A New Visible World

Macro photography as Enlightenment pursuit

© Enchanted Forest by Anna Ulmestrand
A New Visible World

“The first thing to be undertaken in this weighty work,” said Robert Hooke in the preface to “Micrographia”, an investigation of minute bodies published in 1665, “is a watchfulness over the failings and an enlargement of the dominion of the senses.” Hooke realised that our reason and subsequent interpretation of the world can be misled by our fallible senses, but through technology “the footsteps of nature can be tracked” by “adding artificial organs to the natural”.

Hooke’s discourse on the use of the microscope was to reveal a world which people had never seen before. Although we are now accustomed to many spectacular images of nature, on every level, the principal behind macro photography remains the same: to experience the wonder of enhancing our senses in order to study and celebrate the many and diverse forms of flora and fauna.

Similarly, Hooke’s mission to improve our senses has not changed. We develop more accurate, more sensitive, more wide-ranging methods to record and capture the world around us. Macro lenses are testament to our fascination with wanting to find this place we know exists, and wanting to personally experience it. Indeed, it isn’t enough to just see these pictures, sometimes it is the process itself which leads to that feeling of discovery, of new meaningful knowledge.

This sense of emancipation and reason was a trademark of the Enlightenment; it is also why macro photography as a sub-genre of photography is so loved and admired. It has the ability, or at least the potential, to invoke a powerful notion of sensory control. It is this sense of control that so inspired Enlightenment naturalists who used technology to confirm their dominance over an ordered and structured universe which could be named, categorised and systematised.

This sense of control is still an important feature when analysing the relationship between art, technology and nature, and it continues to shift and change with our expectations and knowledge of the world. Although we know a great deal more today than in the late 17th century, it can be said that we still crave to have more experience of that knowledge, which escapes the ordinary realm of sensory experience ie the everyday.

Macro photography is a way to bring this experience back into our fast-paced and knowledge filled life, the demands of which mean we lose the joy of self-discovery. As Hooke said: “So great is the satisfaction of finding out new things that I dare compare the contentment…which most men prefer of the very senses themselves.” We have the opportunity to reconnect with nature in a way that Hooke and contemporaries never thought possible, not just on a technological basis, but also on a spiritual.

This longing to take part in a great exploration of natural discovery will never simply end, it will continue to present itself in yet more fantastic and wondrous forms. Macro photography represents a part of this journey in a new personalised natural enlightenment, which has been made possible by technology. The outcome for this future may mean even greater detachment from second-hand knowledge and an even closer relationship to the joys of self-discovery and first-hand experience. It is only then, that the “watchfulness over the failings of the senses” may finally come to an end.

But there’s no need to wait for perfection. If we keep on looking, the power to realise a “new visible world” exists right now.