Week 2 – Photography and its Relationship to Other Disciplines

In this week’s activity I chose to briefly explore the questions of time and motion and their relation to photography.  Still photographers images record historical events; i.e. since they are not viewed in real time as they are happening they are consequently historical records.  Physics and specifically astrophysics demonstrates most clearly the time lag in an image’s recording of events. Similarly the physics of light transmission and camera design dictate a the limits of our abilities to create the perception of stopped motion when in fact virtually every subject is actually in motion (if only at the atomic level) that is beyond our level of perception.

NGC 248 in the Small Magellanic Cloud
NGC 248 in the Small Magellanic Cloud
About this image

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured two festive-looking nebulas, situated so as to appear as one. They reside in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that is a satellite of our Milky Way galaxy. Intense radiation from the brilliant central stars is heating hydrogen in each of the nebulas, causing them to glow red.

The nebulas, together, are called NGC 248. They were discovered in 1834 by the astronomer Sir John Herschel. NGC 248 is about 60 light-years long and 20 light-years wide. It is among a number of glowing hydrogen nebulas in the dwarf satellite galaxy, which is located approximately 200,000 light-years away in the southern constellation Tucana.

The image is part of a study called Small Magellanic Cloud Investigation of Dust and Gas Evolution (SMIDGE). Astronomers are using Hubble to probe the Milky Way satellite to understand how dust is different in galaxies that have a far lower supply of heavy elements needed to create dust. The Small Magellanic Cloud has between a fifth and a tenth of the amount of heavy elements that the Milky Way does. Because it is so close, astronomers can study its dust in great detail, and learn about what dust was like earlier in the history of the universe. “It is important for understanding the history of our own galaxy, too,” explained the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Karin Sandstrom of the University of California, San Diego. Most of the star formation happened earlier in the universe, at a time where there was a much lower percentage of heavy elements than there is now. “Dust is a really critical part of how a galaxy works, how it forms stars,” said Sandstrom.

The data used in this image were taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys in September 2015.


NASA, ESA, STScI, K. Sandstrom (University of California, San Diego), and the SMIDGE team

While this image relates to my practice in the general sense that is scientific, it is of course in a completely different field of science.  I chose this image because it made me think about the points raised in the presentations, specifically about the relationship of time and motion, history and current affairs.  This image, and any of the thousands of others taken by the Hubble Telescope are particularly intriguing I think because while they have all been recorded and published contemporaneously they are in fact images of extraordinarily old events.  This image for instance records not what NGC 248 looks like today, but rather what it looked like 200,000 light years ago.  So it is the extreme example illustrating that all still photos are at the same time contemporaneous and historical.  We are much closer to our subjects even with the longest telephoto lenses, but the principle applies in that we recorded something that happened a split second ago transmitted to our camera sensors or film by reflected light moving at 186,000 miles per second or almost 671 million miles per hour. For the time our shutters are open we are in fact capturing a composite image of all that occurred in that time.  We perceive we have stopped action at 1/500, but we just can’t perceive the motion that occurred in most cases.  For an example that relates to my practice, the photo below of the hummingbird illustrates the point that even though taken at a very high shutter speed able to stop the perceived motion of the bird’s position, the wings beating at about 80 beats per second appear as a blur.
  • Image result for hummingbird photo
One could argue philosophically, that every still photo captures not just one moment in time, but moments in time as represented by the speed of the photons that create our image relative to the time the shutter was open.  I often shoot multiple images at high speed in order to capture a particular movement.  When reviewed quickly they are identical to viewing single frames in sequence of a motion picture and are reminiscent of the little “flip books” we probably all saw or created as children.  So while a carefully planned and staged studio portrait may seem to unrelated to a video, the distinction is blurred considerably in wildlife or sports action photography.

For the week’s Webinar we were asked to discuss how our practices related to other disciplines.  As primarily a wildlife and nature photographer, my practice is rather inextricably linked to Biology and its sub-disciplines, but also relates to Environmental Science, and I aspire to have my images have artistic value. Here are some of my images and my thoughts on how they relate to other disciplines.
Intimate, close up portraits of animals has distinct value in the fields of Taxonomy and Morphology.  That is what are they and what are their characteristics. The Carolina Wren on the left and Red Shouldered Hawk on the right illustrate the point well.  Aside from the obvious of being able to identify the species, their morphology tells us much about the species.  The bill of the wren is slender and adapted to eating insects while the bill of the hawk is much more powerful in its construction and adapted to tearing the flesh from its prey.  Similarly the powerful talons of the hawk and shear size show how it is able to grab and hold prey while the diminutive feet on the wren are useful only to moving along the ground and perching on branches of trees.
Photos of species within their habitat are useful in the field of Ecology and tell us something about the environments species require to survive. The Kittiwakes on the left are nesting in the sea cliffs of Handa Island in NW Scotland, while the Puffin on the left burrows in the ground at the top of the stacks at  Handa Island.
Photographs showing species feeding give Ecologists and Physiologists important information on what the eat and how they feed and in that how and why those species live in particular habitats and what other species within those habitats are required to support their existence.  The Little Grebe on the left was photographed in Loch Fleet in NE Scotland eating a fish, and the Red Headed Woodpecker on the right is shown pulling an insect larva from the trunk of a snag located in a wetland in South Carolina in the U.S.
Sometimes a wildlife or nature image has value as a piece of art; simply a beautiful image in its own right and nothing more.  The flock of Godwits passing a Herring Gull while the Widgeon in the background leave wakes that reflect in the evening sun on the Dornoch Firth in NE Scotland.
Godwits, Gull and Widgeon sunset-1849

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