When I think about how I’ve experienced light, it’s almost always in its heightened form: different from the everyday act of seeing. Such as when I step off a plane after some time overseas and I immediately remember how much richer the light is in this country, how bright and harsh, how everything pops here in a way that it doesn’t elsewhere—of course, this feeling is inseparable from my homesickness and my specific experiences of Australia. My cousin from Massachusetts, for example, cannot stand how dull the shades of green are in this country, whereas I see so many shades and textures in our native plants and wildlife and appreciate them all.
Maybe we are victims of our own cultures, our own biases? We have prepared ourselves to think of illumination, light, as a species of revelation (to paraphrase a writer whose name I have forgotten: “the root of photography is the transformation and abstraction of the quotidian into revelation”). We employ phrases and mental stratagems that hint at our instinctual reckoning with light, or more specifically, the Sun as the arbiter of our existence. Phrases like, ‘the full light of history,’ and ‘the light of one’s life’. The latter idiom is worthy of particular examination because it hints at a fundamental consequence of this way of thinking: if light is life, then death is darkness. You see this in the common way we think of youth as a bright flare, of ageing as a gradual dimming, and of dying as a sudden and permanent blackness.
But it’s not as simple as to say: this is light and this is our unified thesis of it. There are, of course, contradictions and complexities. For example: our conceptions of light can be rejected with the very values we attach to it. Anyone who has danced the night away (another idiom), or made love in the dark can tell you: we often express and exhibit the most vital aspects of living in darkness, which we are used to considering as an anathema to living. In fact, in true darkness your brain will misfire wildly and your eyes invent streaks of light, usually bluish or purplish in colour, and spots appear in your vision. I suspect this is a form of psychological blowback, in the way we often sublimate concepts that inform the way we see the world into the very things that undermine it.
This is also true in the natural world as well, in both directions. For example, billions of years ago, when some single-celled organisms were just beginning their arc towards greater and greater complexity (here, also light plays a part: light sensitive cells that would later become eyes were amongst the first to develop in early complex organisms), oxygen was a toxic and volatile by-product of life, and it would remain so until millennia later, when some organisms learnt to harness it until it became the bedrock of our bodily processes. Oxygen, vital to life, still however retains its original qualities: over time, it tears cells apart, prompts the release of volatile organic compounds in cells, and were it not for mechanisms of programmed cell death, would lead to the rupture and degradation of tissues in the body. The sun itself, which for our purposes is synonymous with illumination, will blind you if you stare at it, and in some cases can inspire acts of murder.
The most convincing answer to the question, ‘Why did Meursault kill the Arab?’ to me has always been the simplest, which is ‘because of the sun!’ Camus’ The Stranger is a novel that examines the relationship between things by undermining them, and no relationship is more central to the text than Meursault’s oppositional relationship to the sun. Having a man who is in perpetual quarrel with the sun and all its accoutrements of meaning is in hindsight a brilliantly counter-intuitive device that suits Camus’ purposes well, and this is obvious from the (inevitable in retrospect) confinement of Meursault in a dark oubliette. That is: an oppositional stance to perceived reality is a good way to interrogate and understand things, but there’s an undeniable inertia to our attachment to certain concepts, particularly those that are tied to our perceptions of the material world (physical darkness will always mirror psychic darkness in our minds). Illumination of an aspect of reality through an opposition to it is only a temporarily stable proposition—eventually you must resolve it. I believe that there’s a similar concept in music theory, but I don’t know enough about music to speak with any real confidence on the topic.
I think the case of Meursault is interesting because of the way it highlights a fundamental way of thinking about light that is peculiar (as far as I’m aware) to the west. That is: an implicit understanding of light as the central concern and darkness as, at best its absence and at worst its corruption. This relationship prevails over any other notion. This proposition, of course, breaks down if you follow it to its fullest extent (though you can see how it works politically through Malcolm X’s famous jailhouse realisation, when he looks up the dictionary definitions of ‘black,’ and ‘white’), but it’s implications in the realm of aesthetics is worthy of inquiry. After all, aesthetics has always really been about political and social and economic states being transposed, by necessity and through conscious and unconscious processes, into ways of living and perceiving the world.
The Japanese novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, in his essays on Japanese aesthetics, makes the most compelling case for the chief difference between European and non-European (in his case, Japanese) aesthetic traditions being in their relationships to light and the differing gradations of its absence. I think this is why comparing the traditions of Japanese and European photography is so endlessly fascinating to me: it is through exchange and coterminosity that the differences emerge. To bring it back to light, I propose a simple test in this vein: compare the photography of European and Japanese photographers who were interested in documenting post-war ennui who also worked primarily in the medium of black and white photography (such as Bill Brandt and Takuma Nakahira, or William Klein and Daidō Moriyama)—they arrive at a similar understanding of light and shadow, but there is the sense that they are meeting in the middle from opposite ends.
Photography and light are inseparable to me. The photograph is only an interpretation of light, a specific constraint placed upon reality (the borders of which are informed by the technical limitations of the medium, the limitations of our own biology, and the judgement of the photographer). To capture a photograph (photons on gelatine film strips: physical, imperfect, and immediate) is to harness light and turn it into memory. I don’t think there’s a functional difference between the way a moment is captured in a photograph and the way our brains create memories, because the same process—meaning making through the interpretation of stimulus in our brain—underlies both (unless you can find a way to see a photograph without using your brain).
As I am writing this I have my phone next to me and every now and then, I’ll open up Instagram and scroll through the photos of my friends and others that I follow. I pause at a photo of a group of people at a music festival. My brain files this photo into a set of non-discrete categories: one for each person I recognise in the photo, one for the image as a whole, one for the bright purple outfits they’re wearing, and about a dozen others. Neurons forge connections and suddenly the photo is a memory. An hour later, I can recall the photograph in my mind and I am able to roughly reconstruct it if I close my eyes. This process is no different than the process of taking the photo: sure, if I was actually there in that moment watching that scene unfold, I’d be able to remember it a lot more vividly, and the sights and sounds available to me would be more numerous, but it’s the same process. I can’t look at a photo without creating a memory of it, just as I can’t experience a moment without creating a memory of it. In both cases, my eyes are turning light into memory. Often, I will find a photo that I took and be unable to remember the moment at all, and I would have to reconstruct it from the photo—in this case, I am a participant and creator in my own past. This is the only true magic.