During one period of my photographic career, I found myself photographing cracks in things. . . sidewalks, drift logs, rocks, walls. Once you start looking for them, of course, you see cracks everywhere. We take them for granted to the point we hardly pay attention, unless they're cracks of some obvious significance, like noticing that one has suddenly appeared in the ceiling or wall of our home.
After photographing cracks for a spell, I began to contemplate the interesting significance of these forms.
Cracks, or fractures, occur when stress on an object reaches a point where forces holding it together are less than the forces pulling it apart. They follow lines of maximum stress, and/or areas of minimum strength in the material being stressed. That being the case, the shape of a fracture can tell you both something about the material and something about the way it was stressed. Certain materials, for example the glass in your automobile windshield, are designed with internal stresses or weaknesses that will cause them to fracture in a particular way. Typically an automobile windshield will practically explode into tiny fragments when struck. It's designed not to break into large shards that might cause serious injury to someone riding in a car when a collision occurs.
Some materials can actually be identified by noting how they fracture. For example, the volcanic glass called obsidian exhibits conchoidal fracture, which is smoothly cupped, like the inside surface of a cockle shell. Some forms of quartz fracture this way also, and can be chipped (selectively stressed) into arrowheads, and more recently, extremely sharp surgical tools.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the phenomenon of cracking or fracture is that it's not a phenomenon restricted only to solid physical materials. Fracture can occur in the atmosphere, in the form of lightning. This is an instance when electrical stresses build to a point where the atoms in the air are torn apart into free protons and free electrons, a physical state known as plasma. Once this fracture has occurred, it becomes electrically conductive, allowing the passage of a flood of charge which we see as an instantly brilliant channel of light, and hope we're not too close. A crack of thunder occurs due to the sudden expansion accompanying the heat of the stroke. It's a literal explosion.
Perhaps I was drawn to cracking in physical media, most significantly, because of its metaphorical relationship to cracking in humans and society. We speak of people cracking, or being cracked. This is simply a state when an individual becomes stressed to the degree that something in the psyche gives way so that normal social function is no longer possible. The very same thing occurs when a whole society is placed under stress. At some point the stress creates a fracture that manifests in the form of demonstrations, riots, outright mayhem, or destructive wars.
Comparing societal fracture to physical fracture can present clues as to the origin of the former. If fractures are a manifestation of stresses acting on a material, and weaknesses within, it's obvious to ask, what are the stresses on society or an individual, and what are the weaknesses within, leading to crackups of various sorts, or even large scale war.
We're living in a period of history when these are important questions to ask. Cracks are starting to appear in the social fabric and we should be asking how they might be leading to large-scale fractures. . . that can't be glued back together like broken pottery. It's easy to remain unconscious of stresses and small crackups until it's too late to do something about them. Such manifestations of social stress as mass murder in a school or movie theater are frequently written off as “random,” events, when, in actuality they are symptoms of social stresses getting out of hand and weaknesses being ignored. The solution is to address those and not to focus on simplistic fixes such as more guns OR gun control, or ineffective security measures in schools, theaters. . . and airports. (I DO advocate prudent gun control measures, but do not believe they are the ultimate solution to violence stemming from societal stresses to which we currently seem oblivious.) All too often these sorts of "solutions" end up exacerbating the stresses that lead to a “crackup” in the first place. They serve mainly as a means of distracting us from the real work of initiating social changes that could alleviate the stress associated with poverty, abuse, and other social ills. You might say they are equivalent to smearing plaster over a crack in the wall, when the source of stress is a decaying foundation beneath the house.