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  • William Hunton

Things Not Seen

I love this photograph. However it is hardly a photograph as once defined by ancient tradition, and the aging priests of our religion. It is a digital creation derived from light energy deposited on a camera sensor, after it traveled through an optical system, and then cooked in a software process multiple times, like refried beans.

Photography has been art's odd step-child from the moment of invention. The early practitioners of our craft pounded the square peg hard into the round hole of artistic sensibilities during the 1800s and early 1900s. Pictorialism was born of the need to comply with artistic conventions and refined tastes in order to be accepted into polite society. They hoped to be exhibited.

In the early 1900s to counter the fuzzy-wuzzy photographs of fine art photography, the California school and "f64" photographers responded. Weston, Cunningham, Adams and others said that the essence of photography was in realism, fine detail, and the presentation of unadorned Nature in all its glory, including zits. They all were disciples of photographic realism, but apparently everyone in class that day suffered from a mass epiphany, either that, or they just didn't care that presenting nautilus shells, nude bodies, and cumulus clouds towering above the Sierra Mountains in shades of black, gray, and white was just as much a departure from reality... wouldn't you think, as any soft focused, romanticized, palladium, albumen or cyanotype image from just a couple years before.

We don't want realism! Realism is pornographic in a sense. We want romance and love and human connection. We need art!

So we have come full circle to the medium's essential idea; that is, create an image rather than record a scene. The abundance of Instagram filters to automatically produce a departure from reality to acne free imagination is proof. We can out-Stieglitz Stieglitz within a couple of clicks on Snapseed.

Which brings me to the photograph above. Know what this is? It's a heavily processed image of lichens on a tree stump in my back yard. There you have it. That is my confession and the profane definition. As I walked by it day after day, all I saw in my peripheral vision was a gray-green simple organism. I think the scientific name is foliose. It is related to algae. It eats tree stumps. It apparently enjoys them immensely, and further drives them into the earth from which they sprang to life during happier times.

Then one day I saw it. I noticed. And it knew. And it said to me... sort of...I don't smoke this stuff so I don't hallucinate: ""Oh pleeeze. Pah-leeeze take my picture." The sad gray-green simple organism wanted to be known.

So, I "took a picture." Eventually I brought it into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic, a marvelous tool for the digital darkroom, without the need for a working knowledge of chemistry. I was originally attracted to the patterns of the lichens on the stump. But as I viewed the photograph I was filled with disappointment. It was just dull. It certainly did not express the joy I saw. The photo did not love me back. So I decided to play with it. If you can't have fun what good is it?

Crank up saturation. Not bright enough, not colorful I thought. Okay, what can I do? I saved the JPEG and I reopened it. Now it is a file of digitally compressed data and artifacts only distantly related to lichens eating my tree stump. I again took the Lighroom sliders to the right. Increase Saturation! Increase Clarity! Until I had it. The lichens were no longer lichens eating a tree stump, but something else. If I print it on paper, it is something else again. If I post it on Instagram, again, it is different. Just what is it?

It occurs to me we are interacting with the Creation on a digital level, not organic. This has happened unawares, except to the clever minds who invented it. It hit me upside the head. We see images of Jupiter in astounding clarity that would blow Galileo's mind in many different directions simultaneously.

The "photographs" of Jupiter and far distant galaxies were not taken with a camera as we know it, not even as we know digital cameras. They are composite images produced from radio waves and reflected light energy, then collected, processed, and rendered in a way so that our brains can comprehend them and say, "Oh, wow! THAT is Jupiter!" without exploding like Galileo's did in the previous paragraph.

Just so with the lichens. Light energy is reflected off their simple, boring, visibly gray-green surface at different wavelengths which were hiding out. They are really the life of the party once you get to know them.

My Nikon and 60mm f2.8 Micro-Nikkor deposited a response to all that energy onto a sensor in my Nikon camera, and then stored it on a SD card. I took the binary representation (ones and zeroes) of the responses as recorded by the available pixels, and I transferred it to another binary representation of someone's idea about how to process those pixels and render them into something we all (every single one of us) call a photograph. Then I took that and stirred it around in the same pixel and binary stew, I cooked it, added a bit of this and that, and created my emotional response to a simple organism eating a tree stump in my back yard, all the time hoping you might have the same emotional reaction to it. Astounding!

Is there nothing objectively, emphatically real anymore? I was once convinced there would be no need for photography in Heaven. Now I know for certain.

I recently read that two physicists had proven that a particle can exist in two places at one time. The order of proof was like in the billions of times to one ( as in billions to1) proven. Einstein has now turned over in his grave. Quantum physics has won, this round at least. If a particle, a single atom, can exist in two parallel universes then what can we do. In practice, I bet I know where my missing socks are. They are in our parallel universe dryer, being searched by my parallel universe me, for the parallel universe missing sock which I have in my dresser drawer.

What do lichens look like over there?


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