For the Love of Light
Why do I photograph? I sometimes see something so beautiful that I must. I could stand still and look at it but often it is something rather insignificant, like a lonely gleam of light on a wall, that I would mistaken for a lunatic if I would stay there and stare. However in the end, it is my own restlessness that does not allow me to stay.
I then photograph to hold onto what I see. Not because I would otherwise forget, not even to understand the world, but because the act of photography is a wish to reach what I saw. I do not know what I would gain if I was granted my wish, to hold a stream of light in my hands. For although it was its colour, the shape it took when it was cast through the trees and its movement around the room it was not mere light that captured me.
Photography is about seeing, looking and remembering. The lens is built according to the same optics than the human eye. The act of photography is to look through this other eye, select what will be remembered and press the shutter. During the split of a second when the shutter is down light draws an image of the framed scene onto the negative. This image is accurate to the appearance of things so much so that it is like a copy. It is a trace left by the scene; an imprint, a residue but not the thing photographed itself.
The lens, the mechanic eye is based on linear perspective which in turn is grounded on the Euclidian optics, a theory on human vision. It was discovered by the Italian Renaissance painters who sought to bring more presence of God in their midst by presenting God’s point of view in their paintings. Linear perspective places the viewer and the painter alike first outside of the painted scene and then at the centre having arranged it geometrically according to their range of vision. This standing point was thought to be that of God’s for in their deeply religious minds God also was at the centre as well as outside of the universe. As the arguments of the Enlightenment eventually replaced the throne of God with the rational human being this standing point got to be known as the vanishing point and linear perspective earned its name single perspective.
When photography was invented in the aftermaths of the Enlightenment its inventors pondered similar questions to those of the era’s philosophers about the gaining of knowledge and the human mind. For when the Enlightenment had brought the Western world to its senses it had also crippled it when it discovered the tension between the subjectivity and objectivity of our humanness. Does the rational human mind guide the human senses, is the human eye directed to see what it sees by the mind or are the mind and the eye alike passive but ready observers of the world? And therefore if anything outside the human mind can be known that would affirm the existence of the human being. Photography asks the same question: does nature draw itself onto the negative, or is nature being drawn by the mechanism and chemistry of photography? The very mechanism of photography is concerned with the metaphysical elements of light, space and time, the same words that form the riddle of our existence; the riddle that is left to resonate without a sound answer.
Then there is the photograph, an imprint of a moment in time which cannot be lived again, an image so true to nature that it is taken as a souvenir of events that cannot otherwise be grasped. The extraordinary event of the photographic process is the forming of the image because it is then when the abstract elements of time, space and light are suspended together to produce that object, that fragment of time, that residue and an imprint that the photograph essentially is. And while like this the photograph is embodied with our mortality it also poses yet another problem about truth and the gaining of knowledge. For despite its apparent innocence the photograph can be endlessly multiplied and circulated, it can be interpreted from multiple perspectives and yet remain unresolved.
Photography is then an affirmation of a Western mind that is alone and unaided at the centre of the universe. What fools we were for thinking that linear perspective could be that of God’s in the first place; that He could be restricted by our own laws. It is based on the optics of human vision, an eye of a being that only resembles divine. What made us think that we could comprehend the truth should we even be able to arrive to it with our reasoning?
And I wonder whether we have not been enlightened but blinded because the only honest conclusion to this endless interpretation and deconstruction that our rightful doubt has driven us to is to admit that our questions aim for answers that are beyond us.
Photography in all its mystery promises what it cannot fulfil for we cannot believe what we see nor hold onto it. Nevertheless I photograph because I still see and wonder. To photograph is to desire and when my existence was once reduced to the words ‘I think; therefore I am’, it was that desire itself that lead me to my redemption.
© Carita Laamanen