My name is Jonathan Adam and I photograph the world as an expression of scientific spiritualism and conservationist ideology. I grew up in a small town on a cul de sac that backed up to a creek and some fields. I used run through the fields with my dogs, hunt for crayfish in the creek, and let my imagination get the better of me. That’s really what I’m doing with my photography. I’m playing in a cosmic creek. Not everybody had a patch of woods in their backyard when they were kids, so they never learned how to let their imagination run wild while their body runs wild through nature. I’d like to give them that experience. My hope is that when a viewer looks at one of my images, for a moment, they allow themselves to feel optimistic and that they experience an irresistible wave of curiosity.
Geologic epochs allow us to divide the history of our planet into chunks of time with unique characteristics. The boundaries of these epochs are revealed in layers of sediment, which can be analyzed for their chemical properties. The anthropocene is the geological epoch defined by humanity's impact on the geologic record. If humans disappeared tomorrow, it’s the name for the layer of sediment future alien visitors would excavate containing all of human history and our effects on the Earth. Popularized by Elizabeth Kolbert in her incredible book The Sixth Extinction, the anthropocene is just the latest geologic epoch in a history dating back some 4 billion years. By keeping these geologic epochs in mind, one finds they are better able to appreciate every part of modern life.
Our species has only existed for an instant from a deep time perspective. The best method we have to form an agreed upon mental model of the world has only existed for 400 years. We've only known about the double helix of DNA for 70 years. The first planets outside of our solar system were only discovered in 1992. And yet, we live in a time when science is politicized, education is unequally available and culturally unpopular, art is being replaced by monoculture and the brightest minds are bribed into automating culture and economy. The simple question of "what makes it go?" has sparked a culture war which is split along the lines of a new kind of haves and have-nots. The new haves are not necessarily those with more money or economic resources, though that can be the case. But more importantly, they are adept at the ways the world is changing, and even potentially excited for it. They are not threatened by new kinds of jobs, learning new tools or the importance of unlearning. The have-nots on the other hand, they are in a state of what Alvin Toffler described as Futureshock. Both sides hold the other in contempt. That's why I believe that curiosity is a moral imperative. Curiosity will balance the monoculture of the haves and encourage bravery to work on new kinds of problems. Curiosity leads to personal definitions of success and intrinsic motivation. It leads one to question the status quo. For the have-nots, curiosity will ease Futureshock. It will provide means to grow and open new opportunities.
I believe that one of two mutually exclusive ideas is a fact: humans are either the only intelligent life in the universe or we are not.
If we are the only life in the universe, then we have to think about our role in a universe that’s so incredibly hostile to life. To say life is rare in this case does not begin to capture the mathematical scale of our isolation. Every organism becomes sacred, every individual bird or microbe a universal peculiarity, every plant and animal a space alien. Religious expressions, cultural icons and works of art, defy the odds. What role do they play in a universe where we are the only life or intelligent life? How do we best document extinct or marginalized societies to preserve their records for future generations? How can such diversity exist in a universe so hostile to life? What are our moral imperatives if life began on Earth and only ever on Earth? What does the future look like, not just for our species but for all?
If we are not the only life in the universe than we can be comforted in our knowledge that we exist along with other life in a universe seemingly tailor made to give birth to living things in limitless configurations. But why should life exist at all? This is known as the anthropic bias. This does not need to undermine the importance of conservation. In fact we may celebrate the sheer diversity not just of our own planet but of others. In this case the important questions become where did life begin? Does all life share a common ancestor or does life spontaneously arise in different configurations? What are the important moral questions as we consider sending probes, humans, microbes and plants to other worlds?
In either case, we can start to build deeply personal relationships with nature and science. We can meditate upon the hydrogen atom and Gravitational Constant, not because they have any anthropomorphic properties but simply because they exist and we can begin to understand them and their role in the big system. We can take lessons from Australopithecus and Homo Habilis as we learn about their territorial expansion. We can pick and chose symbolism and stories from the 7 thousand year history of human religious practices. Simply put, we can choose what kind of a future we want to build.
These questions are perhaps dwarfed by a more fundamental question. Are we conscious at the base layer of reality, or are we a simulation created by a more advanced civilization, which would have itself undergone some kind of Darwinian evolution. This question is very related to the question of the ubiquity of intelligent life, because the probability that we are a simulation increases proportionally to, and the probability that we destroy ourselves increases inversely to, the number of intelligent civilizations.
At first glance these ideas may seem very close to faith based spirituality or religion but ultimately they are grounded in observation, mathematics and peer review and are either testable today or hopefully testable in the future.
My aim is to use photographs of common subjects to inspire my viewers to draw connections between some of these big ideas. My work is optimistic, forward looking and enthusiastic. I try to take big ideas and convey them to my audience in an approachable way without oversimplification. I also try to provide the resources that inspire me so that viewers can learn more and dive deep. It’s my sincere hope that my photography and writing can introduce you to some interesting ideas and help you appreciate that, through high and low, life and the entire, complex unfathomable system of which you are just one tiny but consequential piece, is precious. I am grateful for your visit and look forward to hearing from you.