Seeing life in a new light

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 7, 2019

A brilliantly colourful work of art reveals itself when crumpled-up clear plastic wrap (inset) is photographed with polarizing filter against polarized plain white background. Photography by Fred Monk

“Oh, what a beautiful work of art you are!” said the critic to the image. “But didn’t you use to be just a crumpled-up piece of plastic wrap fit only for the trash can? What happened?”

“Well, you’re seeing me in a new light,” replied the image, “and that’s made all the difference.”

Yup, photographer/priest Fred Monk is at it again. The former pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Cochrane, retired now and living in Medicine Hat, has been making images of everyday household plastic stuff in polarized light, and has inspired me to see life and our relationships with one another in a whole new light, too.

Take this image, for instance. To our everyday eyes, it’s just a small sheet of crumpled-up clear plastic wrap, the kind so many of the products we buy at the store are wrapped in. But place it – or other clear plastic objects such as plastic drinking glasses or forks – in front of a polarized light source, such as a plain white screen on your computer, photograph it through a polarizing filter on your camera, and voila, a wondrous new world of magnificent colours greets our eyes!

This is an example of photoelasticity, Fred told me. Photoelasticity refers to changes in the optical properties of materials under stress, something beautifully made visible with polarization.

Seeing stuff under stress in a new light? Hmmmm, I thought to myself. Does this apply to how we see each other, as well? I asked the pastor for his thoughts. He responded:

“When I understand the ‘backstory’ – the history, background – of a piece of art, I gain a deeper understanding, and usually find myself more open to the work,” he replied. “The same, I believe, is true of how we relate to others. When we know their history – their ‘story’ – we usually have a much deeper appreciation for them; we begin to see them in a ‘different light.’

“Helen Keller is quoted as saying: ‘It is a great pity that in the world of light the gift of sight is used only as a mere convenience rather than as a means of adding fullness to life.’ She concludes: ‘If I were the president of a university I should establish a compulsory course in How to Use Your Eyes. The professor would try to show his pupils how they could add joy to their lives by really seeing what passes unnoticed before them.’

“Photoelasticity helps us to see what our eyes alone do not see. The coloured areas we see only with a polarizer indicate areas of stress which cause the light to refract so we see the object in a ‘new light’ – we now see where it has been stressed. I think the process is not unlike how we come to a deeper respect, understanding, and awareness of the beauty of others, once we understand the crosses they have carried. Like the crumpled plastic, we often meet people who have suffered greatly who are ‘filled with the Light’ and their lives shine brightly.”

Ah yes, seeing each other in a new light does, indeed, make all the difference. Thanks, Father Fred, for illuminating our path as we enter this sacred season of new life.

To view more polarized plastic images by Fred Monk, click here.

© 2019 Warren Harbeck

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