The Last Polar Bear
Humans and the nature of the universe painted with light
by David Crossley
That polar bear photograph evokes a story of global climate change for millions of human minds. We are staring into nature and understanding patterns that give rise to sadness and frustration. The concept of The Last Polar Bear has moved many people to struggle against the total loss of that species of Earth citizen.
The picture is iconic in the sense that it stands for something much larger. (It is unusually iconic in that it is a photograph we think we've seen whether we have seen it or not.) It is a visual symbol that has acquired conventional significance, from which vast stories arise.
It is also a direct look at something in a place that we are highly unlikely to see in person. That is a primary service of photographs - to give humans a kind of magical access to otherwise unseeable things in the universe.
As many humans pull away from nature, the intellectual and even emotional experience of it comes increasingly from photographs (and video or film).
We have seen the way that life is created, how it evolves and grows, how it moves and eats; we know a lot about the web of life thanks to photography.
We have learned to love landscapes and objects we have never visited, and we've seen into places and periods when the darker sides of our natures have led to horrific loss and violence.
Through photographs, we have seen fantastic distances into space and time and even into the heart of matter (where we see there is yet more space).
Through photographs we have looked backward in time, almost all the way to the Big Bang. We have seen glorious lightbursts of matter, as well as gases that dispersed and vanished thousands of years ago.
Perhaps human nature is explained most thoroughly through photographs. The wars, the droughts and floods, the hurricanes and tsunamis, the inequity and suffering, the assassinations. We know much about these even while being separated from them by space or time.
The photograph, in all its forms, provides experience of those things about which we have no experience, about those things which may no longer exist - even about things that may never have existed at all.We have seen reality, and other, by painting with light. The photographs on the next pages are among those that have transformed our understanding of our universe.