The Big Bubble Theory

A journey into the world of bubble photography

Pritha Mahanti

Don’t be misled by the title. This isn’t really a theoretical exposition. Having chanced upon bubble photography, I found it fascinating how much it could be opened up for exploration. Now if you are fond of physics, you might be aware of the Hubble-Einstein saga where the former’s proposition of an ever expanding universe posed a challenge to the latter’s theory of the cosmological constant. Well, I have never had any luck with physics, so I got what I could out of it—art. So, yes the title is a borrowed one. The Big Bubble Theory as presented here isn’t exactly about quantum foam, cosmic vacuum or space time continuum. It is about the idea of the bubble as the metaphor for life and its genesis in the macrocosm. And while the meditation on the self and the universe can be deeply poetic and prophetic, it also offers an interesting insight into the world of bubble photography.

Somewhere in Foams, the third volume of the Spheres trilogy, German philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk talks about how Copernicus had set the world free by declaring that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. We were no longer at the centre of things, held securely in a macrosphere. Copernicus had burst our bubble.

That we are not a unique, self-contained whole but one among many bubbles floating through space is also a scientific reality. The idea of an ever-expanding universe that is one among many galactic bubbles has now been a fairly established proposition in the quest to solve the ‘grand mystery’. Sloterdijk’s world reflected in a bubble, therefore, seems like a close approximation of our being. From the womb that holds the foetus within the amniotic sac to the galaxies moving in a vast bubble, we are constantly defined by spheres.

Sir Francis Bacon seems to agree when he tells us about The Life of Man:

The world’s a bubble; and the life of man less than a span.
In his conception wretched; from the womb so to the tomb:
Curst from the cradle, and brought up to years, with cares and fears.
Who then to frail mortality shall trust,
But limns the water, or but writes in dust.

To understand life and the universe in terms of a bubble is to also ponder on time. It is an element that photographers Fabian Oefner and Richard Heeks (slideshow above) love to play with. The photographers capture the bubbles as they go through several transitions during their brief lifespan. You get a sense of this while scrolling through Ben Harvey’s photographs (below) as he tries to capture the life cycle of a bubble. It all starts with the appearance of vibrant colours on the surface and then the formation of a black hole at the top as they start to fade.

This is not a quick project, you will find yourself staring at the bubbles for ages, and there are infinite variations in the colours and patterns—and you will think to yourself, I will photograph a couple more…then hours pass.


British photographer Kym Cox quite aptly defines the practice of bubble photography when she says that it is about gifting ‘time’. A moment when you can immerse yourself into something not meant to last. She adds that the fascination also has to do with the fact that a bubble is a spherical perfection continuously shuffling and shifting for equilibrium. Much like the civilizational need of the humans to continuously aspire for balance.

The constant act of balancing is again interspersed with moments of surrender. These lines from Virginia Woolf’s Waves illustrate these moments:

Yet there are moments when the walls of the mind grow thin; when nothing is unabsorbed, and I could fancy that we might blow so vast a bubble that the sun might set and rise in it and we might take the blue of midday and the black of midnight and be cast off and escape from here and now.

Rhoda, Waves

Life overwhelms, as does Jason Tozer’s photographs (below) of bubbles deceptively resembling celestial bodies. One is reminded of the pale blue dot, an image that fuses our aspirations, excesses and failures into a point of absolute surrender.

If you were to then look for a meaning behind it all, you could just focus on the details captured by photographer Karl E. Deckart (images above). Shape-shifting textures, perpetually colliding colours and swiftly changing tones give you a glimpse of a civilizational conundrum contained in a bubble.

Finally, to think of life and the universe as a bubble is to remind ourselves that we are not perfectly separate singular entities. Close your eyes for a moment and go back to that memory when you were running around blowing soap bubbles through a ring. Recall how they floated around, some lasting longer than others, some floating higher and farther. That is what our lives in the universe might look like under the lens.

As photographer Angela Kelly captures the frozen bubbles in her backyard, I am tempted to end with another quote from Waves.

The crystal, the globe of life as one calls it, far from being hard and cold to the touch, has walls of thinnest air. If I press them all will burst. Whatever sentence I extract whole and entire from this cauldron is only a string of six little fish that let themselves be caught while a million others leap and sizzle, making the cauldron bubble like boiling silver, and slip through my fingers. Faces recur, faces and faces – they press their beauty to the walls of my bubble – Neville, Susan, Louis, Jinny, Rhoda and a thousand others. How impossible to order them rightly; to detach one separately, or to give the effect of the whole- again like music.

© Angela Kelly via My Modern Met

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