Prepositions: the immune system of the English language. Americans fill “out” a form where the British fill forms “in,” people new to speaking English are routinely confused by the way we “work stuff out” and how, when we get new shoes, “work them in.” No matter how perfect your accent, it is the prepositions that will out you if English is your second language. Why? Because prepositions are inscrutable: nobody really knows how they work, we just like to correct people who misuse them. They’re so special I have made of them the electromagnetic bottle in which I intend to contain the thrilling ideas that make up my thesis.
Hence, where last week was all about expanding and contracting light, this week I shall tackle the above and below of making the familiar strange and the unseen visible where it concerns foiling nature’s plan to keep people ignorant of the world outside their mundane experience of it.
Energy shunts around the cosmos at a finite variety of frequencies. When its waves are about 720 nanometers apart, they produce optical phenomena that can be recorded by cameras specially equipped to reveal it. As far as light goes, this is as far as light goes, so to speak. There’s so little energy being reflected by subjects exposed in infra-red photography that it naturally involves a temporal expansion as well: you have to leave the shutter open for a long time to get enough of the stuff together to make a picture. Hence, in the scene above, the shutter was open for so long the ripples in the water cancel each other out reducing the surface to a simplified form: a seemingly perfect mirror. And because this sort of light exists at a place in the spectrum below that phenomena we call “colour,” it is utterly without the stuff.
Yeah, think about that: the world before colour distorts it (the green-blue hue that these images often take on is artifactual). Everything you like about black and white photography–the way it reduces distraction and showcases texture and form–is true with bells on for infrared photography. Portraiture in this band of the spectrum is especially eerie because infrared light passes unimpeded through the uppermost layers of the human epidermis, rendering even the most mottled complexion porcelain. Pass upwards through the visible spectrum and you’ll come out the top in the bluest blue: the ultraviolet.
Blue is pretty special too. Because it’s the shade to which the world is shifted when the amount of visible light is lowest (on a moonless night or at dusk on a cloudy night), blue is the only colour not decoded in the cones of your retinas. See, the cones actually constitute a minority of photosensitive tissues in your eyes, existing only in the fovea or focal area at the middle of your retina. The rods, which outnumber the cones by a jillion to one and carpet the backs of your eyes like broadloom shag in a tricked-out van from the seventies, react only to blue light. If you follow the logic that posits the optic nerve as part of the cognitive rather than perceptive functions of the central nervous system, you’ll be receptive to the idea that saturating your visible field with the colour blue engages your mind in a way nothing else can.
The ultraviolet is a fun place to be because it is probably one of the easiest places to detect the walls of the prison in which nature contains our senses. Behold: a world that appears in one way to people, and in an entirely different way to bees.
Again: no fair, nature! How may we escape the limits millennia of evolution imposed upon our senses? Why, with special photography, of course. When I think of all the beauty in the familiar world denied the casual unaided observer…
Tune in next week when I take my prepositional proposition to the next level: beyond the visible spectrum.