WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS
THE SPIRITUALIST POET WILLIAM BLAKE FAMOUSLY EXPRESSED HIS DESIRE to explore life in its smallest detail, to, as he put it in his poem Auguries of Innocence, “see the world in a grand of sand / and a heaven in a wild flower / hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ and eternity in an hour”. It’s the kind of sentiment that makes me believe he might have made a great photographer.
It’s unlikely that Blake, who was also a wonderfully gifted graphic artist and who died in 1827, ever held a camera in his hand, but from the first generation of photographers there was a decidedly Blakeian urge to explore the world at the most intimate levels, engineering lenses that allowed maximum magnification and resolution of the vast stories lingering right under our noses. Today, as never before, macro photography is finally within the technical and financial reach of the many, allowing spaces that barely comprise inches to reveal the complexities that we stroll past without regard on a daily basis. And just as all of photography is about extracting pieces of reality from the larger flow of time, so macro is about drawing things out of their original settings, to dramatize the elegance of design and pattern, to create a separate stillness. That certainly is what appeals to me about shooting in the small world….the ability to take things so far out of their regular context that we are forced to consider them as if we were encountering them for the first time.
To be sure, close-up work comes with its own set of unique technical challenges, but what makes it worthwhile is its ability to deliver the shock of the new, to depict the eternities residing within Blake’s grain of sand. For many of us, this process of discovery reaches its fullest expression in floral or botanical subjects, since magnifying their contours is almost like a crash course in geometry or architecture. Petals, seeds, pistils, stamens, leaves…..all are rotating in their own incredible orbits as if they were bit players in Fantasia, fantastic ballets in which size (or rather the transformation of scales and sizes) really does matter. In terms of technique, even a practiced photographer can be frustrated by the special demands raised by magnification. Certainly light and focal relationships work differently, as well as stabilization of the image. Predictably, every error of movement or lens flaw is utterly exposed once everything is increased in size, resulting in a higher percentage of failed shots and near misses. Still, one’s first plunge into macro is like Alice’s initial entry into a realm where everyday objects magically shrink and expand without warning.
Blake, like all artists, understood that art transforms and re-translates all experience, re-defines how we view everything, allows us to show all ranges of life from dark to light, remarking in Auguries that “man was made for Joy & Woe / and when this we rightly know / thro the World we safely go” Photography gets the big things right…. by paying attention to the worlds within worlds. It really is a game of inches, sometimes atoms.