Reflections on glass- a thought piece
“Did you ever wonder if the person in the puddle is real, and you’re just a reflection of him?”
― Bill Watterson
“Habit rules the unreflecting herd.”
― William Wordsworth
Photography can be a simple process of identification, its original raison d’etre. On the other hand, it can be more, so much more than that.
Imagine you have an assignment or competition brief to photograph glass.
The logical thing to do, the product of mind and habitual thinking and assumption, would be to find a vase somewhere, maybe fill it with water, arrange a few lights, and then set to work with your camera and macro lens. The result would be…. a photograph of a vase filled with water and lit by a few lights, a successful image of the labels, vase, water and light.
While that of itself might be enough, and it certainly worked for Czech photographer Josef Sudek, the photograph sends two messages; firstly, that you recognized the objects by their labels (vase, water) and reproduced them faithfully, making sure that you used commonly agreed language so there would be no misunderstanding on the part of the viewer/judge. Here is a photograph of a vase filled with water and lit by a few lights, your image says. That should be enough.
The second message your photograph sends is that you know the labels, accept the limited data supplied by your eyes and memory, and are content to stop there. Or perhaps do not know how to progress past that point. Your reality is restricted to the labels and to simple documentation.
What do think of this, she asked? She had created a work by joining two sheets of window glass into a cross and then printing a photograph onto it. I saw labels and surface.
I mumbled something cowardly and conciliatory. My peacemaker archetype trying to keep me away from a yawning hole which had opened up in front of me.
She was not having a bar of it. No, I asked you. What do you really think?
Are you sure that you want to hear the answer?
I was still running for cover…
I am tired of people telling me what they think I want to hear. Tell me what you really think.
I had nowhere to run.
I looked around me for a place of refuge, but there were no bushes on the plain.
Well, I said, it does not work. Here is why.
I do not understand why you have put your photograph on glass. The image is wonderful, but there is no conversation. The cross is interesting but it offers nothing about the image and contributes nothing coherent to the narrative. I feel as if I am listening to a conversation; one person is talking in Swahili, the other is using Urdu. Like an old married couple who no longer have anything to say to one another, they are talking just because they can, and the words are disappearing into a black hole. If your narrative is about communication, then it works. However I sense that it is not meant to, and therefore I am at loss to see the connect.
I waited for the Incoming Ordinance.
For a long moment, she looked crestfallen. Then her face brightened.
Dammit, you are right.
I breathed more easily.
So what should I have done?
I raided my intuition.
Let me help. You chose to use glass as the base and basis for your work, but you do not understand what glass is. To be an artist you must be able to look beyond the labels, to see the metaphor rather than the object. I am going to ask you a question, put a koan to you, and I will not give you the answer. You must find that for yourself. Then you will own it. You are free to call me with an answer at any time and until you reach an answer, which I know you own, I will give nothing more than a hot or cold response. Are you up for that?
A deep breath.
What is glass?
She looked at me suspiciously for a moment then replied. For the next few minutes, I received a mini-chemistry lesson on silica and lead and other elements.
Nope. Cold as.
Then what is it?
As I said, that is for you to answer.
Over the next few months texts would appear, sometimes at odd hours of the night. The Question was keeping her up. Good. Some answers were glacial, others were warm. However, she persevered. She was a trained scientist and understood experimentation.
Then one day, as I was standing close to and looking at Aoraki/Mt. Cook, our national mountain, my mobile rang.
It is liquid Time.
Well done. Now make pictures of that.
I did not have to tell her how or where to begin. In struggling for her own answer, she had found the gate to the Artist’s Path and left the Tyranny of Labels behind.
We like to think that glass is stable, fully transparent and unchanging, that what we see from one side of a window or the expensive and exquisitely formed glass in our camera lenses is an accurate representation of what is on the other side.
It is not.
All glass is in a liquid state. Time is changing it.
Find an old window from a settler cottage and measure the thickness of the glass at the top and bottom of the window. The measurements will be different. Over time, the glass at the bottom becomes thicker as the glass slowly slumps downwards. Therefore, the same scene will be subtly different when viewed through the top or bottom of the window. Moreover, the window will show a different view of the scene from what it offered on the day it the builders installed it into the cottage. We like to think that our windows are neutral and objective, and yet most of the affordable float glass used in windows imparts a greenish hue to the light passing through it.
Your camera lenses are altering the “reality” of the scene, not just in terms of their rendition of space and perspective (itself an illusion and a fabrication) but also in terms of hue. Some lenses, because of their chemical composition, will make a scene more yellow, others bluer, and yet others may impart a magenta or green cast to the documentation of the subject.
We like to think (because it suits us or because it is too hard to think about it/we are “too busy”), that glass is 100% translucent, that all the light on one side of a piece of glass makes it to the other side. However, if we had paid attention in high school, when we were doing those experiments with light and prisms, we would have learned something valuable: that all glass, no matter how expensive, turns back some of the light passing through it. Some of the travelers are turned away at the border, either when entering or when trying to leave.
We can have an enjoyable experience of this when swimming or diving. Water is after all liquid Time as well.
Dive underwater, roll over and look up at the surface. Notice how much of the light around you is rejected at the border, and how much from the other side is being reflected away from the surface as well. Effectively you are seeing the world from inside the sheet of glass. How cool is that? In addition, armed with that thought, what pictures might you then make?
I knew all this stuff, and yet I chose to go with the labels, because it was easier and I was too mentally lazy to reach beyond habitual thinking.
Then, one night I was photographing on the street and I happened to pass a shop window with some colourful and brightly lit mannequins. As I stopped and looked, I could see my reflection in the window. Light was being transmitted and reflected at the same time. I stood there pondering the scene. What was I seeing?
Then I remembered. We see our subjects by light reflected from them. The light source shines onto our subject and is reflected from it. Because of its colour, surface reflectance and texture, the source light is altered and what remains comes to our eyes, which then further interpret what eventually makes its way to our brain, where it is further interpreted. The labels undergo a series of interpretations from source to mind. Can I therefore rely upon any of them? Are they the same for me as for the person standing next to me?
The answer is that clearly they are not. My seeing is therefore my own, the product of a range of factors which intercede along the way.
I stepped into a doorway and sighted into the display space. Some of the light from the dark street was making it through, but the majority of what I saw on the interior of the window was light from the interior, turned back at the border by the properties of the glass. I was seeing in two directions at once, looking out and looking in.
I was seeing the visual representation of reflection.
It was a small leap to a comparison of that with the metaphysical nature of reflection, of meditation, where we look outwards by looking inwards. Both outwards and inwards simultaneously.
And at Time in a liquid state.
It was another simple leap to realise that our seeing is not absolute, that the labels are different for everyone. Therefore we must not assume that others will have labels that match our own.
I felt liberated.
No thing is as it seems.
I began to look at shop windows in a new light (please forgive the pun), looking for the mannequins which were a metaphor for me, at the way some elements were transmitted and others were obscured at a textured fabric of meaning and illusion.
A journey with no discernible goal began.
Such is the nature of art-making practice.
We follow a trail of breadcrumbs cast on the path by the Muse and go where she leads us.