the inhabitable image

A Dwelling Place for the Soul

horse looking out from top of windy dune

An inhabitable photograph, like a good story, offers the soul a place to stay, for a while. When the soul embraces a form, dwells on it, finds pleasure in it, a mere object becomes poetry. Perhaps it evokes the memory of a feeling long forgotten, or a vision, almost familiar, of an existence not yet materialized. It may be the evening light that appears to reconcile us with everything, a path to walk on into the night, a field to rest your eyes on sitting with your back against a tree, a pool to linger at when the day is hot, the corner of an old attic room where you would like to live forever, or a face you want to keep looking at for the rest of your life.

As a physical phenomenon an image made by light does not represent anything close to reality, recording only an infinitesimal small fraction of all the electromagnetic radiation present at any given time and place. The material object being photographed is not what it seems to be, either. Every second billions of neutrinos (the smallest particles of matter known to us) pass through each little blob of seemingly solid matter at the speed of light. They shoot straight through the earth unhampered and unseen but are totally part of our physical universe and essential for its existence.

Knowing now that we may tell very convincing stories in any form we like but that we can never make reality visible, it would perhaps seem dishonest to take for real only what we can see but we desperately want visual images to depict the world we can remember and imagine – no matter how limited – and through these images we seek some form of permanence, an experience less fleeting than life itself.

We tend to interpret a photographic image in terms of events that happen and moments that pass: a swirling world of light having grown still forever. However, the image that results from a photographic exposure is not a moment in time, nor is it ‘frozen time.’ Once an image is created it’s just timeless, showing an innocent world wholly sufficient by itself, without the need for time to hold it together or to give it meaning.

Nothing ‘out there’ has any meaning in itself. It’s only in the mind that things may mean something, like red, yellow and blue, or coming to life, and being gone forever. And it’s only in a peaceful mind that truth can reveal itself. When you find yourself lingering over an image, the soul has already made its choice, as in love at first sight. There’s nothing the intellect might ever be able to add to it in terms of truth. No need to impoverish a boundless experience by narrowing it down and pretending to make sense of it.

If we refrain from explaining everything immediately in terms of time (and let the babbling mind idle, or even stall), we may be able to look at a photograph with a more soulful perspective, accepting meaningful connections out of a deeper realm, where everything exists all at once.

Bringing our visual imagination to life, and letting us quietly roam about in it, is what photography can do best. Never mind if it’s not about physical reality. It’s about what we want to see, yet the images that will endure are unforeseeable in their felicity and grace. These are the images we love because they truthfully represent an inner reality we almost forgot.


“Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths.”

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space