I read this article by Tim Wu on Slate.com – The Slow Photograph Movement – recently and it got me thinking about my own photographic journey. Wu writes:
“For most people, including me, photography is most often about documentation or record-keeping. It is about taking a photograph as an effort to grab a moment as it rushes by, to stage a tiny revolt against the tyranny of time. That’s why traditionally we photograph at moments you might think of as scarce. Few people photograph their daily commute, but most of us only go to high-school prom once—or maybe twice. A baby soon becomes a child, but humans look vaguely middle-aged for decades.”
I can relate to this statement quite a bit because, several years ago in one of my first photography classes, the instructor pointed out that most photography is documentary and not really art per say. Sometimes one hits it just right while documenting and captures an image that is consider to be art but it typical isn’t planned or perceived with some vision. There is a concept called pre-visualization in photography (and other art no doubt) where the artist visualizes the image in their mind then goes and creates the image, or in this case, takes the picture which by then becomes more a mechanical step. As I’ve grown as a photographer, I’m finding that I do this more and more – when I actively think about it, mind you! So, in reading this article, I was struck by the fact that the issues and suggestions in it are where I’ve been headed. Wu describes the process this way:
“Step 1 in slow photography is spending a long time studying the subject. As one guide enjoins, ‘pay more attention to your subject than to your camera.’ That’s an order to actually use your eyes. It calls for consideration not just of what you think you see (a tree or a dog) but of the colors and shapes that present themselves. Thinking dog or tree can blind you to what you are really seeing—which is, in the end, a series of photons arranged in a way that for convenience you call dog…”
“Step 2 is the exercise of creative choices—the greatest pleasure that our automatic cameras rob us of. What should be in the frame and what should be excluded is the most obvious decision, but there’s also exposure, depth of field, and more technical choices beyond that.”
“After taking these two steps, taking the photo becomes irrelevant. You’ve already had the experience. At this stage, you could shoot with a filmless camera, and the process could retain its power. In the logic of slow photography, the only reason to take photos is to gain access to the third stage, playing around in post-production, whether in a darkroom or using photo-editing tools, an addictive pleasure.”
What hit me is that I am studying my subjects more (and could do even more), and taking more images of it (this process was called by another instructor – ‘working the subject’) from different angles and points of view. While I love the ease that digital photography gives in terms of instant results and no (apparent) cost to take dozens of images in a technique sometimes called ‘spray and pray’ that one image will be a good one, I now try to deliberately take a shot. This is also one of the reasons I’ve gone back to shooting film. It’s slower, requires more thinking about subject/exposure, and has the mysterious something you get when your negatives images are first revealed not instantly on a screen but right out of the development tank or back from the lab. Did I get it right, what’s good, what’s bad, was my concept right, or not is there a ‘money shot’ in there? It can be really rewarding or very frustrating like: the film never advanced…blank roll…grrr, etc. So guess, I’ve been headed towards embracing this Slow Photograph Movement with out even realizing it over the past few years.
So…what’s the takeaway message here you may ask. Does this mean that we should all go back to shooting film, or that most photography is crap? No, not to me. I think it’s really about realizing what you are doing. If you are ok with realizing that your photography is mostly just documenting, fine but if you want to take an image and then create a photograph which might just become art, slow down and give your image some thought.
Here are a few other articles on this subject.