Saturday, June 26, 2010


WELCOME TO The Refracted Light, a website about the art and science of photography.

The name ‘Refracted Light’ refers to the process where waves, when hitting a boundary at an angle, will change velocity, and so will also change direction.  This principle is what makes optics and cameras possible: light waves, when hitting the glass of a lens at an angle, will be bent.  Lenses are precisely constructed to focus these light waves at a point, where an image can be captured. This name perhaps is evocative of photography.

But the name also comes from the poem Mythopoeia, by J.R.R Tolkien, who is better known for his epic novel of high fantasy, The Lord of the Rings. Quoting the poem:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Tolkien wrote this in defense of creative myth-making, rebutting his friend “who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’”. Tolkien's imagery can also apply to photography: a thousand photographers can each photograph the same scene with the same camera, yet a thousand different images result. Photography may be our most objective art form, but the single white light of Truth gets refracted through each person, producing many hues.

This is a website about photography, and not of photography.  I do not plan to showcase my photography here, other than as useful illustrations.  You can find my photography on my other website Rome of the West, which is:
A web log about Catholicism in Saint Louis, which was once called the “Rome of the West”. Topics of interest are the historical Catholic patrimony of our City, the restoration of Catholic culture, manners, and morals, increasing public and private piety, and fostering interest in the liturgical arts.
It is a common rule of publishing that if you write about subjects A and B, you will only get readers who like both A and B, and not readers who like one or the other.  This is why I created this new website. Taste in photography also varies, and as I hope what appears on this page is useful, I'd rather not turn away those readers who do not share my taste in photos.

So I intend to write about the more certain, objective factors in photography, things that are less a matter of personal taste and legitimate varying opinion. The laws of physics are objective, the operation of specific cameras is in principle knowable, but even some subjective factors can be known objectively to a good degree, such as the properties of vision that are fairly uniform among persons. I also intend to delve into Photoshop and other image processing software as it relates to photography.

It do not intend this to be a gear blog.  The debates between Nikon and Canon or Sony and Olympus partisans may be exciting to some but they annoy me; that is not to say that I don't have my own opinions, but I would like to keep the level of discussion here at a somewhat higher level.  I don't have the time or money to do comprehensive tests on equipment. Now if any manufacturer wishes to send me some gear for a review, I would most likely write something complimentary about their product: after all, it is polite to exchange courtesy for courtesy, and if you can't say something nice about someone, then don't say anything at all.  A truer test of any piece of gear is whether or not I'm still using it six months later, and I will most certainly let you know what I am using.

I think there is a problem with the ‘Consumer Reports’ model of purchasing gear, where the consumer pours over the various camera ratings before making the ‘correct’ purchase.  A major problem is that the people who make the ratings do not know you as an individual, there is no give-and-take or dialogue between you and them, which could help you make a better purchase for you. You might decide what is important to you, but how did you come up with that? Psychologically, this turns consumption into into a mainly passive activity: you feel wise about a purchase, but your own choices end with the purchase. But do you do your part after the purchase? Do you make a strong effort to use your new tool effectively?  Or do you blame the equipment if the results are inadequate? When I first went digital, I bought the ‘best’ but my results were bad, and I blamed the equipment; I did not make an attempt to do my part to produce good photography. An opposite, but equally bad attitude would be insisting that your photographs are the best because your camera is the best. I wrote about my early and bad attempts at digital photography the article A Camera Diary over at Rome of the West. My attitude of blaming the equipment is actually quite common these days, and have deep psychological and philosophical reasons behind them: for more details, I recommend the excellent, although somewhat dated book by Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos.

Dear readers, I hope that you won't get offended if I have very high expectations for you. The scientific aspects of photography can get very complex and mathematical — and even the artistic aspects can be very difficult, as with the excellent work of Ansel Adams and his Zone System. Please forgive me for not dumbing-down my writing for you. But I hope that I won't make things obscure either, which is all too common in modern art criticism.

My name is Mark Scott Abeln, I have been blogging for about five and a half years, and have been taking photography again seriously for a bit less amount of time.  Although I was long enamored of film photography, having many fine cameras and a darkroom, I made the transition to digital photography rather poorly.  Circumstance and motivation led me to relearn photography from scratch, and this website is part of my own continuing education in the subject.  My college degree is in physics from Caltech, and I worked for many years in the computer and industrial engineering fields, so this ought to give you some idea of where I am coming from.

I am Catholic and this has a profound effect on my preferred subject matter and approach to photography; however, if you want to know more about this — as well as higher approaches to art theory — please see Rome of the West.  I intend this to be a secular website, although there may be a Catholic flavoring at times.

My major book of photography is Catholic St. Louis: A Pictorial History, with text by prominent historian Fr. William Barnaby Faherty, S.J.; my photography can also be found in Saint Louis University: A Concise History, and on the covers of the books Tower Grove and Caring for Victor: A U.S. Army Nurse and Saddam Hussein.  Other books of my photography are planned for the future.

My writing and photography can be found on very many websites, and on posters, bulletins, and magazines.


Catholic St. Louis: A Pictorial History can be purchased at all major online booksellers, or you can click here to purchase an autographed copy:

No comments: