About Sari Em
Sari Em is a writer, educator and a museum exhibit developer. A long time New England resident, she was raised on the Jersey Shore where she scooped frozen custard on the boardwalk, yet refused to wear acid-washed jeans or white heeled pumps.
Latest Posts by Sari Em
In an earlier post I described the making of a pinhole photo as “nature and science in cahoots. . . ” I like that description. I don’t get to use “cahoots” as often as I want because it draws a lot of attention to itself. Yet, the description is problematic. Are science and nature separate entities?
Looky here: I’ll be a typically lazy blogger and go grab a definition from Wikipedia:
Science is a systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories.
Science is just the parts nature that we’ve got a handle on. Science is our arrogance of perceived mastery. The distinction is all about our point of view from way, way up on the superior creature pyramid. See, to a dumb creature like a possum, an oak tree is nature. But to a botanist or chemist or microbiologist or ornithologist or entomologist it’s science.
Eh. The oak tree is what it is despite our testable laws and theories (i.e. makes awesome kitchen cabinets!).
I never thought about this until I spent a few fabulous days at an NEH-sponsored retreat for science museum professionals, back when I worked at a science museum. At St. John’s College in Santa Fe, 20 of us from around the country attended seminars taught in the very intimidating round-table style of St. John’s, discussing “science” texts (more like philosophy) by Aristotle and Francis Bacon, which I could barely understand (so much for my fancy liberal arts education).
The professor for our biology labs was a woman from the nearby Tewa Indian reservation. She tore apart the idea of science. She said that the Tewa people didn’t have a word for science. Since I got this information straight from her, I believed it (unlike the myth of Eskimos having a zillion words for snow). She pointed out that the Indian people also gather knowledge about the world, often in a systematic way, but that the non-Indian culture does not consider this effort science. We consider it folk wisdom. Also, possessing what we consider scientific knowledge does not alter the core attributes of whatever we study. The oak tree is the oak tree regardless of how well we understand its nature.
So what, you say. Science is the study of nature. What’s the problem?
The problem is that science is often promoted and perceived as superior to nature. That our understanding and control over the world is an achievement greater than the actual world. We’re just a flock of dumb ducks paddling about, poking our heads under the surface to see what’s what.
I realize I don’t have good handle on this argument, so feel free to jump in. Partly I think I’m too dumb to think this through properly, and partly I’m not good taking sides. I’m not about black & white. I’m all about shades of gray and on the other hand. It’s difficult for me to be absolute. Also, I happen to love reading about science. I love looking through microscopes. I am in awe scientists and scientific discoveries . . . so there you go. I am not completely talking out my ass, but from that general vicinity. On the other hand . . . this is me exploring an idea, which is a valid pursuit, yes?
It was all fine and good when Obama was running for president and every Moveon.org and Care2Action Alert email tickled my optimism. Now it’s all interminable wars and ruined ecosystems and damned compromises.
I have no right to claim fatigue because I’ve done nothing since the inauguration but read and sigh (and occasionally, actually think) and sometimes write checks. Still the liberal, activist “spam” (I did sign up for them) clatters along my inbox like those humorless scolds in message t-shirts who harangue patrons outside Starbucks with petition clipboards.
Case in point, today I received an email with the subject line:
Stop the Torture and Consumption of Dogs!
No. You. Stop.
(yes I know I can unsubscribe, but my curiosity trumps my annoyance)
I erred in an earlier post. It happens.
The actual pin holes in my pinhole cameras were not made to the can. Instead, I cut a small piece out of an aluminum pie tin, stuck the pin through that, then taped the punctured tin behind a hole I drilled in the can. Voila!
What I love about my pinhole cameras is that I made them. Me, the unhandy woman. Who hires people to do everything. I made something functional and art-making. Out of a can.
What else I love about my pinhole cameras is the time spent exposing the image. For the small cans the exposure time is about a minute and a half. I position the camera/can, hoping to frame a good shot. I pull off the duct tape “shutter” and then sit down and wait. After a bit, I’ll check my watch and as time ticks down, stare at the watch. But it’s not an exact science and daydreaming can ruin the shot or perfect it, depending on the amount of light.
I sit there thinking about the photons of light streaming through the pinhole and striking the film, altering the chemical composition. Nature and science in cahoots, fixing a moment inside a tea can.
The pinhole camera resists complexity. Granted, the process of making one image is exponentially more difficult and time consuming than taking a digital photograph—making the camera, using a black bag to load one sheet of film, exposing the film, using the black bag to take the film out, developing the film in trays, printing the image.
Yet, the moment when the image is created demands a focus on the image, and the image alone. The decision is about this: what is worth my one sheet of film? Each one is precious in its scarcity and the effort it requires. I choose the subject and angle. Then I pull the duct tape away, guess at the exposure and imagine the photons flying in to meet the film.
The cans create artifacts: vertical lines from the cans’ seams intersect most photos, and unexpected blobs from who knows what seep in from the edges. I choose the moment and the subject and then release control. The photo takes itself out of my hands.
This is the warning sign at the entrance to Bright Angel Trail. I look at that illustration and want to change the warning to: Oy! Be careful (and bring a sweater)!
These photos are from the Grand Canyon and maybe some surrounding areas, I can’t quite remember, back in October 2002. My dear friend Dana came out from Colorado and met me. I have a vague memory that we were both attending conferences or meeting clients or something like that in Arizona.
Dana – did we also go to Tucson on this trip?
We hiked two or three miles into the Canyon. I, of course, always pack for a hike, even to the Great Blue Hills in Boston, as if I’m embarking on the Oregon Trail. God forbid I run out of food or contact lens solution. So I’m always astounded when I see people hiking who are a tad less prepared. I run across this a lot in national parks. I remember seeing a woman hiking down the Grand Canyon path in skinny heels. Seriously.
I realize that the trail off the North Rim is well traveled, but the Grand Canyon is deceptively dangerous. You hike down first, and then up. So it can be hard to gauge just how tired you are. Also it gets hot. Very hot. There are warning signs everywhere about drinking enough water. Dana, a newspaper editor, and I are both insatiably curious, so we cornered a ranger and barraged her with questions. She said that in the summer they have an emergency medical evacuation every day. It’s so hot that the rangers recommend hiking at dawn and then stopping and sitting in the shade from 10am until 4pm. Really. And then continuing. She said it gets so hot midday inside the canyon that it is physically impossible to drink fast enough to stay hydrated.
In one of the gift shops I stood and read a book called Death in the Canyon. It’s a serious study of all the ways people die in the Grand Canyon. I wanted to buy it but felt it was bad karma. Soon afterward I was meeting with clients in Phoenix and somehow started talking about the book with one of the project architects. The next time I saw her she gave me a copy. She said she was “loaning” it to me. So I could avoid the bad karma of owning the book. I’ve been borrowing the book now for almost 10 years.
In case you’re wondering, the two key factors making it more likely you will die in the Grand Canyon are: being young (20s) and being male.
There are a lot of truly stupid, Darwin award situations that people have put themselves (and their children!) into. Maybe I’ll post a few of them later this week.
In the meantime, here is the result of bringing my camera cans down into the canyon with me.
Visiting my Nana in Florida.
About a week after 9/11 I went home to the Jersey shore for Rosh Hashana. A lot of residents in my parents’ town, Rumson, and those nearby, Middletown and Atlantic Highlands, take a commuter ferry from Atlantic Highlands to downtown NYC. Beyond NY, these communities lost the largest number of people in the World Trade Center attack. At an intersection near the river people contributed to a makeshift memorial with photos, flowers, flags and candles. On Rosh Hashana I walked down the street in my nice holiday clothes with my pinhole cameras and took some photos at the fire station and in the neighborhood.
During a trip to Florida to visit my grandmother, I took a bunch of photos of the palm trees at our hotel. The odd vertical lines are artifacts of the can. They’re in most of the photos taken with the cans. You can see the how the negative, curled into the curved can, alters the image.
A self portrait, with KNEES SHINS. Taken during that first pinhole class. Arty! For the photos I took during class, I think I was using a large, oval cardboard box as a camera. Definitely not either of my two favorite cans shown in the earlier post.
I think this was at the Grand Canyon, on a visit with Dana. I like the bleak, old-timey, Western look of the photo. Like there’s a dead gunslinger decomposing behind that rock.
This is one of the China photos: the famous terra cotta soldiers of Xian.