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To Control Nature

It took some years for me to switch from film to digital photography.


Where’s the darkroom?


It’s in the computer, you bimble. No more smelly chemicals.


Okay, now what?


Well, in that image you just captured with my digital camera, the one with the unbalanced composition, you can fix it quickly.




Just add clouds to the upper right-hand corner.


Just add clouds?


Yep. It’s easy.


I burst out laughing.


There… aren’t… clouds… there.


He didn’t understand. He’s a wedding photographer, commercially successful and skilled at what he does.


I had learned to refrain from calling myself a Luddite while living in Australia; that was where the real Luddites had been shipped and I found that some friends were their descendants.


Digital shooting posed questions from then on; what’s the morality here? Photos never have recorded “reality”. Photography freezes Time, compresses Three Dimensions into Two and can also void all Color. Simply imposing a frame around a view alters it.


Pushkin said, “Taste is the only morality we’ve got”. A work of Art is either Good or Bad.


Or is the measure of Art the reaction of our senses? What if your senses are more  acute than mine? Isn't all Art subjective anyway?


A Hollywood mentor had impressed on me that a feature film makes money if it inspires emotion, any emotion… you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss twelve bucks goodbye.


Certainly the quality of a work of Art is not measured by the price it fetches.


I had a revelation after some years of writing feature films, the most obvious intersection of Art and Commerce. I sought to create cinematic literature rather than vehicles for thrill-ride sensations of Special Effects. Until an established producer impressed on me, “All movies are themselves Special Effects”. 


My relation to Technology and Art nagged at me again. 


Ansel Adams, during the final stages of his remarkable life, when photos by him were being scanned with some early digital equipment, remarked in a little-known statement that “electronic” technology was photography’s future and that film itself was to be made obsolete. 


I don’t completely share that certainty; there are many downsides to digital, most notably to me the frequency with which digital photography spawns more technicians than artists. Because I know how to place a monstrous human nose on the summit of Mt. Everest doesn’t mean I look forward to doing so (on second thought, though, that might be interesting). 


It is further said that what we think of as cameras will go the way of the dinosaurs and first the smartphones and then other, smaller devices will take over photography (happening now), then perhaps leaving two dimensionality behind as well… the feelies are sure to be next and… suddenly I remember that Aldous Huxley said he based his city of the future in Brave New World on Santa Fe New Mexico (where I lived at the time), which he first saw in 1929 while visiting D.H. Lawrence at his Taos home.


But digital does not equate with dystopia…


The power and promise of digital imagery are massive and likely in infancy. That’s exciting.


Isn’t Nature Sacred though?


Thank you for asking.


Nature is Sacred. And that is why I do not employ composite imagery when I photograph Nature. I never “just add clouds”. I photograph what I see. (A reviewer termed my photos of Nature “New Surrealism”, referencing ethereal and dreamscape imagery rather than Photoshop wizardry). 


With subjects other than Nature, well, digital manipulation beckons.


There are warning signs, though… recall the seduction of neon in the 20th Century:  “To Paint with light”. Neon Art does exist and I enjoy some of it. But consider the blight of nocturnal urban landscapes and the assaults of neon advertising. How to regard new technologies and omnipresent visible commercial forces and others lurking in shadows or not yet born? 


Ex-Adman-Turned-Environmentalist Jerry Mander wrote eloquently on this subject in his In the Absence of the Sacred:  The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. Here’s his List of Ten Points:


1.  Since most of what we are told about new technology comes from its proponents, be deeply skeptical of all claims.


2.  Assume all technology “guilty until proven innocent”.


3. Eschew the idea that technology is neutral or ‘value free’. Every technology has inherent and identifiable social, political, and environmental consequences.


4.  The fact that technology has a natural flash and appeal is meaningless. Negative attributes are slow to emerge.


5.  Never judge a technology by the way it benefits you personally. Seek a holistic view of its impacts. The operative question is not whether it benefits you, but who benefits the most? And to what end?


6.  Keep in mind that an individual technology is only one piece of a larger web of technologies, ‘metatechnology’. The operative question here is how the individual technology fits the larger one.


7.  Make distinctions between technologies that primarily serve the individual or small community and those that operate on a scale outside of community control. The latter is the major problem of the day.


8.  When it is argued that the benefits of the technological lifestyle are worthwhile despite harmful outcomes, recall that Lewis Mumford referred to these alleged benefits as ‘bribery’.

9.  Do not accept the homily that ‘once the genie is out of the bottle you cannot put it back’, or that rejecting a technology is impossible. Such attitudes induce passivity and confirm victimization.


10. In thinking about technology within the present climate of technological worship, emphasize the negative. This brings balance. Negativity is positive.


I am reminded of a sign I saw years ago prior to a local School Ballot Initiative:  “Do Something Positive — Vote No!”.


If we hold the Natural World to be Sacred, we must be vigilant.


The looming threat of Climate Change is recognized. Economies based on Extractive Plunder, from fracking for fossil fuels to unsustainable mining of aquifers are entering consciousness. But there is more…


For me, Wildness is Sacred, never fully understandable except, perhaps, in discovery of our own place and scale. Real Mystery is Good.


And our technology can and does threaten Wildness, with both foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences. Read John McPhee’s The Control of Nature. Read anything by Edward Abbey.


When I was married and entered into rants about encroaching technologies my wife would serenely recite her mantra of technological benefits that began:  “deodorant, printing press, toilet paper…”


Let’s just consider technology guilty until proven innocent.


And that true Art is subjective.


Hand me that digital camera.

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