Truth and the camera

What is truth? I can’t pretend to answer this in its complex philosophical entirety, but I could try to talk about my memories of a walk at sunset. I did this walk alone. I did not meet anyone at all. I carried a camera. If I hadn’t used it, the only truth would be my memory of the walk. The core of that truth is that my mind was roiling when I started, and at peace when I finished. The truth of the images from my camera should then capture the events that changed my mind. It was the sunset and my attempt to capture that fading light. The deliberate concentration on a problem I could solve was what settled my mind.

The mind is very fickle, turbulent, strong, and obstinate. It is like the wind, impossible to control. … When all desires vanish in a state of thoughtfulness, when the inner self is satisfied within itself, then one is a master of a stable mind.

Dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, Bhagwat Gita

If you had little time, you could be satisfied with the simplest part of the truth, that a walk during a nice sunset put my mind at rest. The featured image would be enough. Nice lake, wooded path, colourful sunset. Restful. But that story hides a further truth. The image did not appear by itself. I worked at it. First, by selecting a viewpoint: have I got enough of the water? No, move a few steps. Now? Yes. But the colours in the camera are not what I see. So I’ll have to recreate them in post-processing. The featured photo is both memory and process. That is a larger truth.

Uncovering the image inside the shadows is hard. The inset in the image on the right shows what I could do quickly. Doing better than this might require a lot more time than I’m willing to spend.

But there is more to it, of course. The idea of capturing the reflection of the sunset in the lake came out of an idea which would not work. I took a photo of the fiery sky, the one which you see above. I meant to bring out the details from the darkness in software. That works often enough, but I realized that might not work here. So I would need the back up that you saw. I was right, and my earlier experiences taught me the necessity of the backup. I was completely immersed in the sunset I was participating in. So much so that I had dragged a part of my past into this sunset, forced the larger me to take part in that.

The truth that capturing what my eye saw required more than the software in the camera came a little earlier. As the sun set, the last lights fell on leaves high above me. My camera could not capture what I saw. If I zoomed into the leaves, the background became black. If I took a wider shot, then the dazzle of backlit leaves disappeared. So I decided to take the wider shot (the one on the right), then crop and edit it to get what I really saw (the shot on the left). The truth is the entirety of these photos: that it was concentration on what I saw, being in the moment, while being anchored in the continuity of myself that settled my mind.

But why was my mind unsettled to begin with? Because I had spent the golden hour of the day looking out on a brilliant landscape through the windows of a moving car. Separated from the world around me in this way, being able to connect only through random shots taken with my phone, I had been reduced to the role of an automaton. Was I merely a CCTV camera, programmed to record what came into view? A photograph is not just a record of what is in front of you, but a result of constant evaluation of many possibilities, discarding most, and capturing what is the truth in the mind’s eye. A photo requires a still mind in knowledge of itself, and a seeking towards an expression of that knowledge. That’s a zen truth, isn’t it?

Altitude

We took an hour’s walk inside Binsar National Park, a short climb to its highest point. This Zero Point, as it is called is at an altitude of just over 2400 meters. The cool air at this height smelt clean, with a flavour of green trees. The view at the top showed smoky valleys, and the high Himalayas were almost invisible because of the haze. But just around this part of the park the winds and the cool heights had together managed to confine the smoke below. I’m sure that the air here is usually much cleaner, but at that time it still felt better than city air. The walk through an oak forest was wonderful, and a great change from sitting inside a car all day. At this height you get Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora), easily identified by the fact that the oval leaves with serrated edges are white on the reverse. The dry tree fern that you see in the featured photo is just one of many things which grow on oaks.

Coming back to our hotel, we felt the change in the air. Warmer, of course, now that we were half a kilometer lower, and also more haze. Fortunately there was no smell of smoke in the immediate vicinity. We were told that a short shower the previous day had put out fires locally, and cleared the haze a little. I admired a red sunset as I walked up the steep forested path from the road to the hotel. Pollution gives you interesting sunsets.

Sunrise or sunset?

Light breaks on secret lots,
On tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain;
When logics dies,
The secret of the soil grows through the eye,
And blood jumps in the sun;
Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.

—Dylan Thomas

How can you tell the difference between a photo of a sunset and a sunrise. One of the most popular classes of photos on instagram are these, but we depend on the artist to tell us which is which. I began to wonder if there is something intrinsic in the quality of light by which we can tell. Is there something to the metaphors of rebirth and hope or death and melancholy which are associated with these two daily events, or is it just a fancy?

I went through my old photos, classifying them into bunches: so many minutes before sunset, so many after sunrise, looking in the direction of the sun, away from it, or at angles to it. Then I measured the colours and luminosity. There was no way to tell by these visual cues which was a sunrise and which a sunset.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table

—T.S. Eliot

But it turns out that there is a subtle difference. It is not the sky that gives it away, but the earth. The temperature at dawn is lower than the temperature at dusk. This is most visible in winter, when the mist, if there is any, is thicker in the morning. In Mumbai, when it is seldom cold enough for the mist, the haze is worse at sunset, because the sea water has warmed through the day to saturate the air. If you know local conditions, you can usually use these other cues to figure out whether a particular photo you are looking at is from dawn or dusk. “Satisfactory,” as Nero Wolfe might say.

Sunset, ananta chaturdashi

Yesterday was the big day for Ganapati immersions, the day before the full moon. As if on schedule, the clouds thinned and the sun came through. The rest of the festival season can now be counted out in cycles of the moon. In some traditional luni-solar calendars, the month of Bhadon would be half over now, and the rains will begin to peter out. In the corrected official calendar the month will end six days later than traditionally. It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future (as a Dutch parliamentarian is reported to have said). No one really knows how much longer the monsoon rains will last, but I guess I will be able to walk more often.

August saw fierce rainfall and monsoon storms. On my first walk by the sea after a month I saw several things that have not been cleaned out yet. I wonder where this now-rusted barrel fell into the sea. What a wonderful happenstance that it washed up where I could use it to take a photo of the sunset. Plastic waste is never so useful.

To dream, perchance to sleep

The weekend was completely free of rain. The clear skies and wonderful sunsets drew The Family out to the sea shore. She would come back gushing about the light, and the number of people who came to quietly watch the sunset. So yesterday, I took my camera and climbed up to the terrace on the roof of our building. The western edge of the terrace is lined with satellite dishes, and each of them served as a perch for a crow, sitting quietly and looking at the sun. They were a little distracted when I appeared, and were torn between watching the sunset and keeping a wary eye on me.

“When our minds are much affected, so are the movements of our bodies,” wrote Charles Darwin in his book The expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872). This observation started a whole scientific enterprise of understanding the value of emotions by comparing them in humans and other mammals. Much less is known about the emotions of birds. “Birds and mammals are thought to have evolved from different groups of Mesozoic reptiles … during the Carboniferous or Permian period. Yet, birds and mammals exhibit extensive convergence in terms of relative brain size, high levels of activity, sleep/wakefulness cycles, endothermy, and social behavior, among others,” says a recent review of the literature on negative emotions in birds. Little else is known about emotions in birds. But when I see crows watching the sunset, or soaring against the breeze as the sun goes down, the parallel with human reactions to the beauty of sunsets does not seem farfetched.

The clear air of the last few months, and the relative coolness of the last few days meant that the sunset showed a simple gradation of colour in the sky, so different from the strangely beautiful sunsets that we had seen until the previous weekend. As the sun set, The Family and I enjoyed looking at so many different kinds of clouds. The horsetail streaks of cirrus clouds 5 or 6 kilometers above looked white in reflected sunlight because the sun had not set on them yet. As the horizon rose above the sun, the most spectacular were the golden layers of altostratus clouds at a height of about 3 kilometers. Meanwhile, the fast drifting layers of cottony stratus, merely a kilometer or two above our heads, had already started looking black because they no longer caught the sun.

The moon was already up in the east. As colour faded from the sky, the last clouds to turn pink were the high streaks of cirrus: ice crystals condensing out of the air in the cold of the upper atmosphere. The city lights came on, to add a glow to the moonlight. Between the clouds and lights, there is no way we will catch a glimpse of comet Neowise.

Post-human sunsets

Long after the microscopic soot from human pollution has been flushed out of the air, when only the greenhouse gases remain to heat up the seas, what would sunsets be like? We got a look at that during this nearly rain-free week in Mumbai. It was so spectacular that The Family changed the time of her daily walk to synchronize with the sunset. Cameras rarely see what the human eye does, but you may still get a sense of what we have been seeing in the slideshow below.

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Soot and other particles in the air are relatively large, and serve only to dim the colours of the sunset. The colours are brighter when they have settled out of the air. Normally we see these monsoon sunsets at most for a day after heavy rains, before traffic pumps particles into the air and obscures them. Now we can see it for days on end. I understand now why people are calling this time the anthropause.

In cold and dry air, the colour of the sunset comes from sunlight scattered by molecules of air. The result is a gentle wash of light, changing colour from east to west, and intensity in the north-south angle from the sun. The sunset colours of tropical monsoons come from a more complex process: the sunlight scattering from aerosol droplets of moisture in the air. This explanation can be developed using a scheme invented by Gustav Mie. I wonder if he saw colours such as this during his youth in the German port of Rostock.

In any case, we are seeing the sunsets on a hot and wet earth, free of ongoing industrial pollution. These are the colours of the postanthropic world.

Ludicrous monsoon sky

This annoys me. Just look at that ludicrous sky, a splash of colour that any child with a messy paintbox can scrawl on to paper. I just had to take a photo to vent about it. Look at that wash of yellow at the bottom: what an inept attempt to show the blaze of the setting sun. If this was entered in a competition where I was a judge, I would sentence it to a hanging.

Others found themselves looking at different parts of this artist’s work. Here is a view someone drew my attention to: east across the Oval to the clock tower of the University with the concrete shell of the stock exchange looming behind it. At least this part looks like a competent watercolour, not the random splash of the sunset.

But then there is this view that another person pointed out, looking northwest at the city’s skyline. Again, the same amateurish dribbles of contrasting colours, and a very ham-fisted attempt at balancing them out by putting a red building on the right and blue buildings on the left and across the bottom. Really! I’m looking forward to the normal grey of smoke and car fumes to damp down the lurid imagination of this artist with the large canvas.

Just another Sunset

Locked down at home, there is time to look out at the world around me, even with the (literally) hundreds of emails that I need to assign to the “read” folder every day. That’s what life must have been like to the new humans of a million years ago: hunt all day and sit and look around you the rest of the time; no rushing about, so no need to constantly look at watches. The result is that I re-discovered ancient means of time-keeping. There is the quick passing of the day, the sunrise which now wakes me up, the change in the quality of light through the day, and the sunset, full of alarmed birds calling loudly.

But there is a longer passing of time, which I’d not paid much attention to earlier. It is still early in spring time, and I can see the earth slowly wobble in its daily rotation. As a result, the sunset is still moving northwards. I live in a city, so the horizon is interrupted by tall buildings. I’ve been noticing how the sunset was first blocked by one building, before I had a clear view, and now another building is slowly coming in the way. Lucky me. If I didn’t have these buildings I might have had to start hauling large blocks of stones around to build my own calendar.

Three postcards from March

March is the cruellest month in the mountains. We often go for a short holiday to the Himalayas in March. The roads are usually open, but the weather is unpredictable. We found a hotel in the Garhwal Sivaliks where we were the only guests, and our room had a spectacular view. Our last day there had been clear (photo below) but clouds began to come in over the high peaks just before sunset. Sunset and sunrise paint the snow in glorious colours. The clouds muddied the colours.

Dawn had been even more cloudy, but it had cleared up soon after sunrise. During breakfast we kept our eyes on the clear view of the mountains. The day was great and the view was wonderful. We decided to travel along a route which would keep the high Himalayas in our view most of the time. This was a day when our luck held, until sunset.

March is cruel. The weather keeps changing, and predictions are not accurate more than a day in advance. When we arrived at the hotel the view we had was spectacular for a photographer (above) but disappointing for a traveler. Every year we keep telling ourselves “Next year we’ll come to the Himalayas in April.” Maybe next year we will.