During the long days of Covid lockdown, I drafted and contributed to a co-authored paper Object-Oriented Photography – a Speculative Essay on the Photography of Essence with Professor Bob Ryan, who had recently completed a PhD (Ryan and Price 2022).  The paper was subsequently published in the Philosophy of Photography journal (Ryan and Price 2022).

I have been reflecting on how the paper served to influence my subsequent PhD research and knowing what I now know, at the end of my PhD, how I might have drafted it differently.  The timing of the drafting of the paper was significant as it coincided with the production of the Final Major Project and the Critical Review of Practice for my MA in Photography. Still, it also served as a means of developing my thinking such that it might form the basis of a proposal for PhD research.  Not something I had previously considered, but a combination of receiving a distinction for my work on the MA, together with a newfound fascination for academic research and writing and time to think during lockdown led me to this inevitable decision.

The long days of early 2020 provided me with the opportunity to extend my thinking and move on decisively from phenomenology and the world of sensory perception into a world of seeking the essence of natural objects through ontology.  Graham Harman’s book Object-Oriented Ontology: a New Theory of Everything led me into a world that I had hitherto not considered, nor ventured as a means of providing insights on my photographic practice.  As an introvert in an overwhelming sensory world, the opportunity to use my photography as a means of momentarily uncovering a glimmer of the noumena was captivating.  And maybe, my practice, along with my trusty camera, would allow me to reduce space and freeze time and in so doing, reveal a normally hidden reality accessible only to those who look.

As the paper’s title suggests, our work and my practice in particular was speculative at this stage and I had no idea how I might reveal essence in my images.  I used my co-author’s five strategies for approaching essence – The Star Diagram –to get me started.  While reduction and metaphor were methods I had used before to a limited extent, fracture, and the idea of using activation or attenuation of consciousness as a means to reveal the “more than” of an object, to which Harman refers, were novel.  However, what I did know, from many years of practice, was that there were times when I had lost sight of the conscious world and entered what I now consider to be a deeply entangled and non-local world.  The prelude to my thesis explains this experience as follows:

“It is a hot and humid late afternoon in Sabah, Northern Borneo. All is still, but suddenly the trees of the rainforest begin to shake. Our guide points – I look and see a flash of dark orange moving high in the canopy overhead. The leaves rustle, and the extent of the disruption hints at the size of the animals coming towards us. There is movement high in the trees, and I catch a glimpse of the creatures responsible, swinging effortlessly from one branch to another. I pick up the action in my camera’s viewfinder.

The sun is intense, creating specular highlights through the canopy of leaves. Without thought, I adjust my camera’s exposure and swing it on its tripod, following the movement. The complexity of the light is challenging, but I find the best settings for the conditions as a female orangutan and her baby emerge and come to rest on a nearby tree. I know that these beautiful inhabitants of the rainforest rarely stay for long. I focus on the task, drawing on my experience in challenging conditions as a wildlife and police photographer.

As I put the viewfinder to my eye, I find myself drawn into the magical world of these beautiful animals. Our guide whispers that the baby is weak and unlikely to survive. He moves away, and I am alone. I sense the intensity of love of the mother for the baby, and her interactions with her child draw me in. She plays with it, checking its tiny hands and feet and ensuring it is comfortable in her arms. It stares up at her, its bright blue eyes locked onto hers. She draws it to her breast and feeds it, whilst checking out any sound in the surrounding forest. But then, in retrospect, I became aware that she knew something was wrong. The baby was not flourishing; I also understood her sadness and desperation. She kissed it, and I saw – in a sublime moment of awareness and insight – the purity of unconditional and perfect love. Then they are gone. The orangutan swings off into the forest, her baby clutching her coat and hanging on for dear life – in more ways than one.

After an hour spent in the company of these beautiful creatures, I lower the camera. I am conscious that time has passed; the sun is lower in the sky. I sensed I had been in a dreamlike state, and for an anxious moment, I questioned whether I had even pressed the shutter. A quick look reassures me – I had captured dozens of images, but it was as though someone else had been taking them. Other onlookers were drifting away. The moment was gone; I can recollect first putting my eye to the viewfinder. As soon as my eye had settled on the eyepiece, my world had closed in, and my camera ceased to exist. But now, my encounter with the orangutan felt like a dream – a dream fading rapidly beyond recall. As I uncoupled my camera from its mount and placed it in my camera bag, a dull headache began to form over my eyes. I hoped I would not get the pounding headache and nausea, which had often been the price I had paid when engaging in sustained periods of continuous practice.

As I reflect on the afternoon’s events, I realise that I had entered a dwelling place where my art is created; a place where my choices and actions are intuitive and lie beyond conscious intention. I had been absorbed, dwelling in the world of the orangutan and her baby. With them, I had been in a very special place.”

Sabah, Northern Borneo – July 2010 – based on recollection, images, and contemporaneous journal entries.

In revisiting the days in Borneo and other parts of the world with wildlife and thinking again about the speculative paper that was drafted partially before my PhD began, I see it as a starting point, a baseline, and a lodestone for both my ongoing practice and the theoretical journey that was to come, in supporting my considerations and providing insights and inspiration.  Graham Harman’s brand of ontology and his Quadruple Object in particular, provided me with a framework to explore whether it was possible to allude to the noumena through photography and explore the unique properties of the camera.  At this stage, it would have been impossible to articulate anything other than speculate about how aesthetics might be able to reveal reality in the context of Graham Harman’s speculative realism.  The paper was simply speculation about a speculative ontology that had sought to challenge the prevailing philosophical movement of correlationism.  During the second year of my PhD, in another jointly authored paper (currently unpublished), I was able to develop my ideas and extend those of Harman, through an exploration of the entangled nature of Being that had emerged through my practice.  My ideas were presented at a symposium Dwelling in Extremis at the University of Dundee (Price and Ryan 2023).

One of the outcomes of my PhD research is a deep fascination and commitment to academic writing.  I have spoken before in this journal of my wish to write a book about Object-Oriented Photography and the development of the Onion Diagram, but I would also like to continue my practice-led thinking through the production of more journal articles, and I will, of course, develop my thinking and writing through this Critical Research Journal.

 

References

Price, A. B. J. and R. J. Ryan (2023). Paradox, Being and Dwelling – a Speculative Essay in Object-Oriented Photography.

Ryan, R. J. and A. B. J. Price (2022). “Object-Oriented Photography – a Speculative Essay on the Photography of Essence.” Philosophy of Photography 12: 129-147.

 

Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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