It occurred to me recently how many of my favorite photos have been taken through glass. Some through the plexiglas of an airplane window, some through plate glass of a hotel window, and some through aquarium glass.

Green River, Utah, from an airplane window

Green River, Utah, from an airplane window

Snail on aquarium glass

Snail on aquarium glass

morning sunlight on skyscrapers in New York

Morning in Manhattan through a hotel window

Anyway, that got me thinking about seeing, and about all the other things we’re looking through. I’m not sure why it’s interesting or important, but it seems that way to me, so here we go.

We’re always, really, looking through something. We see when light bounces off an object and hits our eyeballs and excites the little receptors in our retinas and sets off a cascade of chemical and electrical impulses that stream through the optic nerves and are sorted out and interpreted somewhere in our brain’s visual cortex, where the electro-chemical information is converted into images (there’s a word for that process, which is transduction. Another word is magical, but that’s not very scientific). So in a very, very intimate sense, everything we see is filtered through a lot of processes, and we don’t actually have direct experience of any object we’re looking at—only our brain’s interpretation of the electro-chemical impulses set off by photons bouncing off the object. Our whole day-to-day experience of the world is really sort of third-person, if you think about it.

Of course, if you think about things that way, about how what we see isn’t really what’s there, but what our brains are interpreting as what what’s there looks like, then life becomes about as complex as this sentence and none of us will ever get anything done, because we’re never really seeing what we think we’re seeing. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave suggests just this, with its story of folks in a cave watching a wall against which shadows are cast by people walking around behind them. They can interpret the shadows to their hearts’ content, but they never actually see the reality of what’s creating the images.

But let’s leave allegories and neuroscience behind and go back to photography, and how we’re looking through things. A viewfinder, for instance, is pretty obvious: we’re looking through lenses and mirrors (or the digital equivalents of lenses and mirrors). So when I take a picture through a window, I’m adding another filter for light to pass through in addition to the mirrors and lenses and any photofilters I’m using at the time.

Beyond the window, there’s more stuff between me and the object of my desired image. In the case of aquarium shots, there’s obviously water. Usually for those photos, my lens is pressed right up against the glass, so there’s not an intervening layer of air. For photos taken out of airplane or hotel windows, though, I’m looking through mirrors and lenses and glass and a thick mass of what we really should not think of as nothing, but as very much a sort of thinly viscous fluidity through which we make our way as much as fish swimming through water. The “nothing” around us is, after all, a complex mix of gases (nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide), plus some trace elements like water vapor, ozone, various particles and molecules, dust, and— depending on where you live—various levels of ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead. So it’s not “nothing,” it’s “something,” and the light we see gets filtered through it.

Smog in Beijing

Zhengyang Gate in Beijing through the "air"

Everything, then, is experienced by us as photographers (and as human beings, I suppose) several steps removed from every actual thing itself. It can be something as obvious an obstruction as glass, or as ephemeral as a mix of more or less transparent gasses. And it’s always second- or third-hand through our brains’ processing of signals set off by photons that never touch the part of us that experiences seeing: it’s not our eyes that see, but our brains, and our brains have never met a photon. We are experiencing a movie, of sorts, played out inside our heads. It is only the common biology of our brains that lets us experience objects the same way, although since every human being is slightly different from every other one, what we “see” when we “see” may be slightly skewed as well: We may be living very isolated existences inside our heads.

Photography helps cut through that isolation though, in this way: By “freezing” an image in time, a photograph provides at least a single common perspective, a single common moment of light filtered through gas and glass and mirrors , that our variously-seeing brains can interpret perhaps one or two steps more in common than if we were standing together looking at the same actual thing.

Like so many of these postings, I’m not entirely sure what this all means, except that as photographers (and possibly even just as human beings) we need to consider what we’re looking through as much as what we’re looking at when we compose photographs and make decisions about images.