For his latest series of photographs, Peter Fraser has been following the notion that the universe is governed by laws and principles that can be described mathematically. This notion is not new. It preoccupied Lucretius, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and later Galileo. In our own time, as Fraser himself has noted, Max Tegmark, a Professor of Physics at M.I.T. has proposed that, fundamentally, “not only does maths describe the world we live in, it is the world we live in. If you grant that both space and everything in space is mathematical, then it begins to sound less insane that everything is mathematical.”
What does it mean that the universe is mathematical? What does it mean to us? It seems to change everything, momentarily, if only to leave it all exactly as it was. Everything, that is, besides our knowledge that the switch has happened.
Does the realisation of the mathematical nature of all things merely “replace the village idiot with the village explainer,” as the philosopher Stanley Cavell once remarked? Or is there something more profound at stake? The answer must surely have something to do with human nature, since we are able to contemplate the fact of the mathematical. And to contemplate a fact is to confront it, to understand it, hopefully, but also to confront the fact that we cannot understand it, cannot grasp its full implications for us and our relation to it, cannot fully enter into it and still be human. Contemplation itself is what casts us out, what produces our non-identity with the universe.
That is to say, contemplation involves a certain distance from that which is contemplated. As if across an abyss, or through a glass wall, we see what it is we wish to come to terms with, while knowing that the wish itself is what keeps us from it. The wish creates the separation. Call it consciousness. The die-hard rationalist will of course insist that even this phenomenon can be accounted for mathematically. Neurones, pathways, synapses. True enough. But this too is a fact we can contemplate. It is the kind paradox Zeno would have cherished.
Is there a place in a mathematical understanding of things for those attributes that make us human? Desire. Curiosity. Pleasure. Prejudice. Regret. Wonder. Anxiety. Affection. Vanity. Love. Doubt. Determination. Deviance. Forgetfulness. Confusion. Metaphor. Poetry. Perhaps this is not quite the way to phrase the question. Instead we could ask what it might mean for us to attempt to think the world mathematically and, in doing so to tame for a moment what makes us all too human. Odd as it may seem, photography, or at least Peter Fraser’s photography, might offer us a way of approaching the matter.
I suspect that if asked to consider a connection between photography and mathematics, the average person in 2017 might point to the digital dimensions of the medium: electronic images as data comprising enormous strings of ones and zeros; or the algorithms that now shape everything from image colour balance in your smart phone camera to Internet search results and political opinions; or the sheer quantity of images now produced and consumed globally. Fewer would point to the mathematics that is intrinsic to optics, metallurgy and chemistry upon which photography depended right from the start. And fewer still might consider the subject matter presented by a photograph as an occasion for the contemplation of the mathematical, but this is where Fraser’s interest resides. Perhaps the title he has given his project – that one word – is enough to nudge response gently in the preferred direction.
What happens when we look at these photographs and attempt to ‘think’ them mathematically? To a large extent, the effect will depend on the individual image and the individual viewer. For example, Fraser’s photograph of the Matterhorn makes me think of a number of different but related registers of time. Geological time. Human life spans. Seasonal time. The twelve-hour clock. Digital clocks. Camera shutter speeds. The near-incalculable patterns of air turbulence that blow invisibly through mountain air. There is even something mathematical about the number of photographs taken since the beginnings of photography at this location – the angle from which the Matterhorn most resembles itself. The place of this photograph within a project called ‘Mathematics’ leads me to consider it in these terms, but this can exhaust neither my response, nor the resources of the picture itself. Images do not carry meanings the way a truck carries 56, 872 pieces of coal.
If you did not know these photographs had been made as responses to, or explorations of mathematical ideas, would you be able to tell? No, but that’s the strength of the project. Fraser is not reducing photography to mathematics. You will find here no photos of complex equations written on blackboards. No hi-tech shots of hard-drives. So, consider his image of scattered vegetation and the wooden hull of a boat, on a shingle beach. I happen to recognise the location. It is Dungeness, on England’s south-east coast, but I am reminded of the American Lee Friedlander’s disarming description of photography:
I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry, and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.
Indeed, there is a lot of detail in many of the photographs in this project. A lot to look at, a lot to get lost in. Detail, of course, has always been part of the photographic illusion, part of its sleight of hand. Open the shutter and the camera will receive the light bouncing off whatever is before it. It could be a blank white wall. It could be a million pebbles. A photographer may have considered every little detail before taking the picture, or barely looked at all. That possibility lurks in every camera image. We cannot look at a photograph with the same indifference, the same mathematical rationality with which the camera recorded it. To look at a photograph, any photograph, is to intuit that while it has been made to be seen, ultimately it does not belong to us. It belongs to the camera from which it came. And while the camera shows us worldly things according to its own construction, it leaves those things exactly as it found them.
This is an unusual series of photographs. Peter Fraser has shot them in many countries and his motifs could hardly be more varied. Only the theme of mathematics, as the photographer has understood it, could have brought these pictures together. And what of the enigmatic portraits that punctuate the series? Fraser has revealed that just before taking photographing five or six of these people he asked them to imagine that something they had held to be true for most of their life had just been proved wrong. We do not know what these people were thinking, what axiom each has imaginatively and momentarily undone. Fraser could not have known either. But in those brief states of self-critical thought, when contemplation was itself being contemplated, he photographed them. These portraits anchor the project but they also provide its most reflexive moments. There are deep affinities between the states of mind depicted here and what Fraser might be inviting from us, his flawed and inconsistent audience.
David Campany, ‘Mathematics’, Skinnerboox, Italy 2017