As Cosmic As You're Likely To See Me Get

I saw this amazing photograph in an article this morning and was so intrigued I had to read the whole thing, plus comments.

Taken by a fellow by the name of Ben Long, the pic depicts Monument Valley at midnight, and everything you see in the picture was illuminated only by the light of a full moon.

It was a little tricky to set up, explained Ben in his article on taking such pictures, because your eyes can't really see what the camera is pointed at. Even once your eyes adjust all the way, the mesas and buttes in the distance are still just "vague forms," in Ben's words.

In fact, the camera can't really "see" the scene either -- at least not at first. This particular exposure was for 10 seconds (your average snapshot is over in 1/400th of a second or so), because that's how long it took for the camera to gather enough light.

And the results -- what you're seeing here -- don't look real, do they? That doesn't look much like moonlight to me. Too orange-y. Too warm. Looks more like a dim sunset, if anything. Somebody in the comments section of Ben's page complained that the photograph seemed "artificial."

Someone else explained, helpfully (to me, anyway) that of course it looks like sunlight on that tree and hillside -- it is. That's light from the sun, reflected off the moon, reflected off the hill and bounced back into Ben's camera lens.

"Whoa," I thought.

The way that scene looks up there at the top of this post is actually more "real" and authentic than the way you think a moonlit park ought to look. This is what it looks like when you can actually see it.

And "seeing" it, in this case, requires watching for ten whole seconds - four thousand times longer than we usually do - and (here's the tricky part) somehow seeing it all at the same time.

Not a representative sample, not a cluster of images, not a sequence, but all of it. Now.

Can you imagine what the world would look like if you didn't have to behold it moment by moment? If you could really see it all, now? I can't really wrap my brain around that, but it sure is intriguing.

Look at the results when ten measly seconds of some distant dirtpile are compiled into a single frame. Marvelous. Project that, then, to being somehow able to see a whole day, or a year, or a lifetime, at once.

It sounds absurd. But you gotta figure: Film can do it. A sheet of plastic coated with an emulsion of silver halide and gelatin. Eastman Kodak busted it out more than a century ago.

And surely somebody, somebody wise, has managed the same trick. To look at, say, a snack of tuna-fish sandwich with spicy mustard and slices of colby cheese, on toasted whole wheat bread, and see/taste/smell/feel/hear the whole lunch in its entirety. (I don't know about you, but I bet it would freak me out.)

You notice that older people always seem to have such amazing "perspective" on things, right? As we accumulate experiences, succeed and fail, witness a ceaseless cavalcade of comings and goings, I suppose we do begin to get a sense of the "big picture."

Sort of. But even the wisest old geezer -- the one I hope to one day be -- overlooked a few moments. It's not all in there.

And maybe it's not supposed to be. Perhaps, as you might be saying, "life is meant to be just 'moments,' Colin. Jeez." Different moments, everything from deliciously languid hesitations before kisses to disorienting flashes just before the car hits the utility pole, but just those fleeting instants. That's what we get.

But I don't know.

Take another look at that moonlight photo and tell me it's not apparent: We're missing a whole lot of the big picture. Pretty much all of us.

And I'm willing to bet it's got something to do with this habit we've gotten into of only seeing one thing at a time.


Then again, it's worth considering that even if we could all be human time-lapse cameras, we still couldn't see everything. As your friend and mine, Amos Vogel, likes to say:

"What we know of the world comes to us primarily through vision. Our eyes, however, are sensitive only to that segment of the spectrum located between red and violet; the remaining 95 percent of all existing light* (cosmic, infrared, ultraviolet, gammas and x-rays**) we cannot see. This means that we only perceive 5 percent of the "real" world."

At best.

* I think he means "electromagnetic radiation," not actually light, though if you slap that other stuff on the ends of the spectrum, like radio waves, brain waves, gravity, cosmic microwave background radiation and so forth, our percentage of perception slips to more like .0005% - more or less like seeing the Louvre through a keyhole pointed at the corner of the frame of one picture.

** And so forth

*** Hey, and check these out too, while I've got you here. A few more moonlight long-shots from Flickr, each more surreal -- but real -- than the last.

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