All the World Is Birthday Cake
It's all too much for me to take
The love that's shining all around here
All the world is birthday cake
So take a piece but not too much
-- From George Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much”
The idea of a hierarchy of the senses has been floating around since Aristotle, with sight claiming pride of place, followed in order by hearing, smell, taste and touch. It is unclear, however, how you determine which sense should top the charts, much less whether a hierarchy even exists. If you consulted a photographer, a musician, a perfumer, a cook and a pickpocket, I suspect all would give you different answers, based on their own proclivities. There’s no mystery why photographers would value seeing above the other senses. Seeing is also associated with reason, which may explain why it appeals to philosophers like Aristotle. But in truth, all the senses are subordinate to the mind and will flee into the shadows at the first sign of a thought. We may apprehend reality through the senses, but in the end the world is whatever we think it is.
“All the world is birthday cake,” sang George Harrison in the Beatles animated film, Yellow Submarine. The song came at the movie’s climax, amid a kind of psychedelic fireworks display meant to please all the acidheads who flocked to see the film on its debut in 1968. Harrison later acknowledged the song tried to capture what it is like to take LSD. As one of the acidheads who flocked to see Yellow Submarine a half century ago, I would say the experience is most succinctly captured in the song’s title and opening line, “It’s All Too Much.”
There are few literary antecedents for the psychedelic experience. The English novelist Aldous Huxley wrote a book-length essay entitled The Doors of Perception (1954) chronicling an early experiment with the hallucinogenic drug mescaline. We assume taking hallucinogens is like putting your brain on steroids, but Huxley arrived at the opposite conclusion. He hypothesized that the brain normally functions as a “reducing valve” to filter out the otherwise overwhelming volume of sensory stimuli coming at us from very direction. Brain-imaging experiments have since confirmed that hallucinogens bypass the brain’s sensory-inhibiting mechanisms, enabling us to experience reality in all its unfiltered glory. Once freed from the mind’s straitjacket, the senses run riot, upending any hierarchy that might have existed.
I picked up a camera long after I stopped dabbling in mind-bending drugs, so I can’t say what it would be like to try to take pictures while high on acid. I remember hearing a story long ago about a Zen master who took LSD and was asked how he found the experience. “It gave me a headache,” he said dismissively. Similarly, I expect LSD would do little to enhance my picture taking. By a mysterious process I do not fully understand, I find that merely looking through the viewfinder of a camera helps my visual cortex to overcome the brain’s sensory-inhibiting mechanisms. Perhaps it is just that I am paying close attention to what I am seeing.
There is a reason why the brain comes equipped with sensory-inhibiting mechanisms. In evolutionary terms, you have to keep your on eye the ball, whether it is spotting prey or spotting predators. Clearly, you’ve got to eat – and avoid being eaten – in order to survive and propagate the species, which means you can’t be distracted by too much sensory stimulation. Aesthetics would appear to have no role to play, except perhaps in selecting a mate. And yet aesthetic appreciation is highly developed in our species, if not always highly compensated. Every culture has artisans or artists whose function is to call attention to the beauty in creation.
Once you begin looking at the world through the viewfinder of a camera, you realize that beauty is not an incidental part of creation. It’s everywhere you look. I have exhibited photographs taken in my own home, in my yard, in the field behind my house and in my neighborhood. One of my long-term projects is to take pictures of everything within walking distance of my house, and I realize I will never run out of subject matter. Lately I have been photographing wildflowers found by the side of the road. I bring them home and shoot them against a dark backdrop with no illumination other than a single high-intensity LED light. All the world is birthday cake, as George Harrison said. But you can’t be too greedy. You’ve got to take it a piece at a time.