Shutter Speed, Art and Ancestral Memories?

The photographic image below was taken in Acadia, where I’ve spent a lot of time musing on the magic of this magnificent national park.  I’m particularly drawn to where the ocean meets the craggy shoreline – so mesmerized by this subject that it’s pushed me to explore new ways to photograph it, to try and make art of it.  And it’s also caused me to think more about the source of this seeming universal connection many of us have with the sea.

Acadia Morning

Acadia Morning

The sea is the subject of a lot of art – paintings, poetry, novels, movies, and even photography.  But how do we define what we see as art?  If you search the internet you’ll find a lot of grand opinions and big ideas.  And then there are the “rules” of visual art – like composition and perspective, lines and form, shapes and color and tone.  For photography, of course, it’s about the light.  But what does art do for us?  Some say it brings us natural beauty and emotional power.  Some talk about portraying the human condition and connecting to feelings that we all have in common.  I always liked Picasso’s view that it “washes the dust of daily life off our souls.”  And I was intrigued by a recent interview with Francis Ford Coppola, where he said that art is about risk and producing something that hasn’t been seen before.

I’d like to explore that latter point as it relates to photography.  The camera does have an incredible capability to produce unique images – ones that can be beautiful and emotionally powerful; but maybe, more importantly, the camera can deliver new visual experiences that we literally cannot see with our own eyes.  Your eyes can’t see the detail of a hummingbird wing in motion, nor can they stop a speeding bullet as it exits an apple.  But a camera can isolate such visual realities as they occur in a thousandth or a ten thousandth of a second.  Amazing to be a true witness to something you cannot see for yourself, without the collusion of a camera. 

On the other end of the time and shutter spectrum, a camera can lay down a digital image of an elongated reality: in real time you might be mesmerized by the waves of an ocean crashing on a rocky shoreline, inexplicably captivated by the scene. Using the adjustable shutter (and a few other tricks), the camera can record the roiling sea for 20 seconds and paint one mysterious, static image, showing you something you’ve never actually seen before, but may have felt at another level.  You might be drawn back in time to some ancient, ancestral memory of surviving as a hominid species on the seacoast, protected from predators by open space and nourished by plentiful resources from the mother sea.  (That last speculative sentence inspired by a recent read of Blue Mind – google the title – a scientific discourse on our affinity to water.)

Or you may just be mildly intrigued by the contrast between towering, finely detailed shoreline cliffs and the smooth water-worn boulders below, crafted by millennia of pounding surf. The latter illustrated by a very slow shutter speed capture.

Either way, or neither way, I shutter [sic] to think what a boring (and artless) world it would be for me without a camera.