How to see the world
January 26, 2010, 6:00 pm
Filed under: Artworks, Nature writing, Published stuff

Photography is

the desire to see what the world looks like in our absence

— Jean Baudrillard, quoted by Steven Poole.

“Are you going to move our stuff?”

“No, that’s the view. We’re in the picture”

— William Fox and Mark Klett, quoted in Fox’s Viewfinder, a book about Klett’s rephotography project

It struck me reading Poole’s review that an awful lot of the concerns in my writing, most recently in “Globe and Sphere, Cycles and Flows: How to See the World”, which is my essay in the Royal Society collection, Seeing Further, sit firmly in the space defined by those two quotations, the second one of which is the epigraph for Mapping Mars.

The ability to see the Earth as an astronomer would another planet marked a fundamental shift, the long-term effects of which we still cannot gauge. It has provided valuable new perspectives and treasure troves of data. But no image can reveal everything; and every revelation obscures something. For all that it is an image of the whole, the vision of the Earth from space is necessarily partial. By leaving things out, it makes the Earth too easy to objectify, too easy to hold at a distance, too easy to idealise. It needs to be offset by a deeper sense of the world as it is felt from the inside, and as it extends out of view into past and future. Because of the changes we are putting the planet through, we need as many ways of looking at and thinking about it as we can find. We need ways to see it as a history, a system, and a set of choices, not just a thing of beauty – one which, from our astronomical perspective, we seem already to have left. There are other ways to see the beauty of the world than in the rear-view mirror of progress.

How better, though, can people see the world than as a fragile blue marble separated from their own experience, cut off from any cosmic continuity by a sharp 360º horizon? And why, given the objective truth of the world as revealed by Apollo, should we even try? To the second question, the answer is that there is more than one way of seeing, just as there is more than one way of speaking. There are times when seeing the Earth as a discrete object, a thing in a picture, is peculiarly helpful; there are times when something else is called for.

Not to be a tease, but if you want to get an answer to the first question you better get your hands on a copy of the book (Amazon UK), though  it must be said that some of the ideas were worked through in a rather different way in my Earthrise piece a couple of years back.

Image from Mark Klett, permission sought used with kind permission, all rights reserved

2 Comments so far
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Dear Oliver Morton,

I’m a Dutch journalist working together with an Canadian journalist on a piece about green jobs in general and with an extra focus to Scotland.
Is it possible to ask you some questions about this topic by mail or by phone?

Thank you very much.
Best regards,

Roos Mulders

Comment by Roos Mulders

[…] likes that second piece might want to check out the essay in Seeing Further (Amazon UK) which I blogged about here, or the Earthrise piece I did for the Times a few years ago, which also covers some similar ground. […]

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