This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 196, December 2016
“And then there was light” – apparently. Either way the line is a good one and it provides a solid basis for this month’s ‘lesson’ because it is one of the greatest mysteries – how we happen to be here at all. And most disturbingly, how did the universe form? Where was it before it was the universe? If the universe is expanding what is it expanding in to? In other words, how was it that something came from nothing? We may have some answers to these questions before long but a new understanding of our cosmic origins will not alter the fact that the definition of creation is the act of bringing something into being where before there was nothing. This creative ground on which existence is based is at the heart of the human quest for and appreciation of the condition of existence.
Each and everyone of us is the product of the union of previously distinct genealogy. In other words progeny is the act of bringing together elements which should never have been joined at all – probably. But here we are, all of us, the products of something from nothing. But we all know that nothing comes from nothing – this is the paradox at the heart of human consciousness. If nothing then what?
Arguably all art is a form of wrestling with the supermassive question if nothing then what? It is a question that, as far as we know, only we can ask. If nothing then what? The search for an answer to this question is the fuel that powers art. For me the magic of photography, whether mine or someone else’s, is found by gazing at the picture and wondering at the frozen sliver of time that is made visible by the medium. Just like us that frozen moment need never have existed except that someone pushed the button at a certain moment – nor does that moment have to be decisive (see next month’s On Photography for more on this). The exposure could be made at random but it is the human gaze which gives meaning and life to that moment in time. This is something out of nothing made manifest. Which qualifications, criticism, or values we give to that exposure later are merely human constructs. The important thing is that the exposure exists at all. This is photography at a primordial, pre-verbal level of understanding and a level from which understanding and emotional development as well as ideas of story and semantic meaning can bloom.
In this way exposure (which is the ‘genesis’ of all photography) is the moment of wonder. What occurs to it later is all about humanity and shared understanding – without the first click there could only be nothing.
As it is possible to live your entire life without understanding the mechanisms of brain function so can a photographer live in ignorance of the fundamental philosophy of photography but I have often settled on this idea of art (of something out of nothing) when wondering at my own love of photography and art in general. It was not until I put pen(cil) to paper to write this piece that I understood this sense I have for the medium and was able to put it in concrete terms that I could understand and hang on to. So just by writing this piece I have created, at least for myself, something out of nothing.
The photographer exploits all the physical dimensions of existence more than any other artist. The speed of light and location of the camera in time and space are inevitable factors in the creation of a photograph. It is in the coincidence of these vectors that an exposure is made. The particular incidence of light reflecting from the subject in relation to the angle and focal length of the lens (if any) and the amount of time that that arrangement is exposed to the receiving medium is all that is required to make a photograph.
Understanding the philosophical building blocks of photography gives us agency over our medium. It means we can define our work according to our own light rather than having to accept the ‘contract of art’ according to the terms of someone else.
As a documentary photographer I may make a series of such exposures and give emotional narrative shape to them by entitling the various ‘coincidences’ with meaningful words and committing them to the service of a concept or subject. In exactly this way I have been researching a new project on the people of the Borders region between England and Scotland. This article is accompanied by some images I have shot as part of the ground work for this new series. In this way I am throwing my own light on a subject of my own definition – a subject which I conjured out of thin air. Or in other words, a new and eternal something created by a human out of the void and mystery of nothingness.
Next month I will be discussing the fallibility of the concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’.