Picture of Light

In the ether one swims and meets complements. I met a man at a dinner who loves to watch the sky. He’d spent as much time watching the sky as I had trying to point cameras and microphones out into the world. It seemed that both of us were trying to find an answer to a question we didn’t yet know. As the night closed we agreed to share a path we had in common—the pursuit of wonder.

We needed to go far. 3000 miles on a single track north to the Arctic Circle—a place dark enough that the moon would seem blinding. We were escaping the electrical world with 50 pounds of batteries in our bags.

Practitioners of magic do not like electricity. It confuses magic just as it confuses people. I once took a bus tour where the guide said certain things twice, for emphasis, for rhythm, to fill the quiet space.

Practitioners of magic do not like electricity. It confuses magic just as it confuses people, he would say twice. I’d seen the lights before a few times in my life, and I remember mostly how they move, like thoughts.
The scientists say the Earth is like a giant magnet with a north and south polarity—the earth across which we now travel, on a train that stops to pick up hitchhikers.

Film. Media. With its potential to commodify, turn into commodity anything that is meaningful to us—business and numbers out of life force and wonder. Maybe this wacky process of harnessing money and technology is just an extension of thinking, of trying to understand. These images and sounds are articulations of experience. We look at them and try to decipher the reality that gave birth to them.

It may well be that the Northern Lights cannot be filmed. That nature cannot be filmed. That film or media is in conflict with nature. Is it just a surrogate for the real thing? Is film a surrogate for real experience?


The extra-terrestrial expert tells us that UFOs use the magnetic field lines of the Earth to travel into our atmosphere, in an instant. Not unlike the particle beam tests being sent down from the space shuttle, which is not unlike the aurora.

The entrepreneur says if we can find a way to harness all that energy, we’d be millionaires.

Because the earth is a giant magnet, somebody watching the lights in the southern hemisphere, at this moment, will see the exact mirror image of what we see here now.

The Inuit say that the lights are the deceased coming out to greet the living.

The military proclaim that aurora, and newly developed artificial aurora, can obscure radar detection. And that a particularly strong aurora can wipe out the electrical power of an entire city, like Montreal in 1989.

Ed says you can hear them. But Bill says all you can theoretically hear is static discharge. As though your head, being the highest point around this flat terrain, acted like some kind of conductor to the currents of the night sky. Or maybe it’s our breath, freezing into tiny ice crystals, and falling upon our nylon parkas.

And we tell ourselves that seeing it on TV just isn’t the same as being there.

The old Inuit said that, most of all, he liked to hunt. Perhaps we are modern day hunters. Having no need to capture our nourishment, we seek out other things.

Once again, I struggle with the impulse to get my camera… but to simply watch instead.

Soon we’ll be able to stand in a virtual world. One that we have created with wires and pulses. It’ll entertain us. It’ll keep us busy.

We’ve come to the Arctic to capture a picture of light, lured by the miracle of nature. Living in a time where things do not seem to exist if they are not captured as an image. But if you close your eyes, you may see the lights of your own retina. Not unlike the Northern Lights. Not unlike the movements of thought. Like a shapeless accumulation of everything we will ever see.

Peter Mettler

Picture of Light (1994)