THE TOPOGRAPHY OF TEARS
The Topography of Tears is a visual investigation of tears that I photographed through an optical standard light microscope - a vintage Zeiss from the late 1970's, mounted with a digital microscopy camera.
I started this project in 2008 during a period marked by grief. In my abundant supply of tears, I became curious about the very nature of tears. What do tears really look? Would joy look the same as sorrow? I set out to see what I would find by looking at my tears through my microscope. The microscope provided the means to examine my tears and beyond that, to visually evoke the unseen realm of my emotions.
I photographed a range of emotional tears, mainly my own whenever I cried, along with tears from others young and old. I saved my tears onto glass slides, either allowing them to evaporate, or be compressed between glass slide and a thinner glass slip cover. The results of each approach were equally interesting to me. The air-dried tears revealed their organic structure, so similar to natural structures at every scale in nature.
The images produced by compressed tears often evoked a sense of place, like aerial views of emotional terrain.
As a counterpoint to emotional tears I also saved the tears when my eyes watered, as well as those produced by chopping onions- later learning that onion and other irritant, or reflex tears have less proteins than emotional tears.
Every tear that I looked at under the microscope had its own qualities, its own sort of “signature” whether it was from the same emotion or different emotions. Tears of grief and tears of joy could not be categorized. For example, tears of grief could look different from each other, even when they were shed in the same moment. It was also the case that similar patterns might appear within the structures of different emotions.
Although the empirical nature of tears is a composition of water, proteins, minerals, hormones, antibodies and enzymes, the topography of tears revealed to me a momentary landscape, transient as the fingerprint of someone in a dream. This series is like an ephemeral atlas.
Many variables influence the visual diversity among these images: whether the tear was air-dried or compressed, the volume of tear fluid, chemical/biological variations, microscope and camera settings, and how I process and print the photograph. Many other variables are yet to be understood.
There were no conclusions for me to make; a scientific study was never the point of my exploration, nor my field of endeavor. To the contrary, my original question set me on a quest, and led me to consider tears at an intangible level, to reflect on the poetry of life, and the unexpected ways we gain deeper knowing. And what tears mean to our evolving awareness about being human, cultivating empathy, compassion. While my project began at the most personal level, The Topography of Tears ultimately became a contemplation on what connects us all in a most essential way.
Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger, and as complex as a rite of passage. They are the evidence of our inner life overflowing its boundaries, spilling over into consciousness. Wordless and spontaneous, they release us to the possibility of realignment, reunion, catharsis, intractable resistance short-circuited. Shedding tears, shedding old skin. It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.
© Rose-Lynn Fisher 2022
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