Totality: Words fail. Pictures fail.
The best photo of a total eclipse you’ve ever seen doesn’t tell 1% of the story. The only way to communicate the reality is through digital processing technology. How very postmodern.
August 21, 2017: Easterbrook Campground, SE Wyoming.
This was my first total solar eclipse. To say it was life-changing … well, if you’ve seen totality you know what I mean. If you haven’t, I can’t explain it. And that’s the problem.
I’ve been a writer since 1979. I’ve spent the past five years growing steadily as a photographer. So in theory, it feels like there should be some means, some combination of words and images, by which I could communicate what I saw and how it affected to me.
But there isn’t. Words fail me. Pictures fail me.
Now, I’m used to words failing, That’s a curse every writer is all too familiar with, and it’s part of why I gave up poetry. But photography? If the issue were that I’m not good enough, fine. I’m still learning and am well aware of my shortcomings as a shooter. But there are millions of photographers out there better than me who have the best equipment you can buy, and they haven’t captured it, either. I didn’t realize that before August 21.
Like you, I’ve seen hundreds of photos of total eclipses, maybe thousands. I can now tell you, with absolute certainty, that every image of totality you’ve ever seen is a lie. A flat, washed out, uninspired lie. The best total eclipse photograph you have ever seen fails to capture one percent of the truth.
Here’s what I think I saw.
Up until the instant of totality, it looks just like the pictures. An eerie darkness falls around you, and it’s a strange spectrum of light you’ve never seen before. It’s not the darkness you’re used to – it’s like there’s some sort of not-quite-right filter over the light. Like the white has been sucked out, maybe? I can’t describe it any better than that.
At the moment of totality, though… Your breath catches. You may feel yourself yelling involuntarily. The same is happening to those around you.
First, the moon isn’t just a black disc like you’ve seen in photos. You can see its features in the foreground. It’s fully three dimensional, and the depth of field is staggering.
You notice that it doesn’t look exactly round. The sunlight bending around it highlights the irregular features of the surface – mountains, valleys, etc. – so that it looks kind of … rough and rectangular, lower left to upper right.
It seems so damned close. The whole show seems like it’s happening a hundred feet above the trees. It’s right there.
The yelling and exclamations continue. You may hear someone laughing. Or crying. You may be laughing and crying all at once yourself. And perhaps at no point in your life have you felt so inadequate at expressing what you feel.
The color – it’s almost reflective. The contrast around the corona is sort of a liquid amalgam. The sun’s light, which we’re used to being yellow, is brightest white. Unnaturally white. Pure white.
At this point somebody may have looked away for a second, then they start yelling – “look at the horizon!” You do. It’s a 360-degree sunset. No account I had ever read of totality mentioned this. It’s breathtaking.
At the moment totality breaks there’s that spot of light at the edge you’ve seen in a million photos. Except the photos can’t capture the reality – it’s like a spotlight from some celestial rock concert, a distilled white tightbeam focused squarely on the center of your pupil.
And now you have to look away and put your glasses back on. You may be feeling an overwhelming ambivalence – you’re on a high like nothing you’ve ever known, and you’re also let down because it’s over.
If you’re like me you may not be interested in looking up during the remainder of the eclipse because … you now know that it’s really nothing at all. The anticlimax is palpable – the waning of the show does little more than remind you of what it isn’t.
If you’re like me, you’re already feeling the need for another fix. Within an hour you’ll be wanting to know when the next total eclipse is. You don’t care where it is – you’ll get there.
Photography vs Photographic Art
I had taken a couple of photos with my iPhone prior to totality. I deleted them. Had I shot the event with my Nikon, I’d have deleted those, too. I’d have been unable to look at them without knowing how utterly I had failed. The thought of those shots depresses me.
Within minutes I was actively pondering what it would take to produce an image that accurately communicated the full truth of the moment. What was clear was that simple photography wouldn’t do it. If it could, I’d have seen the shot by now.
Lately, though … My photography has recently taken a turn deeper into the artistic woods. I’ve never been a photojournalist. I don’t have a realist or naturalist bone in my body. My work has always used the processing technology available to produce distinctly idealized versions of my subjects. Even better than the real thing, as a certain famous rock band might put it.
My workflow has in the past used Lightoom, Photoshop, occasionally Photomatix, and several filters in the Nik suite. Recently I added On1 Photo RAW to the mix and I routinely employ five to ten of its filters in a given shot, in addition to everything else. So it’s a relatively complex process, and the goal isn’t realism.
I have colleagues who very much are purists, though. We’ve had discussions over my techniques and the aesthetics behind them. I know that many people feel like a camera’s job is to show you what was there, period. Any enhancement is somehow dishonest in their eyes.
There’s a problem with this. For starters, just about every professional photo you see is processed, whether you know it or not. Some of the most “natural” shots have made ample use of technology to make them, well, look natural.
The reason for this is fairly obvious once you think about. Put simply, the camera isn’t an eye. More to the point, it isn’t an eye connected by a complex network of nerve fibers to an even more complex visual center in the brain. The camera isn’t an imagination and it has no intellectual or emotional context function.
This means the picture I snap, no matter how “realistic,” may come nowhere near representing what I saw. And what I want to communicate isn’t what the lensfinder saw, it’s what my mind saw. I want to communicate my reality, although at this point that term’s meaning is becoming problematic.
The upshot is a bit of wonderful postmodern irony: I produce something “real” by employing electronic tools for artificial processing.
In other words, art.
I want to create an image that communicates the totality I saw on August 21 in Easterbrook campground. So I’ve been considering how I might use photography as a jumping-off point for a work of photographic art that accomplishes what photography cannot.
I have some ideas, and I think I can do it. This is going to be challenging, though, because the totality I witnessed was transformational. It changed me, and I suspect others who have seen the full eclipse feel the same way.
If I manage to pull it off I’ll share it with you. Wish me luck.
Luck. I’m such a photojournalism purist, I wouldn’t even attempt it if I couldn’t get a satisfactory photograph from my own camera and with minimal processing in Lightroom.
Like I say in the post, photography can’t do it. Period. I’m not good enough to talk about the technical reasons with any authority, but if you’ve seen totality you know what I mean. I had NO IDEA about this until the second of totality. None. And now I feel helpless trying to explain it.