Photography as...

... alchemy

'There's something magical about the fact that I can take this pencil here, I can make ten little marks with it, and you can see a house. This is alchemy.'#

Vic Muniz

Alchemy has many parallels to art, in particular to photography: transforming processes, use of analogy, arcane jargon in its description. One can imagine that the alchemist in his workshop experiences similar emotions to the photographer in the chemical darkroom, watching the image appear as if by magic in the surface of the paper.

There are even more parallels between the two areas after we look at a popular misconception about alchemy: that it is a forerunner to chemistry, that it is about turning lead into gold. Alchemical language revolves around analogy and metaphor, and when old texts were translated by modern chemists, they took the most literal and familiar translations of ambiguous phrases.

The problem is resolved when we realise that alchemy is a spiritual philosophy not a science. This can be summed up thusly: the prima materia, the base matter to be transformed, is not lead or any other base metal, but the alchemist- 'The subject is man'#. All the roundabout talk of transforming materials into higher states is simply a complex way of saying 'I improve my soul'.

This revelation that alchemy is about reaching a higher state of the soul brings new insight to that other staple of the alchemist, the Philosopher's Stone. A material so pure and refined that all it touches is transmuted into gold. The Midas touch on a stick. And this stone is supposed to be the alchemist?

In these days of postmodernist theory the concept of a person who transforms and improves others simply by being present is anathema. If one thinks of the modern Western paradigm of forceful/forced effort then I agree this is not something to strive for.
However if we consider Eastern philosophy, particularly Tao, there is more hope for a useful concept: wu-wei, sometimes translated as 'purposeful inaction' or 'not forcing'. We can take this idea of dynamic change and alteration without purposeful, forceful striving, imposing our will directly on others, and apply it to the Philosopher's Stone.

We then have someone who has the deep down knowledge to almost glide through life, treading lightly. That some of this lightness and ease could rub off on others is not the same stretch of the imagination as the former miraculous soul who walks among us, automatically making us better people.

Now we have a paradigm in which to work as artists (or in everyday life, if one makes the distinction). We can change the world. Not with great effort but with subtle effect, with wu-wei. Not merely art as therapy for the practitioner but art that gives something to the viewer, without preaching or moralising.

To summarise:

Alchemy is analogy.
Alchemy is about enriching the soul.
Alchemy is change, the dynamic principle.

Now replace the word alchemy with the word art.
The substitution fits.

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This page last updated in September 2001