Please excuse the somewhat lengthy quotation, which comes from Carlo Rovelli’s enchanting book Reality is Not What it Seems. I am not a scientist, but I do enjoy reading popular science books, and often find myself wondering (as in, seeing with wonderment) at the links between photography and the wider physical world.
Rovelli is writing about the electromagnetic spectrum, and more specifically the theories of Michael Faraday. His musings come in the context of a discussion of our commonplace understanding of the physical world, and how modern science has come to turn that understanding on its head. Looked at another way, Rovelli is marvelling at the action of light; he is addressing the simple poetry of the essential role of light in perception. And what is photography if not a kind of fossil which confirms this action? An indexical sign, as the semiologists have it, an imprint made by the physical action of light. Photography is a poetic confirmation of the existence of Faraday’s lines, of the action of the electromagnetic spectrum, and subsequently of our humble place in a much, much larger physical universe.
To complement Rovelli’s words, then, I offer what I can, a photograph. It came out of a moment on the hoof: the camera was there, around my neck, and my son began to speak to me about his painted fingernails. I asked him to put his hands in mine, part listening, as a parent does sometimes, and I made the exposure.
The photograph is my record of this little exchange, this fleeting and intimate moment. Perhaps photography needs no such association with physics to be marvellous and poetic; reading Rovelli, however, I cannot help but think his words add even more gravitas. As a document of my life, the image is surely meaningful, and even profound, for me. Yet when I think of the Rovelli passage, I find its profundity only grows further. The physical universe is indifferent to us (as I suppose the medium of photography truly is) but science continues to make strides in setting out its enormity and complexity. To truly understand the physical effect at work in a photograph is to begin an enquiry into structures which dwarf our existence. Photography in itself has many wondrous qualities. By extending our thinking through physics, it evokes even more.
More about Rovelli's book can be found through this link: