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Photography is undoubtedly one of the great art forms of the modern world. Ever since American inventor Robert Cornelius took the first photographic portrait of himself in an 1839 daguerreotype, photography as an artistic medium has continued to delight and fascinate.

The photograph’s defining characteristic is, of course, its ability to represent reality with almost complete precision. But what distinguishes a regular photograph from a photograph with artistic merit? The question is subjective, to some degree, but we can nevertheless recognize a degree of artistic skill in the works of certain photographers. Ansel Adams’ majestic photographs of California’s Yosemite National Park possess a quality beyond mere replication of detail - after all, any iPhone or cheap digital camera is capable of reproducing detail! The artistry of good photography is found rather in the photo’s ability to convey something above or beyond mere replication of detail.

A skilled photographer knows how to capture everyday objects in a way that reveals the striking beauty of the ordinary. Common objects like a streetlight or a flower growing by the roadside become thought-provoking pieces of artistry in the lens of the right photographer. Photography thus helps us rediscover the sense of wonder that should permeate our experience of the world. Things may look ordinary, but everything in the world is actually marvelous, when viewed in the right perspective. Photography is able to draw out these marvels, making manifest the beauty that is hidden within the every day.

Modern man - influenced no doubt by a reductive, materialistic view of the world - tends to see reality almost exclusively in quantitative terms: to know what a flower is means understanding its component parts and how they work together. But photography shows us another view of reality, one in which things are greater than the sum of their parts. In the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor approaches reality in a similar way as the photographer. Penetrating beyond the mere fact of existence, St. Thomas shows us the inner act of existence within beings themselves. For St. Thomas, everything that exists does so by virtue an inner act of existence, which Thomas calls the esse, or “to-be” of a thing. St. Thomas does not see a rock or a flower as a static thing; that rock or flower is participating in a dynamic act of being; being is a verb, denoting a vibrant well-spring of existence bursting forth in the innermost depths of a thing.

What causes this act of being? Aquinas explains that a thing’s esse is a nothing other than its participation in the existence of God, who is existence itself. Only God possesses existence as a fundamental attribute; everything else that exists does so through participation:

The act of existing belongs to the First Agent, God, through His own nature; for God’s act of existing is His substance... But that which belongs to something according to its own nature pertains to other things only by participation. Thus the act of existing is possessed by other things from the First Agent through a certain participation. (Summa contra gentiles II, 42.)

This passage helps us understand God how God can be present to all things without being in all things in a pantheist sense: God is present to all things in the sense that He continually holds all things in existence through their participation in His being. Everything from the smallest pebble to the most immense star is being held in existence by an act of God. It is this act of God alone which holds them in being and prevents them from falling back into the nothingness from which all matter first emerged. “If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust” (Job 34:14-15).

This means that God is present to all things in the most intimate way, at the level of their innermost being, holding them in existence. Aquinas sums up his thoughts on God’s presence to all things with this beautiful reflection:

Being is innermost in each thing and most fundamentally inherent in all things since it is formal in respect of everything found in a thing, as was shown above. Hence it must be that God is in all things, and innermostly. (Summa theologiae, I, q. 8, Art. 1)

If this does not inspire us with wonder, then we need to pause and consider the import of these words. The innermost being of everything we encounter in this world is the locus of a direct act of God—the act by which He causes the thing to exist. Walk outside and look around you; that tree, this stone, those bushes, the moss on the bricks—at the heart of each is a divine act of esse, existence itself bubbling up as an effect of God’s own uncreated being. Everything from the grandest mountain to the most minute flower is the object of a divine action that makes God present to it and all things.

Understood this way, even the most ordinary things are items of wonder. Far from being taken for granted, their very existence is an opportunity for encountering the mystery of God’s own existence, which all things participate in.

Is this not a similar reflection to what we said above regarding the wonder elicited by an artistic photograph? St. Thomas’s doctrine of esse posits that everything we see actually contains a hidden reality. The very best photography captures this aspect reality, the conviction that there is “something more” behind the things we see. Of course, a camera cannot isolate and capture an object’s act of esse; but a good picture should certainly elevate our mind to contemplate it by highlighting the uniqueness hidden in the everyday.

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