Photography and The Technological Sublime

The danger always exists that our technology will serve as a buffer between us and nature, a block between us and the deeper dimensions of our own experience. Tools and techniques ought to be an extension of consciousness, but they can just as easily be a protection from consciousness.

~Rollo May

In his book, The Desert, John C. Van Dyke describes lying awake in the desert at night, looking into the sky and wondering, “What is it that draws us to the boundless and the fathomless? Why should the lovely things of earth—the grasses, the trees, the lakes, the little hills—appear trivial and insignificant when we come face to face with the sea or the desert or the vastness of the midnight sky?” The feeling Van Dyke is describing, that transcends mere beauty and loveliness to such degree that beauty alone seem trivial and insignificant in comparison, has been referred to by some philosophers as The Sublime.

For centuries, philosophers, poets, and artists of various stripes, have contemplated the sublime—the quality of greatness: how to define it and what distinguishes it from mere goodness or beauty. Some proclaimed the sublime beyond the reach of human attainment, and some even considered it beyond the reach of human perception—an experience so powerful, so pure, so complex, or so vast, as to transcend the capacities of the mind; or some ideal you know you will never reach but whose acknowledgment or pursuit may still elevate your living experience.

Although contemplations of the sublime date back at least as far as the first century CE, in writings attributed to an unknown author referred to as Longinus, current thinking about the sublime is founded to a large degree in Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. According to Burke, beauty and sublimity differ primarily in their origin: beauty originates in pleasure, while the sublime originates in pain (and not just any pain: in outright terror, of the sort one may feel when coming into contact with things that are vast, powerful, and mortally dangerous). In Burke’s mind, since existential fear is the strongest and most primal of all emotions, it is therefore also capable of eliciting more powerful emotional responses than anything rooted in pleasure. According to Burke, the “delight” (as opposed to pleasure) we find in the sublime comes from a sense of astonishment. In his words, “Astonishment […] is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.”

Immanuel Kant, at odds with Burke on numerous philosophical and ideological topics, was still influenced deeply by Burke’s thoughts, and contemplated the idea of the sublime in his work, Critique of Judgment. According to Kant, the sublime differs from beauty in that the sublime is boundless, transcending the imagination, and its effect arises from the human mind attempting to grasp what is beyond its capacity to comprehend, and inevitably coming up short. “Whereas the beautiful is limited,” wrote Kant, “the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.”

For most of the history of Western art, contemplations of the sublime most often assigned its qualities to powerful, majestic, and vast feats of nature—things that today make up a great proportion of subjects favored by landscape photographers. No doubt many photographers intend their photographs of sublime phenomena to inspire in viewers at least a degree of astonishment, admiration, reverence, and respect, such as Burke describes, and that these photographers may have felt themselves in the presence of the things photographed. (Perhaps a better term for these effects in contemporary language is awe). Yet, in our jaded and cynical world, it seems that such photographs, having become so common and abundant, often elicit responses more in line with a sense of benign pleasantness rather than the more powerful effects of encountering the sublime. In the words of Susan Sontag (originally referring to war photographs): “Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised.”

Are photographs, beyond just having the capacity to appear beautiful, capable of inspiring a sense of the sublime? The question occurred to Henry Peach Robinson as far back as the late nineteenth century. He answered it in the negative, writing, “It is an old canon of art, that every scene worth painting must have something of the sublime, the beautiful, or the picturesque. By its nature, photography can make no pretensions to represent the first, but beauty can be represented by its means and picturesqueness has never had so perfect an interpreter.” (It’s not clear to me whether Robinson’s words, “by its nature,” refer to the nature of the sublime or to the nature of the photographic medium.)

Clearly, no photograph can impose a sense of terror by means of vastness comparable to that of mountains, the ocean, or the night sky, nor by displays of force comparable to great storms or volcanic eruptions, even if portraying these same subjects. The degree of separation between a photograph and the things portrayed in a photograph may vary, but I think it’s fair to say that the circumstances of viewing a photograph—usually in a safe and comfortable setting, physically removed from the things portrayed, even if those things are ostensibly impressive or terrible—is sufficient to prevent viewers from feeling the instinctive sense of terror and existential threat that Burke proposed as the feelings that elicit a sense of the sublime.

Enter the Technological Sublime: a term perhaps most closely associated with the works of David Nye and Mario Costa, who considered technology as the latest incarnation of the sublime, following the rhetoric sublime of ancient philosophies, the natural sublime of the eighteenth century, the industrial/metropolitan sublime of the modern era (contrary to common interpretation, “modern” does not refer to present times, but to an era that began around the late nineteenth century and ended some time in the twentieth century, to be replaced by the loosely-defined term, “postmodernism”). Things like rampant industrialization, computing, mass communication, space exploration, cyber-warfare, and scientific advances into such fields as quantum mechanics and neuroscience, not only transformed the way we live but also the things we consider as sublime. Alain de Botton offers this summary of the transition in recent decades: “Over the course of the nineteenth century, the dominant catalyst for that feeling of the sublime had ceased to be nature. We were now deep in the era of the technological sublime, when awe could most powerfully be invoked not by forests or icebergs but by supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators. We were now almost exclusively amazed by ourselves.”

Having some familiarity with the sublime as Burke and Kant described it, I consider the transition to a technological sublime an extremely unfortunate one, amounting to impoverishment of the living experience, or at least to impoverishment of the range of opportunities available to people to elevate their living experiences. Proud as we are of our technological accomplishments, we tend to forget that at the end of the day we are still animals: biological entities possessing certain organically evolved emotional “programming” that governs the qualities of our subjective experiences, that we cannot set aside or substitute other experiences for.

Most of us do not, and may never, experience true terror, nor encounter existential threats outside the protective envelope of “managed” and mostly predictable experiences, within reach of various safety nets and specialized emergency services. Recall that terror and amazement have been identified by some of humanity’s greatest thinkers as preconditions to experiencing the sublime.

My sparse social circle is mostly comprised of people who tend to live more adventurously than most—hikers, climbers, river runners, explorers, etc. Often, I have heard people express puzzlement, or even anger, at people who climb mountains, venture alone into remote and wild places, partake in some “extreme” activities, etc. How do you explain to such people that those who take such risks do so because these experiences may yield states of minds and consciousness that most people have no experience with or frame of reference for, and that may, sometimes by a considerable margin, eclipse in their power, vitality, and emotional rewards, anything possible by any other means?

What does this have to do with photography? Being more dependent on technology than most other artistic pursuits, photography—especially photography founded in natural aesthetics—has been gravely affected by the transition in perception from experiential sublime to technological sublime. Before going into details, the reason can be summed up in this simple truism: although there may be ways of comparing various kinds of sublimity in quantitative or conceptual terms, when considered in terms of subjective experience, one sublime is nothing at all like another sublime.

I recall reading in my younger years accounts of photographers in the medium’s early days, hauling heavy and sensitive photographic equipment into places and situations never before encountered, into the unknown, into the mysterious and the terrifying. We owe much of what we know of the world today to these adventurers, explorers, and artists. Technology has allowed us to produce technically better photographs (sometimes astoundingly so) than those produced by our predecessors, usually requiring little or no risk or discomfort.

While it may be easy to dismiss such harrowing experiences as being unavailable or impossible for most today (in fact, they are likely available to many people who may not believe they are), but to do so is also to ignore another unfortunate effect of the cult of technology: not only the reluctance to take existential risks, but also the reluctance to take creative risks. Awe has been supplanted by popularity, experimentation by conformity, authentic experience by the manufactured perception of experience. We celebrate predominantly technological accomplishments, like aerial photography or night sky photography, or photographs produced by following directions, as equivalent to creative accomplishments, or to experiential accomplishments.

Objectively, technologically impressive photographs may indeed impress their viewers as much as, or even more than, photographs resulting from true awe or amazement, from deep emotional engagement, from physical immersion, and from creative epiphanies, but in terms of subjective experience, there is no comparing what one may gain from making photographs in the throes of amazement, fear, uncertainty, mystery—circumstances that test a photographer’s mettle and grit, and not just their camera skills.

I propose that it may be of value to, on occasion, scare ourselves, let go of certainties and attempt to create in the face of doubt, in the face of likely failure, in direct exposure to unpredictable things; to venture into what wildness remains without planning and preconception. By this I don’t mean putting ourselves recklessly in harm’s way without forethought, but to be at peace with a degree of risk that inevitably will increase as we gain in skill and fortitude. Not for any praise or heroism, not for proving anything to anyone, not for celebrity or bragging rights, but so we may remain open, should circumstances allow, to awe, to amazement, to humility, to the sublime as described by Burke and Kant, and others, for the sake of enlarging and enriching our own lives.

Take it from one who has had successful careers in both technology and photography practiced in remote and wild places: in terms of photographs, the technological sublime may have the quantitative upper hand, but in terms of qualitative depth of subjective experience, the commonality between the experiential sublime and the technological sublime begins and ends with the misguided choice of characterizing both experiences using the word “sublime.”

Kingdom of Ravens

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One thought on “Photography and The Technological Sublime

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  1. Thanks so much, Guy, for another thought provoking essay. When someone dies doing something like mountain climbing people often say, “at least he died doing something he loved…”. I wonder if what they are really feeling is, “at least he died boldly seeking an intense emotional experience in pursuit of the sublime.” Something that they themselves deeply long for, but because of life choices, physical limitations or simple gumption, can’t quite get themselves out there. It’s interesting to consider what ancient emotions are lurking deep within us just waiting for something to spark them to life.

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