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Photography and Reality is a course exploring light and color in nature and the philosophical questions evoked by the act of photographing the world. Through a series of lectures and assignments set in the outdoors participants will become physicists in the sense originated by Aristotle - as "students of nature." By studying nature we also learn to study ourselves and how we come to acquire knowledge of the world. Emerging from this epistemic question is the even greater puzzle of why we choose as artists to "capture" scenes in nature and reproduce them for other humans.

The class will meet monthly over the course of the year in order for participants to study the changing light of each season. The topics will expand from practical physics into the topics of philosophy and aesthetics before returning again to the very ground under our feet.

Photography and Reality is a suggested donation course. Feel free to join for the entire year or for a few classes. However, the best experience by far is to participate each month and to engage in the year long Light Study assignment. All lectures will be recorded and provided to registrants. A course resource page is forthcoming. Please register in order to receive the class link and so we have an idea of attendance.

Class is on Saturdays from 14:00 to 17:00 EST

(I tried hard to balance between multiple time zones!)

Once a month for the entirety of 2021 - See schedule below or in the Syllabus

Course Resources

Syllabus - pdf

This course is donation based. You can donate anytime at:

Venmo: @John-Arkenberg​​

Course Overview and Schedule

Photography and Reality owes its genesis to a lighting test proposed by a student when I first began teaching. On the surface their question was simple - "what color gel best replicates the color of sunrise?" I recall the student pressed me to suggest a range of options to test. Since I believe they should perform their own research I encouraged them to spend time observing sunrises and compare them to gels in a swatch book, which I'm not sure they ever did. On the test day a range of oranges, reds and pinks were dutifully changed on the 2K Junior shining into the bedroom of the soundstage. The film was developed and returned and the results were delightfully inconclusive - all the options felt like sunrise, just different skies and emotions.

Asking the question "what color is the sunrise?" is both childishly simple and inordinately complex. On one hand it speaks to the phenomenon of weather and the optics of light in nature. But on the other hand it unearths deeper problems about the perception of color and the philosophical problems of understanding how we know anything about the world. As photographers and cinematographers we bring an additional layer of complexity in our efforts to not only capture the world, but also transmute the appearance of nature to suit our ideas.

Photography and Reality is an effort to unite the seemingly diametrically opposed fields of physics and philosophy, technology and aesthetics. The year will begin with the separation of light and dark with experiments demonstrating basic optics readily found in the outdoors. As spring arrives the topic changes to color as it manifests in nature and our experience of it in vision. These topics mature during the summer into the philosophical problems of the experience of sensory information as explored in philosophy and photography. Finally, in autumn the disparity between art and science will be reconciled in the subject of linear perspective - particularly in union between earth and sky in the nonexistent line of the horizon.

Each class will include a lecture but also time for participants to share their discoveries from the homework. Most importantly participants are asked to select a nearby location at which to perform a year long Light Study Assignment.


Winter - Point of Origin


January 16th - "Celestial Clock"

Humankind understands time through the relationship between their position on earth and the sun. This class will look back at ancient experiments that help us understand how the sun and moon move in the sky, and how to leverage this knowledge for lighting exteriors. The class also begins our communal year long light study.

February 20th - "Light in Extension"

Dappled light through the leaves of a tree or a column of light on water from a distant building are not only objects of contemplation, but an encounter with the laws of physics. Together and in the homework we will explore the laws of optics through observations of reflection and refraction in the natural world.

March 20th - "Shade and Shape"

Capturing the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional canvas is the great invention of the Renaissance. Looking back at both the artistry of Leonardo’s sketches and Johann Lambert’s synthesis of photometric equations we can better understand the complex interaction of light and dark.

Spring - Multiplicity


April 17th - "Nature's Palette"

Ancient studies of color begin in nature with rainbows and glories found in the effects of light and weather. As the weather warms and spring showers arrive we will study the many ways in which color manifests in light, stones, plants, and weather.

May 22nd - "Color Defined"

Humankind has struggled to understand color through two methods; physics and art. In an effort to see these methods as two sides of the same coin we will survey a diverse set of “color theories” from both scientists and artists in order to map out a common ground.

June 19th - "Internal Color"

Color is not independent of us. There is no singular ‘color truth.’ After looking at the physiology and psychology of our experience of color we will look carefully at the language of color. This serves as an introduction to the philosophical problems of our knowledge and experience of the world.

Summer - Transformative Flux


July 17th - "The 3rd Way"

The Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the important observation that the appearance of the sun’s motion in the sky can be interpreted as both a geocentric model and a heliocentric model. So how do we come to truly know the world? This question is the key to the doorway of studying epistemology and phenomenology.

August 21st - "Nature's Labyrinth"

Quantum Mechanics is one of the most successful theories in physics but it continues to baffle with its paradoxical labyrinths of ideas. After looking at some simple Q-M experiments and what it reveals about the nature of reality we can turn the problem towards our own art - what does a photograph tell us about reality?

September 18th - "Time and Motion"

Einstein’s theories of Special and General Relativity transformed the way in which we understand time, shape, and space. Through the art of cinema we can probe the fixed, transmutable, or possibly nonexistent nature of space and time.

Autumn - Infinite Return


October 16th - "Our Eyes Give it Shape"

As photographers we work with two visual systems; that of our body and that of the camera system. Building upon our phenomenological experience of reality we can now look at the experience of creating and seeing a photograph in a new light. Reappraising our relationship to photography gives us insight into the strange tool that is art.

November 20th - "The Horizon"

Returning back to the scientific study of light and shade this class will explain linear perspective and its philosophical implications. Through a geometrical analysis of the world we arrive at a curiously nonexistent line where the land and sky only appear to meet - the horizon.

December 18th - "Point of Origin"

We are each a point of contemplation in the cosmos - letting light enter our body to experience reality as well as projecting our understanding out into time and space. Where does art fit into this ouroboros and how does this process allow us to find our place in nature?

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