15 June 2009

The Decisive Moments

We work in union with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize on upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it...

Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move...[T]he only pair of compasses at the photographer's disposal is his own pair of eyes.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (1952)

I have terrible eyesight, but I've always loved photography.

It's made focus and lighting more challenging, certainly, but that has just fostered a more dedicated work ethic (which is in dangerously short supply for every other area of my life). A recent conversation inspired me to pull out some of my old photography textbooks and hundreds of black-and-white prints from school, and in going through them, a motif reappeared that struck me as pertinent to the art of making images as that of making tea.

Much like Kodak's point-and-shoot cameras- from the Brownie of 1900 through the Instamatic of the 1960s- digital cameras have transformed the art of photography; or cheapened it, as purists have argued for over a century. Cameras that require minimal training or technical knowledge to operate have long wrested picture-making from the elite, which is both a great thing (liberating art enables more to partake) and a dangerous one (in the proliferation of mediocrity).

In traditional processing, which I first learned 15 years ago, you must spend hours and hours in the darkroom, in that soft, dark, unearthly red light. It's been awhile since I've developed photos, but I can instantly summon the feeling that would wash over as I rocked the blank paper in the tray of developer and after that endless minute and a half, watched the image regenerate, myriad shades of gray filling in as if by an unseen brush, some remaining faint, others deepening into inky black.

The decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson described above, is fractions of a second before the snap of the shutter, but for me it was also right before that photograph was developed to the edge of where I wanted it, just before I would place into the stop bath so as to fix it indelibly. It was before the photo was finished processing, before the chemicals were washed off, before the paper was hung to dry; but just at that moment, suspended in that shallow tray of water, the blacks and grays saturated and gleaming, that I would never see such beauty.

Outside the darkroom, the same process happens with the cup of sencha I prepare each morning: It takes about as long as developing a photograph, and the sense of that moment, just as the leaves have been caressed by the steaming water for the right amount of time and the color has intensified to a bright emerald green, is as arresting.

The equipment itself is insignificant when you look at it this way. Cartier-Bresson, one of modern photography's most seminal influences, used a 50-mm Leica. Emotionally, I'll always be more attached to an old-fashioned print than the images from my cheap little digital camera, but as long as I can still harness that moment of beauty, it's done its job. And whether your morning cup is antique porcelain and prepared by a Japanese tea master or disposal paper from the water cooler in a florescent-lit office, if you've grasped that ideal, nuanced balance in the brew, each sip will be a work of art.

It's the process, and attention you devote to it, that matters.


Anonymous said...

T-nomenal shot

avra romanowitz said...

this dually inspiring and forgiving essay started my mid-morning off right.

(and admittedly made me feel less ashamed of thoroughly enjoying my bagged earl grey sweetened with vanilla almond milk.)

anna said...

What a gorgeous metaphor! As someone who has only learned to take half-decent pictures for the sake of my blog, I love having the insight from someone who actually enjoys photography. Admittedly I only use a digital camera so it's a bit hard to actually experience both sides of the metaphor, but I more than get the tea part.

Anonymous said...

Well said. Your images, by the way, are always beautiful.

Teep said...

uh uh!

Steph said...

I know this might be weird, but where did you get that coaster? My sister did a series of paintings a few years ago that look exactly like the coaster and I'd love to give it to her!