Musings about Light & Photography

By Mike Mitchell Back to


Imagine a species of life vastly more evolved than human beings. Imagine it as a completely different ordering of life, so cognizant that knowledge itself is the very tissue of its body. Imagine it cares to tutor you, show you what it knows. Now close your eyes. When you open them again you will see this being in front of you. It is everywhere, it is light.

My photographs in the last six years have all been experiments. Let’s see what happens if I do this…or this…or this. Let’s see what happens if I set up conditions in the studio where light is always changing. Let’s see what happens if I eliminate optical representation of the material world. Let’s see what forms just might be bred when sheer consciousness encounters unmitigated light.

These images are descendants of a single photograph that was the very climax of a mystical experience I had in 1969. Recently I was sitting in a cluster of river birches by the Potomac River mentally revisiting that experience in view of what I’ve been learning about the brain. Some scientists would have us believe that what we call God is only an artifact of complex neurological processes. Just then I heard a Harley approaching on the road behind me. I reflexively turned toward it just as a portly guy in the passenger seat yelled to me at the top of his lungs: “God is real!ˮ Since 1969 such things have happened to me a lot.

Lumi-Gnosis 4, 2006

Human vision develops by building what science calls a formative visual imagination, a kind of mental lexicon of forms and associated meanings. It continues to grow for our whole lives. This accounts for why one person can look at one of these photographs and ask if they’re looking at a flame while another laughs and says unequivocally “that’s Daffy Duck.” I sense that there may be yet another way to engage this imagery. The Quaker tradition speaks of “opening” to light, a practice that may require silencing cognitive associations and like the Quakers, waiting until something else enters awareness.

One evening last July, I was sitting in the front row of the auction room at Christie’s in New York. When the final hammer came down the room erupted into applause and cheers. During the entire auction I’d been saying to myself “this is really happening and it’s really happening to me!” Six years earlier I’d realized it was time to do “the real work” of my life no matter what the cost. I refinanced my house to do it and the images on these pages are the result. It was devastating when I later lost the house to foreclosure but that evening Christie’s completely turned my life around yet again when they auctioned prints of photographs I’d done of the Beatles when I was only 18 years old. Resurrecting those images had more than financial value. I’d come to realize that my own sensitivity to light actually began at a Beatles concert in 1964 when there was no choice but to take my cues from what light was presenting to me. I’ve also learned something inexpressible and profoundly humbling about the way life can work.

Lumi-Gnosis 9, 2006

In its infancy photography was considered the litmus test for reality. Photography has come so far but not nearly as far as reality. From the study of light, some thinkers have concluded that there is no objective reality apart from the consciousness that’s observing it. Doesn’t that make reality a purely local phenomenon, a kind of soft-edged sphere with consciousness at the center? So couldn’t it be said that consciousness is always moving from reality to reality? Could the ultimate reality we’ve always looked for be this movement of consciousness which I’ve come to call “transality?” But what if consciousness, like photons, can be in more than one place at the same time? What if there’s a stage of consciousness that is at once within and beyond all realities? I suspect we can approach such questions as we come to embrace the other major paradox of light, it’s relative speed. The speed of light is 186,282,397 miles per second. Einstein proved that even if you are traveling at, lets say 185,000,000 miles per second, a beam of light that goes past you, is still going 186,282,397 miles per second faster than you are!

Lumi-Gnosis 16, 2008

Photographers have unique advantage over theoretical physicists when it comes to approaching the mysteries of light. We can let light speak for itself.

About the Author

Mike Mitchell
Mike Mitchell is a fine art photographer living in Washington, DC. His work along with his intriguing life story can be seen on his website at