It was the Greeks who started documenting their questions about the reality around them. And their queries were what you would expect when people start talking about fundamental issues – “How big is big? How small is small? Why is the sky up there and the ground down here?” It’s from their discussions we have the term atom, which when I was growing up was considered the smallest possible thing around (those were the days).
The term came from the Greek concept of reductionism – what do you get if you continue to divide something in half over and over again? They seemed to realize this can be carried to ridiculous degrees (reductio ad absurdum) and so decided there must be a point to call a halt, where an object cannot be divided further without losing its fundamental character. Hence, atoms, objects they never expected to actually see, just theoretical constructs that were handy to shut down the reduction discussions.
It would probably amaze them to see the IBM photographs of individual atoms manipulated to spell words or to hear discussions among physicists discussing particles that make up atoms or even the physical nature of empty space itself.
In our images we also discuss fundamental aspects of perception – How big can our images be? How small can our images portray? What are the limits to our ability to show the world what we’re seeing?
Originally it was a matter of chemistry. Silver halide crystals in film shrunk in size over the decades as the chemical companies improved their technology, resulting in film grain (those random speckles you see on film when magnified) that became the size of bacteria. Finer and finer details could be portrayed on prints and images could be displayed in larger and larger dimensions (my earliest memory of Kodachrome was a 35mm slide blown up 500x to create the Kodak Colorama at Grand Central Station).
Interestingly, Kodak was an early developer of digital sensors, leading to another revolution in photography. Early sensors gave no competition to film with their limited amount of captured information but over the decades improvements in technology have narrowed the difference, to the current class of sensors with pixels near the size of film grain. The ability to pack a sensor with pixels and the race for increasing megapixels has resulted in digital images that can show details in prints or be displayed at sizes comparable to film. Arguments about the benefits of one over the other continue to ensue. The Greeks would be amused.
But to what goal is all our chattering? We portray what we see in a manner we want it to be seen. Our reductionism in technology hasn’t fundamentally altered the nature of photography – it’s still a box used to direct light from lens to capture medium – but it has provided us with more tools to craft our final images. We’ve begun to appreciate a broader diversity of vision; the Internet gives us access to images made with very old tools and the latest silicon implements. Each embodies the nature of reality to the photographer. Razor sharp detail at the smallest level or grungy dynamic portrayals, and the complete span between, are all available with the click of a button, on camera or computer. We are literally only bounded by the limits of our imagination.
What would you see if you were assured of success in portraying it?