Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Physics vs Photography: Which is Harder?

George Barr, on his Behind the Lens blog, posted one of those wonderfully thought-provoking (and ultimately unanswerable) questions about the relative "difficulty" (as an activity) of one's day-job (in George's case, being a medical doctor, and in mine a physicist) and fine-art photography. While I couldn't resist leaving George a stream-of-consciousness comment on his own blog, his interesting question kept haunting me even as I focused attention to other matters.

My "answer" to George was (and remains), though not quite as strongly as when I first composed it, that photography is harder. The really hard part is explaining (if only to myself!) what I mean by "harder" ;-)

So, here are a few thoughts. First, the creative aspects of both professions, for me, are, on a meta-level, roughly equivalent. That is, in their respective domains, both physics and photography tap into the same ineffably non-objective part of our brains; it could take minutes to find a "solution" (to a physics problem or compositional one), or it could take days, I just don't know...but the process by which I search for a solution is, at a deep level, equivalent, and equivalently exhilarating. Indeed, it is precisely this "all but impossible to describe" process of finding a mathematical solution to a problem or finding that "just right" sequence of photographic steps (subject matter, composition, exposure, raw processing and photoshop manipulation, and print expression) to get a "print" that draws me both to physics and photography. So far, so good; and so far, about even.

On a more pragmatic is a fact that physics pays the bills (at least for me; though I understand there are fine-art photographers who make a comfortable living doing precisely, and only, that, as their day job). In my case, I know that while I'm wearing my physics hat during the day, I will have loads and loads of time (for which I am well compensated) to just think and ponder problems (mostly of my choosing). I have that luxury. But in photography, the time I have is the time I both make (by myself) and borrow (and/or negotiate with my family). I therefore know - and am almost always consciously aware of the fact (even as I wander around with my camera) - that I do not have precious loads of time at my disposal; that each moment is that much more precious, and can ill-afford to squander any time.

I would be less than honest if I didn't admit to sometimes feeling that doing photography on "borrowed time" represents something of a small advantage, creatively, since I am compelled to learn to make the "best possible use" of whatever time I get. There is also the implicit understanding that when I am doing my photography, I have no pressure to perform (unlike my day-job); I do it on my time, of my choosing, and lose nothing, really, if a particular day (or week) leads to abject creative failure.

On the other hand (just how many sides to this are there? ;-), I am my own harshest critic when it comes to photography, and I always have to come up with lame excuses to myself about why a photo-safari day came to naught. Over the long haul that too takes its toll (as my standards inevitably creep upwards, even as my perceived "quality" either stays the same or diminishes (as I get lazier, or tired, or just older).

So, which is "easier" when all is said and done; physics or photography? I think I'm still siding with George on this one. Its not that when I'm doing physics I'm "going through the motions" (I certainly hope not!), but my "day job" has the virtue of having much of its substance (and most of its activity) predefined for me. I waste little energy - creative or otherwise - worrying about what problem to think about, or even whether today is a good day to start a new research topic or write a paper. I'm not even speaking of the mathematical techniques and computer modeling tools I'll likely be using. I know what they are, and I know (in most cases) how to apply them to the problems at hand (and if not, I know where to turn to learn about them, almost as though on auto-pilot).

But photography...well, in an important (and to non-photographers, paradoxical) sense, most photographers are happiest when they are enshrouded in the totally unknown (which can make life hard)...we peek around that perpetually elusive corner in hopes of finding something we hope we never really find: something absolutely new that we've never ever seen before, and have little or no idea about what to do with if we find it. We keep looking for the "next best shot" and the "next best processing" steps and/or tools to apply to what we've caught on film (or CCD/CMOS). We both seek the unknown (with a passion!) and are afraid of it (because the unknown always throws you off balance). And there is always the spectre of losing one's muse and no longer being able to produce good work; and simply not being up to the technical task of expressing what one's Ansel-Adams'like "previsualization" of the final print ought to look like.

We want to be tested, creatively, again and again; but the better we are at achieving our elusive goal, the more uncertain we are of our ability to keep going, and the more difficult it becomes to maintain one's focus and connection to the magic muse. Minor White may have said that "Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen," but that - unfortunately - says nothing about the poor photographer who keeps working, hunting, worrying, praying that Spirit never leaves! For that's precisely when Spirit suddenly decides it has better places to visit. It's something all photographers worry about, at some time; and the likelihood of doing so - constantly - only increases as one grows older and yearns to do great things. Needless to say, such worrisome states are not terribly conducive to genuine creativity or works of lasting value. I do not generally find myself thinking or worrying about such almost mystical matters in my day job.

Certainly, in physics, as in all sciences, there is a superficially similar (perpetual even) yearning to "learn more"...but learning is a process that most physicists have mastered long before they stumble upon the "metaphysical" dimensions of yearning (and finally succumb to it). In photography, on the other hand, there is a perpetual and utterly insatiable hunger to "find something new", which is a very, very hard thing to do, much less master.

So, as I sit here, at the "wise old age" of 47, and look back on 20 years as a physics PhD and about 35 years as a photographer (well, 36, if I include that sensational abstract I got of my bedpost with my very first polaroid;-), I'd say that photography is marginally more difficult than physics. The really fascinating thing is, though, that it only seems hard when I ponder the question of how hard it is. When I'm doing it, its effortless; and the same goes for physics, of course;-)

Postscript: The images are screenshots from a presentation (pdf link) I gave at the Smithsonian a few years ago, entitled Nature's Way: The Art of Seeing. Perhaps if there is an interest, I'll post some notes to summarize the main points. What I discussed was the creative dynamics that lies at the cusp of science and art. The last screenshot contains (in the top "bubble") the fifteen properties of life that architect Christopher Alexander expounds upon in his Opus Nature of Order.


katie said...

As usual when I read your blog I do not quite understand it. How can taking fine art pictures be more difficult then your day job of physics. Is it not a subconscious process by which your eye falls on "something" and you have to fix that moment of revelation on the photograph. Do you really think all those thoughts that you describe in the blog while you look in your camera? I for one do not think so but of course I am not physicist nor a fine art photographer.

Unknown said...

This is a kick ass post!!!! well done... Check out my post today, I would be interested in your view.

Peace ~ John

Anonymous said...

As a software engineer, Alexander's pattern language concepts have informed my work. Thanks for the reference to his recent 4 volumes. Any word on his 13th volume in progress?

How does Alexander's structure/order-as-life thesis touch your own CA/Artificial War line of work? Is the structure/order of warfare (over the human millennia) alive?

Your post also inspired me to pull out Boyd's 1976 Destruction and Creation, wherein he states a goal of human life is to improve one's capacity for independent action. In Alexanderian terms then, independence of action and liveliness of order seem covariant?

Anonymous said...

I have much to catch up on it appears... I've been off the grid for a little while... however your latest posts have my mind swirling..... until I get back to this....

mark w said...

..."as one grows older and yearns to do great things." I took up photography just 5 years ago and now am 58. I used to paint a fair bit but found it lonely. I just love art and I find photography very satisfying in that regard. Just recently I've been thinking about how urgent I feel about shooting really great photos. I was surprised and pleased to see an affirmation in your words.