Pushing The Decisive MomentTuesday, January 01, 2013
|Salem at the Marble Arch|
One of the pleasures of reading a daily delivered NY Times is reading the Sunday edition, in bed on the Saturday night that precedes Sunday. That’s when my paper is delivered. Rosemary and I wait for that crash at the door, sometime around 8 pm. The first section of the paper I read is the Sunday Review. It is full of opinion columns by the likes of Maureen Dowd and Frank Bruni. Bruni, used to be a food columnist but he now writes about serious matters with enough humor that makes me recall that fantastic former columnist Frank Rich who I enjoy as a guest in the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC.
The Sunday December 30, 2012 Sunday Review was a disappointment. There was one column by Nicholas D. Kristoff and another by the mildly entertaining conservative Ross Douthat (who in the secret confines of his inner being must be a liberal wanting to be outed). There was a beautiful ode to sound in comparison to the ubiquitous nature of snapshot photographs by Verlyn Klinkenborg but the rest of the Review consisted of pages and pages of the best news photographs of the year.
These pictures were all very good but I know that if I were in a lecture where these and one hundred more were to be projected I would have nodded off as quickly as if the pictures were close-up shots of roses.
The NY Times’s Sunday Review always gives me food for thought. This one, so sparse in column inches of opinion, made me think, too.
Go back in time to Paris in the late 40s and picture Henri Cartier-Bresson sitting at a table of a Paris café. Under the table he may have been holding his Leica which some say had black tape to make the camera less obvious. Cartier-Bresson would be waiting for the couple across to finally kiss. When they did he would snap his Leica and capture the decisive moment. For many Cartier-Bresson is considered the father of photojournalism.
In today’s 2013 if Cartier-Bresson could transport himself via a time machine to a Starbucks on Robson and Thurlow and if he were to take pictures, those pictures would be no different from the millions taken by photographers with their digital cameras and phones. In fact Cartier-Bresson’s might not be sharp enough or use film sensitive enough to capture the low light of a Starbucks in a 2013 Vancouver gloom.
My guess is that Cartier-Bresson would have to find another area of occupation. He would not shine in our city.
Every one of those Sunday Review pictures was perfect in exposure, sharpness and all were ultimate capture of decisive moments. The bulk of the photographs were taken by qualified, certified and accredited photojournalists representing prominent newspapers, magazines and other news services. All the photographs were accurately and intelligently cropped (probably at the moment of their taking) for maximum impact.
Without any attempt to deprecate the talent of the photographers chosen for the NY Times Sunday Review I can assert that all the pictures were taken by photographers waiting for decisive moments who ultimately chose to take their picture when their past experience told them that the moment had arrived.
In February 1865 Scottish-born photographer Alexander Gardner snapped portraits of Abraham Lincoln. Gardner chose a location, a camera, a pose, and probably instructed Lincoln on how to stand or sit. Unlike the photographs of the Sunday Review where the photographers were faced with a situation in which they were looking for a photograph, Gardner had created the situation. But we cannot dismiss here the idea of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment at Gardner had to choose his decisive moment, the moment when he thought Lincoln was projecting the very image that Gardner wanted to take with his large camera.
Ever since I started taking pictures I soon suspected and came to know that photographs can be divided into the grab shots of being at a place at the right time with a responsive camera in hand, and those taken by a photographer with a pre-planned purpose in mind. I call this pre-planned purpose that of creating or pushing the decisive moment to happen.
As a retired (via obsolescence) photographer in 2013 I can no more retire than a painter can stop painting. A lawyer might stop lawyering and a teacher, teaching. A stock broker might stop stock brokering, but some of us, photographers I would think, cannot retire. We cannot suddenly stop snapping. Perhaps we continue with less frequency from those times of assignment and commission. But we continue.
As I ponder on the possible purchase of a digital camera (the only one I would consider would be the Fuji X-E1) I weigh in my mind if the camera would modify my method. Tools, powerful tools, can suggest a method. A hammer in hand will push you to hammer a nail, a screwdriver to screw and tighten or to take apart. Would a Fuji X-E1 make me walk the streets in pursuit of decisive moments about to happen? Would the ease of use, even in extreme low light situations, make me snap with less thought? I could take pictures in RAW and then opt for turning them into black and white, or into punch colour, or I could solarize them and modify them to my heart’s content.
My film cameras give me fewer choices. To shoot in colour and in b+w it is best I use two cameras, one with b+w and the other in colour. I can always scan a colour transparency or negative as black and white. I sometimes do this. But I prefer the purpose driven single camera in hand with one type of film. Is it comfortable habit or is it my method?
Of late I have been approaching some of my subjects (persons) with multiple cameras. In one case I used five cameras. The pictures are similar but all subtly different. I like that. Are they a multiplicity of decisive moments? Are they a multiplicity of steered decisive moments?
The pictures here I took about 15 years ago. I photographed many women in a room of the Marble Arch Hotel. I would place a scantily clad or nude woman on a bed and then suggest scenarios. The results are files and files of photographs, most which I cannot show here without offending somebody.
These should not offend. To me they seem extemporaneous, candid. They seem natural. Perhaps it is so because of strong rapport. Or perhaps, because my cameras, familiar cameras to my hands, were and are tools that I am not beholden to. They react without protest within the limits of what they are able to do.
I like these results and I see many more like these in my near future.