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The Photographic Æther

Chicago artist Chris Parmelee creates photographs and prints that draw upon his combined experience in the fields of fine art and physics.  After graduating from Cal State University in Sacramento with a B.S. in physics, Chris went on to complete a graduate program at U.C. Davis, receiving his M.S. in applied science engineering with a concentration in biophysics.  He is currently living and working in Chicago, and he will be attending SAIC in the fall to pursue his M.F.A. in printmedia.  “The Photographic Æther” is a recent essay by Chris that engages issues of visuality and the æther.

Chris Parmelee, Pool. Archival pigment print, 59 x 47 inches

Photographs are strange objects. How we react to them, how we think about them, how we respond to them emotionally, is often a complex interaction that is difficult to explain, not only because of the subjective nature of viewing art. This writing is the outcome of discussions regarding these reactions to photography, both with myself and other people; it is a metaphor for the mechanics of these effects. These mechanics are imaginary, of course, but all metaphors are. Using clear ideas to describe an uncertain property is a step toward understanding it. As for my own photographs and prints, I want them to think for themselves, to achieve this density of æther.

Support for the æther waned in the early 20th century, as general relativity emptied it of physical value, leaving a brittle shell of what once was a dense and fundamental property of the universe. Simultaneously, in a booming era for photography, specifically the push to make photography a fine art, æther went through a spatial and dimensional transformation, ending up in the photographic plane. The space photography creates, as of its own accord, between a paper substrate and gelatin emulsion, exhibits properties which are foreign yet recognizable. There is a volume present that seems to have substance. The virtual space of a mirror mimics these properties, but cannot contain them; the mirror plane, being a virtual volume, is fundamentally empty, a reflected image of reality. Its boundaries, its edges, are not challenged, allowing substance to leak out through the transparent frame. Certain photographs occupy a volume that is, of course, an “image,” but an image with different and often substantial density; importantly, it is not a literal reflection. The space created acts differently than both the actual space or a reflected virtual space of what is being represented in the photograph.

The æther is a unique state of matter, able to act as gas or viscous liquid, exhibiting an inherent dynamism that does not illustrate the origins of its effects. It resembles an ideal gelatin that never solidly or completely sets, moving in currents fast and slow, imbuing the photograph with undetectable movement noticeable only through periphery. Its density is a deceit, just as photography is, but that does not null the effect.

Glimmers of the æther can be snared through structural phenomena of the image under the right conditions. Photographic density and boundaries are coupled in a way that leads, ideally, to a destructive end. Peaks in an energy landscape defy the idea of a static system – a ball cannot stay put on a sharp peak. Instability gains momentum at greater heights. Inversely, a ball that rolls in to a steep energy pit will become trapped. The density of an image acts as a scaffold to keep the borders intact. If it is too thin, too light, the edges will crumble and collapse the image. Heaviness acts differently, supplying a strong base for the image to stand, but this, too, can lead to destruction: Stuff too much into a given volume and the boundary stretches. When cracks develop, they offer a path in to the photograph’s volume. There is a dynamism at play here – the ball cannot stay at the peak; fissures close and others open as the current changes. The drive is a search for cracks and fissures in the structure of an image, in the production of a photograph, in the æther that defines the reality of photography.

Header image: Chris Parmelee, Winter Undertow. Archival pigment print, 59 x 47 inches.

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1 Response to " The Photographic Æther "

  1. Massage says:

    I cannot thank you enough for the blog post.Really looking forward to read more. Really Cool.

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