On reality, part 1

August 3, 2006

Light on wallI’m a documentary photographer. So I have a particular interest in “reality”. Many people seem to expect that documentaries reflect reality. Right out the bat, an earlier entry of mine debunked that expectation. A documentary does not have to reflect “reality”. It may be biased by a personal view or cause of its producer. Another common view is that using an essentially mechanical device such as a camera records reality. We’ll come back to that. But it is simply not true.

So, what is reality? Does it even exist? Does it matter if it exists or not? My quick answers – (1) No one knows, (2) No and (3) Probably not. I’ll try to lay out what I mean by that, recognizing I’m just a simple photographer, not in competition with Stephen Hawking. Or anyone else for that matter. But let’s go on a little mind journey.

What is light?

Suppose there was no light. Everything would be black. No features would be visible. No doubt a very boring environment, reality would then be viewed as “black”. Nothing else. So let’s assume light has something to do with what we are seeking. The simple fact is, we don’t see objects. We see light emitted – directly or by reflection or both – from those objects.

Light is produced by light emitters, reflected by certain objects and consumed by other entities. Light is a form of energy emitted by certain combinations of atoms, molecules and other low life’s. Light has many characteristics such as wave length and intensity. A lot of light comes to us from the universe. Other forms of light comes from various local chemical processes such as those used by some low level organisms. Mechanical devices such as a light bulbs use energy to produce artificial light.

So if we have light, then we can see and what we see is reality? Slow down. Not that simple.

The many kinds of light from space

Let’s examine light from the universe. Obviously the sun is a major source of light. This light is essentially coming from a massive nuclear reaction that has been going on for billions of years. Even so, we all know that sunlight in the early AM is very different from that at noon or in the evening. Not to mention, sunlight at night may be a reflection from the moon. Any object viewed in these different light conditions will look different. Which version is the real thing? Since we can’t “see” the object – only its light of many different variations – how can we tell anything about the object itself?Evening light on face

Light from space is not a simple thing. Apart from there being many different light sources, magnetic fields in space actually bend light, space storms distort light, black holes does who knows what with light and sun flares send out a lot of energy. “Northern Light” produces its own version of light. The moon does not produce any light at all but acts as a giant reflector. Finally, our own atmosphere greatly impacts light from space. There may be clouds, dust, pollution, inversion layers and no doubt a lot of other factors.

Light from universe and the energy it brings upholds our lifes. And threatens it through global warming or skin cancer. It sure helps us see. But it is not ONE thing. What we actually see and perceive as reality are many things, based only on the variability of “space light”. So what we see is a distortion. So based on “space light”, what is reality? How do we know?

To be continued

I’ll stop here for now. To recall the major points to be examined – there is no “reality” that we as human beings can “see” or “feel” or even record. So from a simple physical point of view, there is no reality. It probably does not matter to most of us. But as a photographer, it matters to me as it should to anyone interested in photography. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Thanks, Karl



20 Responses to “On reality, part 1”

  1. momentsend said

    Descartes addressed and answered your reality question… “I think, therefore I am.”



  2. Karl said

    I’ll comment in a separate post. Thanks Karl

  3. […] of the discussions below update and expand on the content of some previous posts, notably On Reality – Part 1 – Elements of Light and On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions and Illusions destroy […]

  4. […] Parts of the discussions update and expand the content of other previous posts, notably On Reality – Part 1 – Elements of Light and On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions and Illusions destroy […]

  5. […] Parts of the discussions update and expand the content of other previous posts, notably On Reality – Part 1 – Elements of Light and On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions and Illusions destroy Reality. Other posts include On […]

  6. […] from my big essay on photography “On Reality 6: Mysteries of Photography” as well as On Reality – Part 1 – Elements of Light and On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions and Illusions destroy Reality. Other posts include On […]

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