Winter SolsticeHappy Winter Solstice!


A Fake Solstice Photo? So What?

Commentary by Jim Walker
Originated: 23 Dec. 2011

On 22 December 2011 I posted a photo of a winter solstice on my home page with the caption "Happy Winter Solstice!" (see photo above) I chose it because it conveyed to me a beautiful image about a winter solstice. I don't know the name of the photographer but it represents a striking image. On the same day I also received criticism from someone (who shall remain anonymous). He emailed me:


That fake Pole-Sun-Moon photograph is one of the banes of my existence when it comes to my futile efforts to correct all the over-forwarded false emails out there in the internet universe.

Choose a real solstice photo next time ... please.  :-)

Obviously the photographer took artistic licence here by manipulating the image to his liking. He amplified the moon making it appear larger than it should over a small sun. If anyone got fooled by this image (and I know of no one who would), then he or she must never have looked at the moon and the sun during the same day.  As for a fake photograph, that too is misleading because even a fake photograph is a real photograph. Of course my criticizer was concerned about the images in the photograph that he thought was fake. I don't know if the images in the photo deserve the title "fake" or not, but so what? The photographer may have actually shot the sun during a solstice or he may have simply taken an everyday picture of the sun and photoshopped it low on the horizon. The moon may also have been taken during a solstice or perhaps at another time, I don't know.

I found it amusing that my critic wanted me to choose a "real" solstice photo. I tried to explain to him that no one can create a "real" solstice photo simply because all photographs represent abstractions. No photo can capture reality directly. For example, photographs depict static images while reality appears dynamic. Photographs appear two dimensional whereas the earth, moon, and sun constitute three dimensional objects (actually four dimensional if you included time). Moreover, the scale never matches the scale of real objects. And if it has color in it, that too depicts an abstraction. Color does not exist "out there" but in your mind generated in the back of your brain. In this sense, all photos contain fakery.


Hubble photo
Hubble photo of the pillars in the Eagle Nebula. Fake!

Even astronomical photographs contain some form of fakery. Take the Hubble Space Telescope photos for example. The color you see in them does not exist, "out there." The Hubble telescope cameras produce only shades of black-and-white and the color gets added in post processing. The color doesn't come from the astronomical objects themselves. This used to bother me until I learned that our brains do the same thing. Every color you "see" comes from post processing!

This reminds me of a story about Picasso when a stranger asked him why he didn't paint pictures of people 'the way they really are.' Picasso asked the man what he meant by 'the way they really are,' and the man pulled out of his wallet a snapshot of his wife as an example. Picasso responded: 'Isn't she rather small and flat?'"

In the 1970s, professor of psychology, J.B. Deregowski et al, performed an interesting visual experiment on the Me'en people in remote Ethiopia. The researchers found that these Ethiopians were unable to perceive two-dimensional pictures of animals. (see, Deregowski's "Real space and represented space") Apparently reading pictures involves cultural learning. Consider that humans evolved the ability to assimilate information in a four-dimensional world for reasons of survival, not for accurate representations of reality. Our ancestors had to learn to distinguish between things that threatened life and things that enhanced the chance for survival. Color, for example, must have served as a great way to quickly find food (especially fruits), red blood from animals, etc. Nature provides shapes mostly in three dimensional packets (not two dimensional). We have to learn to see 2D.

What would a real solstice photo even mean? If you think that that it means an unmanipulated photo, think again. Before a photographer even presses the shutter button he must first choose a location, time, direction, camera lens, focus, F-stop, shutter speed, ISO settings, color saturation, white balance, how he crops the photo, and so forth. Everything the photographer does describes a form of manipulation from the point of view of the photographer. And even if you believed that a particular solstice photo appeared real, how would you know that the photographer didn't photoshop it? After all, it would prove a lot easier to simply fake a photo than wait for an actual solstice.

Solstice sun

Last year I posted the marvelous photo above as my solstice picture. The photographer captured time delayed shots of the sun onto a single image. The photographer could have taken separate photos of the sun at each time period but it wouldn't convey the arc of travel as well as by putting them into a single image, yet in some sense it describes the sun movement more accurately than single sun images. Obviously no one sees multiple suns at one time, yet not a single "reality policeman" complained about this photo.

Obviously the solstice photo represents a form of photographic art. If the image was painted, I doubt that my critic would have emailed me. That's what artists do: They use abstractions to convey an idea, indirectly, about reality. In this case the artist used photographic images instead of paint. In this sense abstract art can actually provide a clearer understanding of reality than by trying to create "real" images. This has always been a problem with Realism, a form of art that attempts to depict objects with objective rules. Realistic art can never match its aim because reality comes to us indirectly and all ideas about reality come from interpretations from these indirect sources. In other words: abstractions.


For example, chemists still use orbital depictions of the elements even though they know  that these depictions do not represent the way atoms really appear. In spite of this these fake atomic models, they prove useful for the understanding of chemistry.

Take words for example, they provide a great way to describe reality yet they consist entirely of abstract squiggly and straight lines. This holds especially true for mathematics, a form of language that evaluates logical structures in logic. It comes only through abstraction and logical reasoning that we can even understand our world. Perhaps the most abstract form of language comes from quantum mechanics. The mathematical formulations appear entirely abstract, so much so that one does not even need to understand the abstractions in order to provide the most accurate predictions ever devised about matter, energy, and space (reality). It's interesting that to understand reality it appears that one must use ever more abstract concepts in order to understand it!

I suggest that if you want to learn about reality you should first search for structure and relationships between objects and their observers especially recognizing the difference between what occurs inside your brain as opposed to what occurs outside your brain. In order to understand structure you cannot resort to faith or things that occur only in your mind.

As Alfred Korzybski wrote in 1933: "Structure, and structure alone, gives not only the unique content of what we call 'knowledge', but also the bridge between the different classes of occurrences—a fact which, as yet, has not been fully understood."

I chose the photo not because it depicts a real solstice but because it provides an image that depicts a winter solstice in an artistic way that appeals to our emotions. If you think about it, a more accurate photo would consist of a bland black & white image with proportions that would not appeal emotionally to us. After all, a winter solstice consists of nothing but two objects in relationship to each other, about as boring as a watching a tether ball orbiting a pole and then noting the point of its perihelion. Nature outside living brains has no concept of beauty or ugliness. The color, symmetry and simplicity of the photo provides an emotional impact that conveys beauty even though beauty occurs only in our heads. I only wanted to convey the magnificence that derives from us about an ancient phenomenon that has existed long before humans existed and to have a happy solstice day while contemplating that.