Only One Blink
Teton National Park
May 16, 2016
We know that photographs only capture an instant in time. With now billions of digital images being snapped, they end up documenting only a moment as we travel through life. In frame after frame – only one blink unique to our experience - of time and place. The world around us is in motion - physically and horologically.
Try imagining a ball bouncing from one side of the room to the other, never there in the same space, except as snapped by the camera. Even when nothing appears to be moving, the dimension of time keeps thing moving. Click the shutter - and you get - only one blink.
In 2013 I visited a show of Oscar Muñoz's (née 1951) work. He works with a concept called “Protographs” (a term coined to evoke the instant just before or just after that split-second when the photographic image is captured and frozen for ever (1). Part video, sometimes an overlapping of different images, it provides a unique insight of the world of photography that I think about often.
As a landscape photographer I strive to allow the viewer to experience a sense of being there. The challenge is, in one photograph, to capture more than an instant, but to give the viewer a sense over time. To view the picture, immerse in the details, pan across the image. To turn an instant into a moment. For them to invest time in observing. To relish the finer details. To hold them there.
We know painters would visit the same spot and paint over and over the same scene, always with subtle differences. Sometimes light or shadows change. Or seasons affect the color. Different objects may appear or be emphasized. Observe photographs of any well-known place we are familiar with, and you can see how time changes what we see. So in effect the photographer is unknowingly creating a series of time lapse images.
But there is a difference between a painter and a photographer. It has been said that a painter takes a blank canvas and provides an interpretation of the image. A photographer must take an image and capture an interpretation.
Our ability to see and recognize a landmark is simple recognition of elements of familiar constructs in an image connected to a memory. I constantly look at photographs (and we can restrict this to landscapes, but I believe this transcends a variety of genres), and often recognize the place and the view. The trigger of memory. An appreciation of the color (raw and natural not saturated in the post process), an angle, the way it holds together, selection of composition. Often it is a technical appreciation. But can it bring back more than recognition? Does it provide more than appreciation of the artist as a “good” photographer and a moment of “oh I know what that is”. Is there an emotional response? A connection? A sense of feeling?
In this lies the challenge I have struggled with. Photography is considered a visual art. Constrained by the camera, the lens, the operator, the presentation.
Think about this. Clear your mind, take away the words you use to think with. Take away the sounds that are transmitted through your ears. The smells. The wind blowing, the temperature of the air. Sight is all you have. And that sight is placed on a flat screen. Now you have, only one blink to capture it.
And then reverse the process. Take that blink and share it with someone. Can you reconstruct what you saw, felt, and heard? Does it convey the time you spent and now hold in your camera?
I don’t know if I will ever manage to succeed. But I will try. I want my photographs to make people share some of the same experience I have. I want to do more than just frame a picture, or make a pleasing shot, but to see if I can capture for others other elements. If it makes you feel the cold, then yes. If you can feel the breeze, then yes. If you can stop and enjoy the detail, the crystals in the rock, look beneath the water, find the bird hidden in the bush which I did not see until afterwards, hear the water or wind, make you think about the season, then yes! To transcend so you can enjoy the sunshine, the energy of the waves, or even the silence.
But I only get one blink.
N.B. This is a piece about the "philosophy of photography" - really not much help unless we have a discussion on the how. Much has been written on how to compose or take a good photograph - so you can certainly refer to sources on those. But the real question becomes, are there techniques that can be used to help achieve a sense of place. I believe there are. I will express my thoughts on this as I write more - but the thought for today is borrowed from the film "The Secret life of Walter Mitty". The main character (Walter played by Ben Stiller) has to find Sean O'Connell (played by Sean Penn). When he does find him, they are on an outcrop in the Himalayas as Sean is trying to photograph the elusive snow leopard. Hours, perhaps days are spent waiting. When the Snow Leopard appears, what does Sean do? (Spoiler alert). Nothing. No picture. Why? Because the essence would never be captured. When you go to snap a picture - think about the viewer. What will they see after this is compressed onto a chip, post processed and then published? Will they sense the magnificence of the surrounding mountains. Can you capture the environment? Or will you just have another picture of a creature. Is the shot even in the wild or could it be at the zoo? After all - you may be totally caught up with the shot. But will the viewer get it? I often think about this and have been known to walk away.
1 - "Exhibition: 'Oscar Muñoz: Protographies' at Jeu De Paume, Paris." Art Blart. Art Blart, 13 Sept. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.