosis.
Is there a physical basis for the magnitude of reality? And really what do we mean, is something more real? I am not sure that we can apply the tenets of quantum mechanics to the macro-world, to everyday life. Does nothing happen on the dark side of the moon? From all appearances, everything does just fine without observers. But if there were no intelligent observers in the universe, would the universe exist? Let us consider for a moment a universe that is exactly the same as ours except that there are no intelligent conscious forms of life and no Divine Beings. Just to be safe, let's suppose that this universe is devoid of all life, and can not be observed from superspace or some other universe. Would such a universe exist? On the one hand yes, on the other no. Everything is there: matter, energy, space, and time. But who knows that it is there. No one. How can something exist, if there is no one to verify the fact? So it does not exist! Yes it does, we just said so. No it doesn't because no one is there to prove it. It does exist! It doesn't! It does! It doesn't. . . .
We are back to the old sound from the falling tree in the earless forest. Does such a tree make a sound? Well now, that all depends on how you define sound. If you define sound as vibrations in the air, then, yes, our proverbial tree makes a sound. But if you define sound as vibrations in the air being perceived by an ear, then, no, our tree does not make a sound. So can we use the same argument for the existence of our lifeless universe? If existence is defined as a state of being, then yes, it exists. If existence is defined as a state of being perceived by an intelligence, then no, it does not exist. Does it all boil down to semantics? No, I think it goes much deeper than the meaning of simple words, but I am not sure why. I think that part of the problem is that the earless forest exists in a world where there are ears, so even though there may be no ears in the particular forest, there are ears somewhere in that universe. The idea of sound exists. But now, does the falling tree make a noise in an universe which has no conception of the term sound. I think not. What the hell difference would it make? Of what value is sound in an earless universe? I think that the state of existence demands an intelligent observer. If there are no observers, then there are no words to define. No words, no thoughts, no recognition, no existence. Of what meaning does the idea of existence have if there is no one to determine that the idea of existence should exist. In fact, there is no one to have any ideas about anything. Do ideas exist independently of a thinking mechanism? I don't think so. Again we are considering this problem as though there is no such thing as a Divine Being. But did we not agree that this universe was there? Sure, but in doing so, you and I became the observers of it. Even though we are removed from this universe, we gave it existence by our agreement that it does exists. Eliminate us and it no longer exists simply by the fact that there is no one to realize that it exists, or that there is such a thing as existence. In such a universe, existence does not exist. Or as Descartes might have said: No one thinks, therefore nothing is.
But looking at the other side of the coin, what if you and I think that this place does exists. We observe it daily when we leave our padded cells at the institution and meet on the planet Retipuj for a fine afternoon of philosophical discussion on the nature of existence. Does it exist? The orderlies at the hospital never see us leave our cells, but you and I know better. We have our daily trips to Retipuj. So does Retipuj and its surrounding universe exist? This sort of reminds me of a tale that a guy in the service once told me. Where he grew up in Texas, a neighbor had an old flathead Ford V-8 engine and a milking stool setup in a chicken coop. This guy was seriously working on a space vehicle for a trip to the moon. It's a shame that NASA hadn't heard of the guy, might of saved a lot money on those highfalutin rocket engines--just use an old flathead Ford, damn good motor. I wonder if he ever made it? Before you send the guys in the white coats after me, realize that many fiction writers claim that they have no control over their characters. Once they create the character in their minds, the character then seems to live an independent life in their imaginations. So, do these characters exist? If reality is the impinging of a physical existence on an intelligent network of neurons, how is that so vastly different from the network of neurons creating its own reality? The final result of both seems to be the firing of neurons. Judging from the incomes of some fiction writers, I would have to say that their characters are a hell of a lot more real than my paltry life at the factory. Perhaps reality can only be defined as something that at least two or more intelligent observers experience and can mutually verify.
I am at the second S-bend, the nettles are looking bad. Still a little green in places but for the most part dried up and brown. I round the bend, and again I am walking directly into the low winter sun. It has an almost silvery quality as it shines through the bare branches of the trees. About a half mile back, I mentioned the photography of Ansel Adams and impressionist paintings. Which is more real? Who observed a scene longer, Adams or Monet? Adams could click a picture in about 30 seconds. How long did it take Monet to paint one?
If reality depends on observation, which is more real photography or painting. Think about this. The painter must observe the scene, process the visual information into hand motions, paint the scene, compare the painted scene with the actual, and make corrections. During the process, the painter must make conscious decisions: which brushes, paint shades, stroke styles, paint densities, and textures to use. Think of the flood of neural activity that must occur in the painter's brain during the painting process. The painter must experience the scene in a more intimate fashion than a photographer. Based on the Copenhagen interpretation, wouldn't we have to say that the painting is more real because of the magnitude of involvement required by the painter. The guy has poured his heart and Soul into this painting for hours. Ansel, by comparison, looks at the scene, decides on a film, a lens, shutter speed, f-stop, filter, focus, and CLICK.
Consider for a moment that you are a military planner. Would you want a photograph or an impressionist painting of the enemy's territory? Which is more real? Perhaps both media are just as real but in different ways. The photograph is more real in an objective way, whereas the painting is more real in a subjective way. Thinking back on that flood of neural activity in the painter's brain, how much of it is filtered or enhanced by emotions and past experience. A certain Norway spruce brings back, for the painter, memories of a lovely romantic interlude from years ago. Yet that meadow over there looks just like where the painter was thrown from a horse. Couldn't we expect that the spruce and the meadow will reflect the painter's experiences in a subtle and unconscious manner? Now you happen by and look at the painting, pretty good, but something is wrong with that spruce. It does not look real. That you sprained your ankle under a similar spruce never enters your mind. Because the scene must be experienced, it is colored by the painter's past life, emotions, and personality. The painting is more real with respect to the painter, yet the photograph is more accurate. I suppose that our appreciation for a painting will reflect our agreement with the artist's experience and world view. If we do not share that experience, we probably will not appreciate the art.
There can be artistic choices made in photography as well. Yet these choices have to be made on a conscious level. The choices will influence the entire scene rather than one part of it; unless we are speaking of doctored up photography--trick or computer enhanced--which then enters the same realm as painting, although still on a more conscious level. If you are altering something that already exists, you have to do it on a different level than someone who creates a scene from nothing. Unaltered photography, however, can only reflect a limited amount of artistic choices, the results of which can be accurately predicted by the photographer. Therefore we would have to maintain that photography is more objective--real than art.
What is more real art or photography? Let's consider another area. Suppose that you are a machinist. Someone wants you to make a complex gizmo for a franistandt. Would you want a photograph of the gizmo or a blueprint of it? A blueprint is a drawing, so is it art? What happens if the drafting technician's emotions enter the drawing? Maybe this person does not like the Gizmo Corporation. Yet we hope that the technician's experience will enter the drawing and clarify the ambiguous areas. Perhaps a section is needed here or there. If the gizmo is complicated, what would be more real to the average person in the street, a photograph or a blueprint? To the machinist?
You know it's odd, at one time I could draw a passable blueprint. Passable enough to get me through God knows how many drafting courses--but not passable enough to be hired as a draftsman. "You want this drawing this year? You got to be kidding!" Yet, I can't sketch a dog as good as my seven year old son. Give me a Kodak Instamatic, and I'll take a passable picture of the dog, but don't give me a Nikon with all those dials, levers, knobs, numbers, beeps, and flashing lights. The best that you would get would be a dog shaped blur. What if I had to do a blueprint of a dog--not good enough to manufacture a dog, but good enough that a machinist could look at it and know that it was a dog. Could I do it? I suppose that I could render one down from a photograph using a compass, dividers, strait edge, and French curves. Yet it would not be a very believable dog compared to one that my wife could sketch in 10 minutes. So what is more real a blueprint or a sketch?
In an absolute sense, there is no reality in any of the graphic arts. Three dimensions have been squeezed into two, it is not real. Yet we have thoroughly accepted this lie. If you have ever looked at a hologram, you will understand immediately the fiction of two dimensional graphic art. I always find myself looking at the edge of a hologram trying to find a reason for their depth. Even though rationally I understand the principle of holograms, I find them fascinating because they appear to violate reality. Holograms don't look real. Pictures are not supposed to move around as you move your head. Under the fascination, there is an uncomfortable edge that one is somehow being fooled. Yet the hologram, at least in terms of the third dimension, is more real than a normal photograph.
In his book Disappearing Through The Skylight, O. B. Hardison Jr. borrows the term "necessary fictions" from poet Wallace Stevens. Necessary fictions are those elements of our psyche that allow us to make sense out of the world by using untruths. Hardison presents the idea with a discussion of map which "are wrong in the sense that they misrepresent the truth about the world. The world is round, not flat. Their wrongness is precisely what make them useful." And so it is with all graphic media, they tell the "truth" through a lie. Three dimensions are squeezed into two. Drafting recognizes this fiction and corrects it with the standard three view orthographic projection. Paper can only display two dimensions accurately, length and width. The orthographic projection utilizes this fact by totally ignoring depth in the drawing. Instead of giving you a fictional three dimensional drawing, drafting technicians give you three very accurate two dimensional renderings of an object as viewed square on from each dimension. Thus, the drawing has a front, top, and side views. Drawn to scale and showing all the details of a surface, these drawings are extremely accurate representations of an object. They are very real. Yet inexperienced people find them difficult to understand. Reality is harder to understand than fiction.
Drafting technicians tell lies also. The orthographic projection will show all hidden surfaces as dashed lines. For instance, a square block with a hole drilled through it would appear in one view as a solid square with a solid circle, a truth. With no method of showing the hidden surfaces, the other two views would simply be a solid square, also a truth. But with the addition of the dashed lines for hidden surfaces, the other two views would show two parallel dashed lines representing the unseen inner wall of the hole, a fiction. The paradox is that these fictional lines end up telling us a good deal of truth about the object. The true view, the solid square with the solid circle, only tells us that this surface contains a circular deformity. It could be a straight hole all the way through the block, a straight hole partially through the block, a hole tapered to a point, an "O" stamped into the surface, or even a disk, dome, or cone projecting out of the block. All of these very different realities would be depicted simply as a solid circle on solid square from the front view. The truth can be rather ambiguous. But with the other two views, using the fictional hidden lines, the truth is known. Are the hidden lines a fiction? If you held the block in your hand with the hole perpendicular to your line of sight, then the dashed lines would be invisible, thus a fiction. Yet take an x-ray of that same view, the hole would be apparent--not in dashed lines--but there, hence a truth. So the fictional dashed lines are more real than reality. But it is precisely this "realer than reality" aspect of drafting that can make a blueprint difficult to understand. A complex object can get lost in a forest of dashed lines. More elaborate lies are sometimes told to further illustrate the truth.
Drafting uses sections, exploded views, out of plane views, and a myriad of other techniques--lies all--to show the truth. Sections are cross sectional views of an object as though it had been cut with a saw. The section shows the surface that came into contact with the imaginary saw. Exploded views are the typical drawings that you find in a parts list for an assembly with many parts. The unit is drawn disassembled with all the subassembly parts magically hanging midair above the main assembly, showing the position and the order of assembly. It is like a freeze frame photograph of an extremely orderly and nondestructive explosion of the assembly. Sometimes lies are told for the sake of economy.
A car could be illustrated with half of the view devoted to the front, and the other half devoted to the rear. This is called an out of plane view, the rear view of the car is shown rotated out of its normal plane or position. It's a lousy advertising picture, but a great picture for depicting a parts list showing front and rear bumpers, trims, grills, headlight frames, taillight and parking light lenses, hoods, trunk lids, front and rear windows, all in one view. Automobiles are symmetrical objects; the left side is a mirror image of the right. Out of plane views can work well with such objects. So, a drawing that is a horrible and nasty distortion to the salesman (who does not want to promote the idea that this wonder-car may ever need a replacement part) is a time saving tool to the parts manager. Yet a "blueprint" in a sales brochure--those highly stylized three dimensional drawings that appear as though they were drawn with chrome ink on glossy royal blue graph paper, with a few phoney dimension lines and center indicators thrown in, and a well placed sparkle here and there, all with highly slanted modern lettering emphasizing the high tech and varoooooommmmm, varoooooommmmm, aspect of the vehicle--is a great pinnacle of technical truth for the salesman, and absolutely useless to anyone else.
In defense of the salesman and his beautiful advertising blueprint, it must remembered that without sales there is no need for any of the more serious drawings. A good part of understanding a blueprint is knowing how the lies are told, and perhaps who the lies are told for. If you don't understand the process of lying, you'll never know the truth. That is why the average person can not decipher a blueprint.
On the entire question of reality in the graphic arts, haven't I confused process with product. The process of painting or drawing is certainly a more complicated affair than snapping a photograph. Therefore Monet, my wife, or a drafting technician must experience a scene with a higher degree of concentration than a photographer. Hence the process of drawing or painting entails a higher degree of reality for the artist. But that higher degree of reality does not necessarily get transferred to the product. Only the process is more real. Photography is more than the simple act of clicking a shutter. What is more real, a photograph of President Lincoln, or a photograph of President Bush? The technology of the camera and the film must be considered. Modern cameras and films represent a tremendous technological achievement in optics, electronics, chemistry, and--considering that the average person can afford a sophisticated camera--manufacturing technology. Every time you take a picture, the efforts of thousands of people are manifested in that click. The fact that I could go out and take the same exact photograph as Ansel Adams (assuming that I had some education in photography) is a testament to the reality of the product. Two artists could never paint identical works without looking at each other's canvas while painting. So I would have to say that a photograph represents reality to a higher degree than a painting. But the process of doing the painting is much more real than photography. What is more real a ditch dug by hand or a ditch dug by a tractor? Who experiences the art of ditch digging to a higher degree, the guy with the shovel or the guy with the tractor?
As I continue to walk along in the bright blue cold reality, several cars pass by, such glum looking faces for Christmas Eve. The sun is sinking lower, and it is getting down right nippy out. I am passing the Louis Kahn house, a hugh beautiful Christmas tree is visible through the narrow T window. Did I mention that the nettles were looking bad. I picked a leaf and there was hardly any odor at all. There is one way that cold air is less real than warm, odors are less powerful. I wonder is it because a numbing of the sniffer, the olfactory nerve, due to the cold? Or is it because substances do not evaporate as rapidly in lower temperatures? What can you smell better, soup on the stove, soup at room temperature, or soup out of the refrigerator? The phenomena is probably a combination of both factors. And while we are speaking of reality how about the sense of touch? Numb fingers certainly experience less reality than warm ones do. And what about when you have been out in the cold all day and are exhausted, cold, and numb? Don't you have a tendency to lose touch with reality? The cold becomes less than real because of sheer exhaustion. And who cares anyhow, why walk along and think these stupid thoughts about reality? Well it keeps my mind off of the cold. By thinking about reality, reality has become less real.
The sun has gone down now; I am on the trip back home and it is getting just plain cold. Even with my pace, I can feel the cold creeping up my back making me stiffen up. Overhead the sky turns a cooler shade of blue, and the world darkens a bit in the beginnings of twilight. It's not as harsh as before, but every bit as lonely. The cold wind blows through the tree tops with a low moan. Loneliness pervades my being like the cold on my back. For a moment, I'm lost in the cold north probably to be eaten by wolves. Experience the cold, experience the loneliness, the wolves are coming, experience what life remains. For a brief moment of revelry, I am free of life's problems, free to die in the bitter cold north at the jaws of the wolves. It feels good to be free.
I round a bend and on top of a distant hill the scarlet twigs of a stand of red maple are dancing in the last red rays of the setting sun. The wind moans again and I revel in the melancholy of it all. The lonely deepening blue of the sky, moaning of the wind, darkness gently descending, tinges of fading crimson against cobalt, the cold, the pervasive creeping cold. I stop and watch the layer of red sunlight followed by a band of darkness slowly ascend the trees and then fade. I try to shutdown the chatterbox in my head and just take it all in. There are a few fleeting moments of genuine living in my life, and this is one of them.
Like the wine from a communion glass, the experience quickly fades. But communion it was, if ever so brief. A communion with nature and through nature with God. These brief moments of pure experience are for me the ultrareality--the "realer than real". It is a religious experience for me in a way that far exceeds anything that I have ever felt in church. I continue on my way home feeling a mixture of joy and sadness, that quintessential emotion of my life, bittersweet. For a brief moment I felt His face shine upon me. What joy and what sadness is contained in the pure reality of God's creation, a beautiful Christmas gift.
Photo Captions & Credits:
1. Werner Heisenberg
Wikipedia, Werner Heisenberg
2. Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr at the 1930 Solvay conference, photographed by Paul Ehrenfest.
3.Anthropic Principle and Many-Worlds Hypothesis:
University Of Oregon
4. Autumn Moon, the High Sierra from Glacier Point, Ansel Adams
NewScientist.com Astronomers pinpoint moment of famous Moon shot
Oddly enough the article above describes a proposed attempt to duplicate this photo, back in 2005.
5. Poplars on the Epte, 1891, Claude Monet
Carol Gerten Fine Art
6. Orthographic projection. Yours truly.
7. Crankshaft & Pistons Exploded Part Drawing For A Honda 4 Cylinder Engine.
Bernardi Honda Parts
8. Blue Print For a Kelmark GT
Cartype, Kellmark GT