Ruminations on Georgia Light
A photographer’s perspective
Words and photos by Diego Pernía
No single answer to the question “what is light?” satisfies the many contexts in which light is experienced, explored, and explained. The physicist is interested in its physical properties, the artist—in an aesthetic appreciation of the visual world. Through the sense of sight, light is a primary tool for perceiving the world and communicating within it.
Almost all the information about the rest of the universe reaches earth in the form of electromagnetic radiation. By interpreting that radiation, astronomers can glimpse the earliest epochs of the universe, measure its general expansion, and determine the chemical composition of stars and the interstellar medium. The analysis of the frequencies of light emitted and absorbed by atoms was a principal impetus for the development of quantum mechanics.
But one of the most fascinating aspects is how the light is interpreted by our brains. The quality of experience depends on consciousness—when you see a light in the luminous quality there is consciousness, light does not exist outside or inside, it does not exist as a physical phenomenon in space. What exists are a series of electromagnetic waves or changes in photonics. There is no light in brain activity either, as light in that perceptual quality is consciousness.
Georgia has that distinct light—that aurora that does not leave even at night. Because the whole state is a gigantic forest, the way the light is received and condensed creates an atmosphere that constantly transforms the landscape.
The projection of shadows from the numerous trees, flowers, buildings, and particles produced by the endemic heat and humidity dyes the light a special color that is typical—especially in the semi-rural and rural areas that make up almost the entire state.
It is not only how light is reflected in its innumerable lakes, which is a spectacle in itself, but how the light is constantly painting all kind of surfaces and scenes; you can observe a horse during the day and become perplexed by how the light would change the perception of him—how his colors shift, how his shape gets richer. Sometimes everything looks so hauntingly beautiful that one can imagine that the light paints with whimsical grace so every scene you can see, if you pay attention, is a moving picture; people going to work while their shadows mix on the floor, sun rays appearing and disappearing from the windows of a train, birds crossing the backlight of an old tree, a grandmother thinking about the past, listening to the old radio that shines with its old metal knobs.
With every kind, passing greeting, the time one takes to say hello, to pay attention, to be interested in the other—light can make the scene even more meaningful.
The taste Georgia has for diverse architecture, these graciously proportioned classical buildings are marked by an understated elegance, becoming pleasant places worth walking, feeling, admiring. Small, charming towns like Senoia, Town of Trilith, Serenbe, and Peachtree City in the south, or Roswell, Decatur, Dahlonega, Washington, St. Marys, Madison, Tallulah Falls further north, create a frame for reflections, and a warm and pleasant perception of light. Each one of them has their own personality—not just from the architecture or the people, but by the direction of light and how it paints every day’s reality.
But to call them towns is just to see the houses, yet not the homes—and that is what makes a community.
The wind chattered through the streets, the rain danced upon the rooftops, and the sunlight contrived with the moonlight to keep those communities in ever-glow. The reflective greens of the landscape glowed brighter in the strengthening light. And upon the forest floor, so woven with ancient tree roots, came a light filtered by the bouquet of foliage above: softened, verdant, and freshly aromatic.
Serenbe is a good example of how light works in southern communities. This charming town is a chic, semi-rural neighborhood within the city limits of Chattahoochee Hills in Fulton County, the Atlanta metropolitan area. The name is manifested from the phrases "serenity" and "to be." Close to one of the entrances, carved in an iron monolith, you can find this sentence by the notable A.J. Downing: “All beauty is an outward expression of inward good, and so closely are the beautiful and the true allied, that we shall find, if we become sincere loves of the grace, the harmony and loveliness, with which rural homes and rural life are capable of being invested, that we are silently opening our hearts to an influence which is higher and deeper than the mere symbol."
Andrew Jackson Downing was a designer, horticulturist, and author. His Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, and essays published in his magazine, The Horticulturist, on which he collaborated with Alexander Jackson Davis, popularized landscape gardening among America’s growing middle and upper-middle classes. Following British models, he categorized landscape design styles as “The Beautiful” (calm and serene) and “The Picturesque” (dramatic), with the style to be determined by the existing landscape context. He was an advocate for the creation of public parks in America and the health value of interaction with the natural world. Because of him, the whole picture changed in the South.
Light switches on our world, bringing both energy and vision, igniting the colors with such great variation. Kindle the world anew with brilliance, the sun rose with casual elegance.
Who doesn't love the brightness and warmth of the long summer days? The red afternoons, the multicolor skies? Yet, why is it that the things we need the most are the first we don't honor, or see how with our souls the gratitude remains? For when you love the simple joys, the heart feels full and secure—the hungry ghost within is satisfied and allows serenity to enter.
Even in the darkness, there is the light of the stars—perhaps a promise that even when we yearn for the light of the sun, there will be those stars to bring hope of the dawn. It is always the light we crave, for without it what is our world? We seek the light—the chance to stand up and be strong, to see beauty being beautiful. For the ability to see others and ourselves, to see nature and her stunning variation, is a great gift to each one of us.
Atlanta has another particular light, the light trails of its immense traffic.
The street designs, so efficient, so typical of the USA, with the exits and the right spaces to always maneuver well, also configure curves and spaces in the city through which the light filters or bounces. Thanks to the glass buildings emerging in the Buckhead area, the bounces of light combined with the different shapes of the sky, know how to configure atmospheres that leave us perplexed. As Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and tuned Mercedes SUVs parade down the front of Lenox Mall, across and for much of Peachtree Road—Atlanta's famous Street, widely known due in part to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind—the light from the buildings reflects multiple colors, giving the street different aspects throughout the day.
The inexplicable feeling that Georgia gives to its inhabitants can only be understood by living it. For a long time, Atlanta was considered a city of passage, a flight connection—yes, with historical weight—and the birthplace of the greatest in history, such as the reverend Martin Luther King and all the great, now anonymous, heroes who rebuilt it, in every sense, after the Civil War. With such an illustrious past, it would already be forever enough. But now it has sharpened its light.
Today, there are several studies in neuroscience that show how light affects mood through its intensity, color or temperature. All this is linked to several processes that our body faces in which serotonin is produced, which is a substance that influences how we feel. Warm or dim light stimulates people to produce melatonin, a hormone produced in the brain that regulates sleep. The secretion of this hormone is inhibited by light. That is why environments with low or warm light are ideal for relaxing. The opposite effect is caused by cold and bright light, favoring the production of serotonin and dopamine, hormones that activate attention and stimulate activity.
So, light creates narratives and realities. The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue the setting sun, passively darkens for barbecue’s night, a feast of moon, fire, women, men, and barking hounds—maybe surprised in making folk, country and hip-hop songs from soul sounds. Smoke from the pyramidal pile, a high-priest, a humble servant, and a juju-man, go singing through the footpaths of the swamp until they meet the one who will be baptized.
The choir comes. Their voices rise. Imagine that. Imagine those sounds. The pine trees are now guitars that reflect the afternoon lake while voices and notes sing the songs around the fire.
Their voices rise even more and travel far. The spontaneous chorus Is singing a vesper hymn to the emergent stars. What an act!
Country, folk, and spirituals sing the songs for the light, that Georgia light above the sacred whisper of the pines.