This is a difficult, but necessary transition for me, in my journey into academic research. Although I have a broad grasp of the key philosophers whose thinking might relate to my work, the thought of reading some of the key texts such as Heidegger’s Being and Time (1953) or Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1998) scare me. In an effort to overcome this reticence I have started my research with Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). The aspects of his thinking that I believe are significant in my research and practice are the concepts of being and unconcealment (or emergence or revelation – the terms I have used hitherto).
Heidegger was a prolific thinker and writer, but his life’s work is fundamentally about being. Within the Aristotelian tradition, Heidegger subscribes to the view that being is a property of all things whether human or not and in so doing takes on the characteristics and implications of a flat ontology (like speculative realism) whereby all objects are equal.
Being, as far as humans are concerned, might be described as the ground state of awareness and is fundamentally resident in our non-conscious mind. Being conscious requires us to direct thought and become sensitive to things around us, and to take notice of the ‘chattering monkeys’ of thoughts and sensations that crowd into our minds moment by moment. However, being, and the awareness of being, are not accessible through sensory perception. So, being aware of being (Ryan and Price 2020), which is the goal in my practice, such that I can capture the essence of Skye, is something that can only be accessed through my non-conscious awareness of the Island. In this respect I believe that my work might be considered intuitive in terms of when I choose to press the shutter, and subsequently recognise the revelation of essence in the resulting image. It is also true that in order to maximise my success in capturing the ephemeral hiddenness I must be in a non-conscious state – that is not the same as being unconscious however!
Fundamental to our understanding of being is to realise that, according to Heidegger, we can only become aware of being through a process of unconcealment (or not concealed), and it is only through unconcealment that we can access truth (or aletheia -first truth). Therefore, in order to access essence via being in my photographic work, I must recognise and respond to a revelation, a lifting of the veil of presence or a disclosure. This all sounds enigmatic, but I find it very interesting and intriguing.
Edmund Husserl, the phenomenologist, refers to objects as being revealed or disclosed and suggests that at any given time objects might be clearly conscious and others are completely hidden, or on the fringes of consciousness. Heidegger, in turn develops this idea of revelation or unconcealment by revealing objects in particular ways through knowing or understanding them as tools (such as the hammer) people or events. This ongoing process of revealing and concealing occurs through Dasein, according to Heidegger, in what he calls The Clearing, or the “field of relatedness”, where objects, or at least some of them, are open to being. However, as Heidegger (1984) explains the nature of the essence of an object can change over time:
“entities are reordered, and indeed not merely by an entity that is not yet accessible to us, and perhaps never will be, but by something concealed which conceals itself precisely when we, holding ourselves in the clearing, are left to the discretion of or even captivated by, entities.” (p.210)
This leaves me with an image of The Clearing in my mind, similar to that of the solar system with planets and other things swirling around with the light falling on only some of them at any point in time.
As a photographer, wishing to access the being or essence of Skye, this leaves me with the task of readying myself to be able to recognise and capture a revelation in the field and then recognising it again in the processing stage. If I am successful, the resulting image will not only achieve this but will also reveal my being as the photographer and my integrity and authenticity. In order to reveal the ephemeral hiddenness of the Island and tell my own story of the reality of Skye through my images, I will also need to conceal its primary sensory impact. We are all familiar with the super-saturated, beautifully crafted, sweeping landscape images of Skye (in the postcard vernacular) but this is not what I would like my viewers to see. In my view, they are not true statements about the essence of Skye – they are a fiction, a fairy tale – and there are plenty of these. There is an obsession with the spectacular here and, indeed, the Island can overwhelm the senses with its scenic splendour. However, the reality of the island – its essence – is infinitely deeper and often transcends any form of analysis or critical discourse. Glimpses of that reality can be glimpsed in its literature and its art but our engagement with it is ephemeral, not because it is ephemeral, but because when we begin to think out loud the necessary quiet of our soul disappears.
Derrida, J. (1998). Of Grammatology. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1953). Being and Time. New York, State University of New York Press.
Heidegger, M. (1984). Grundfragen der Philosophe: ausgewhalte “Probleme” der “Logic” translated as: Basic Questions of Philosophy. Selected “Problems” of “Logic”. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
Ryan, R. and A. B. J. Price (2020). Object Oriented Photography – a Speculative Essay on the Photography of Essence.