March 29th, 2008

Lives of Photographs, 37

my god, it's full of stars

Last weekend someone (WINOLJ but who checks out my Flickr photostream) asked me how this photo and tribute came about.

I was in Hong Kong getting some free wi-fi at a café in an empty plaza on Lantau Island, when I was disturbed to see my e-mail client downloading mail with the simple headings 'Ray Bradbury' and 'Arthur C. Clarke'. The Ray Bradbury who had died was not (fortunately) the author, but (unfortunately) the magician who was a long-time regular at Novacon, a guy I didn't know well but with whom I'd had a couple of drinks over the years. But yes, it was that Arthur C. Clarke.

It left me empty, I really felt this loss. After about two hours of moping around while thinking how I've enjoyed so many of his books and how much we all owe this guy, I began fiddling with my camera. Feeling rather detached, from where sat I started taking shots of the surroundings – everyone with a camera does that, the kind of photos of distant people that only mean anything at all to the person who takes them. What I wanted was to show how my empty surroundings reflected how I felt; also to show people walking around using their mobile phones, oblivious to how they are using the communications satellites we now take for granted but that Clarke himself imagined long before Sputnik. *

But unless it's particularly well composed or titled, a photo like that doesn't really work on any level other than the superficial. Then after making a call, I saw how my own mobile could actually resemble the obelisk from 2001. Then I noticed that the table at which I sat had white flecks in the laminate, like stars. With this combination of elements I could show how imaginative real-world science sits alongside science fiction, memorably under the name of Arthur C. Clarke.

* He proposed them in a 1945 article for Wireless World, and later wrote about it in a piece titled “A Short Pre-History of Comsats, Or: How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time”.