“One day, millions of people will visit Babylon”:
An Essay on Discovery
In lieu of the many despairing issues that plague us as human beings, one remarkable hope is that there will always be the great bounty of the unknown. To know that we have yet to see many of the endless curiosities of our vast world is enough to continue each day with great expectations and an even greater sense of our capabilities.
The process of discovery can be a daunting one, though to be discouraged by it would limit us to only a glimpse at the many answers that lie beyond our immediate surroundings. Our ability to remove ourselves from a place is a freedom that often goes unnoticed, and traveling allows this freedom to extend to not only a physical journey, but also a mental one. It allows a brief but intense period of introspection, a break from the monotony of our regular aesthetic rituals, and a glimpse into a setting that we may choose, to our liking, whether or not we care to ever see again.
The fantasy of images retained during periods away from our homeland hold a certain wonder reserved only for the original viewer. Think of them as keys to memories that only we are capable of accessing. Though the task of photographs is usually to chronicle the subject and its location, it oftentimes unintentionally serves a completely different purpose: that of deepening the mystery of the place. By revealing a brief glimpse into the world of the photographer, more is left to the imagination than revealed. The viewer then is left with only the periphery, only the boundaries of such travels. Such an image provides access, yet ultimately the reality of it is untouched. Incredibly, we aren’t discouraged by the veiled contact with it.
Why do we continue to search, to travel, to read texts on lands we may never see or view photographs of places we have never been? Perhaps we understand more about the unknown than we think. As the late aphorist and philosopher E.M. Cioran believed, “We attribute reality in others only insofar as we discover it in ourselves.”
Yet so often the reality we associate with the unknown deceives us: the unfortunate letdown of finally visiting a place we had imagined our whole lives, only to find that it resembles something we were already familiar with. Perhaps we are too quick to romanticize the unknown – conjuring up images of a dreamlike place with offerings far beyond our native land. Despite this problem we create for ourselves, we can be consoled by our ability to capture that dreamlike place through photographs – immortalizing the beauty of a perfect subject, in a perfect land, regardless of the literal boundaries that may keep us away from such a place.
The mysteriousness of an image is able to preserve the sense of wonder that it evokes in the viewer – its existence is necessary in order to let the reality of the photographed object thrive. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If an object is photographed and never viewed in the physical, how do we explain our understanding of its existence? It is in the most profound images that we are able to attribute both a metaphysical existence as well as a corporeal one – separate in their likeness, the image is able to reveal multiple forms of the object.
Most of what we know about the universe we have learned from images. In this new age of visual abundance, we have access to nearly anything that is imaginable. Yet this visual form of discovery requires little effort on the part of the viewer, when whatever you perceive can be immediately provided in the form of an image. Though we have simplified the ability to explore nature’s great mysteries by way of the photograph, we are now provided with a great and immediate escape into the unknown. Further, the photograph retains the innocence of nature, leaving it untouched yet revealed. In this sense, it is the role of the artist to capture the object in a way that gives the viewer a proper sense of its reality. As quoted by Agnes Martin in her essay, ‘What Is Real?’: “The artist tries to live in a way that will make greater awareness of the sublimity of reality possible. Reality, the truth about life and the mystery of beauty are all the same, and they are the first concern of everyone.”
I imagine the life of the photographed subject to be eternal. In its quiescent state, still and untouched, it may be its best. It is when it reveals the nature of not only the object, but the beauty of the arcane, that we are content knowing it has been revealed to us in some small way.
Katherine Clary Jan. 2, 2009. New York City.