To learn to take photographs is to relearn how to see. Whereas the selfie and tourist snapshot are confirming, the viewfinder and focus dial on a camera force you to reconsider what you are really seeing and how you are framing the world. They probe both the world and your unconscious preconceptions.
The focus dial, in particular, tests out relations of scale. Working as both microscope and telescope, it allows you to see things that are too small or too large or too distant or too close for you to normally see. As you test its possibilities, you glide between macrocosm and microcosm, part and whole. What is your focus? What is your detail detail of? What are you really seeing when you look at this or that? What are its wider implications? Dare you acknowledge a scale that you would usually brush aside?
The photo you see above is a microscopic close up, but the lens which allows this is called, curiously, a macro.
It is a picture of a bush fly (Musca vetutissima). There are 20 000 types of fly in Australia, but this is the species that you brush off when you’re in the Australian bush. Here, it is my garden in Newtown. I noticed it beside the pond when I was feeding the fish one morning, and, because I moved slowly, and its eyes are attuned to sudden movement, it allowed me to photograph it. I am sure I only noticed it because my camera’s macro lens challenged me: so, is this fly part of your garden?
It was the characteristic striping of the fly’s abdomen, invisible to the naked eye, that allowed me to positively identify it. And this led me to a newspaper article which quotes Dr David Yeates, the Director of the Australian National Insect Collection, explaining why bush flies are attracted to us. “It has a very soft, fleshy mouth with parts that are like a sponge and when it lands on you and touches your skin, it won’t bite, it will suck up secretions on the skin. There’s sweat, proteins, carbohydrates, salts, sugars and other chemicals flies are interested in feeding on. There are also dead pieces of skin coming off all the time which they can make a living on.”
Humans often think of flies as dirty, because they eat waste, but in this case we are producing the waste that the flies eat. As bodies that waste and decay, we are seen by bush flies as food for them and their offspring; we are a small part of a bigger insectival order that usually escapes our notice. The fly’s perspective gives us an objective distance from which to see ourselves.
These facts, and the theory in which they are embedded, help me appreciate the bush fly and my garden. They re-scale my perspective. But I don’t think they touch on my deepest and most immediate responses to this fly and its photograph. These come from a sense of beauty.
Beauty always involves order and form, and I am sure a sense of beauty inspires scientists like Dr Yeates. But the order manifest in beauty cannot be finally explained. To behold the beauty of the bush fly is to be beholden and filled with wonder. In such beauty, order is present. It is not distant, but merely beyond my grasp, because its beauty is also gripping me. It cannot be exhausted in an objective understanding because beauty does not inhere in an object; it is alive in a relation between the fly and me.
I remember the shock that went through me that morning as unexpected beauty came into focus in the viewfinder. The camera taught me to acknowledge this beauty, by challenging me to witness the wide world that was already in and before me.