The Old, The Hidden and The Unknown

underground forest #0707-10333 (up to 13,000 years old; pretoria, south africa) ©Rachel Sussman

On December 2nd NASA held a press conference to discuss an astrobiology finding that would “impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”  As we know now what they announced was a bacterium in California’s Mono Lake that “appears to be able to use arsenic in its molecular make-up instead of phosphorus.”

In the week following the announcement some serious doubts about the find have been raised by scientists. For those interested in dissecting the controversy I recommend reading this post by The Lay Scientist Martin Robbins. I’m sure the debate will work itself out, or we’ll forget about it until the next discovery is announced that brings us one step closer to finding signs of life in the solar system.

The Hoh Rain Forest, Understory and Forest Structure – Olympic National Park, Washington ©Taryn Simon

What I started thinking about when I heard about the arsenic microbes was Rachel Sussman’s The Oldest Living Things In the World (view her Ted Talk )and Taryn Simon’s An American Index ofthe Hidden and Unfamiliar. I’m not sure why, perhaps because photography and its relationship to scientific discovery has been on my mind for a few months now, and this was just another piece of a growing puzzle.

What initially kicked off my interest in this relationship was watching The Universe on Netflix streaming.  They used images from the Hubble Space Telescope in several of the episodes, which of course led me to the gallery online.  Many of these images have become widely popular and most of us have probably seen them more than a few times.

A Giant Hubble Mosaic of the Crab Nebula/HubbleSite

It’s difficult to really comprehend what you’re looking at because the images are new to humans, even though the subject matter is so old and massive we can barely put it into human context. We’re looking millions and billions of years into the past.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could do that on earth? Take a photograph of the dinosaurs?

But we can’t, and that’s when my head starts to get all tied in knots.  I’m not cut out for this astro-physics stuff, so I’ll have to try to stick to photography, which I might not be cut out for either but at least I feel more in my element.

It’s All Been Done Before

I was having coffee the other day with a photographer whose worked in the industry for twenty years, and he started chatting about how just about everything has been done before with photography, so these days what’s becoming more important than ever is access.

Part of the power of Taryn Simon’s work is that she gains access to subject matter the public can’t,  just like the Hubble Telescope provides us with access to parts of universe that were impossible for us to see in the past.

In both instances, we’re provided a glimpse of something that we may know is out there but has been hidden to us.  Sussman’s project also incorporates the hidden.  Within the world are these organism’s that are incredibly old but in many cases are hidden in plain sight.

spruce gran picea #0909-6B37 (9,550 years old; fulufjället, sweden) ©Rachel Sussman

I could walk past this spruce tree and have absolutely no clue about how long its been on the earth.  The thought probably wouldn’t even enter my mind. But when Sussman photographs it, and writes the age in the caption, suddenly I become transfixed and can’t break my gaze from the photograph (and this is on the web. Can’t imagine seeing it printed large.) Staring at this 9,550 year old spruce tree evokes the same awe that I have staring at the image of the crab nebula.

What is it in our mind that triggers such awe from a little piece of knowledge? I can imagine Eggleston on his knees looking at that tricycle with the same kind of awe I have looking at Sussman’s spruce tree.

Star V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon) – December 17, 2002/Hubble

‘Every Black Hole Contains Another Universe?’

According to one study it could be possible. What a mind f!$k, as are some of these other amazing discoveries.  We’re surrounded by the old, the hidden and the unknown.  Black holes containing universes; human brains with enough synapses to fill 1,500 Milky Way galaxies.

And we sometimes say to ourselves that everything has been done?  Indeed the very opposite is likely true, we have’t done very much with photography and are just getting started.

  • bformhals

    Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m a big admirer of your work and can’t wait to see it progress.



  • Rachel Sussman

    Thank you for the thoughtful post, Bryan. I’m sharing it with my mailing list.