The slow-photography movement asks what is the point of taking pictures?

Passions and the people who pursue them.
Jan. 18 2011 10:25 AM

The Slow-Photography Movement

What is the point of taking pictures?

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On a recent trip to Israel, I spent some time in the old city of Jerusalem, watching people take photos. It was, on the whole, a fascinating spectacle, one that reminded me of dogs marking their territory. Men and women would approach, say, Jesus' tomb, quickly turn their gaze to the back of their cameras, take a few flash photos, and move on. What struck me was just how like a reflex the whole process was; the act of photography had become almost entirely unconscious.

I don't begrudge the natural desire to take holiday or party pictures. But I'm interested in how much our relationship with photography has become like our attitude to food and so much else: Speed has gained ascendance over everything. Today's cameras are remarkable devices. It is easy to take hundreds or even a thousand photos in a single day. I don't know how you'd count, but I suspect that as many photos have been taken over the last decade as in all of human history preceding.

But while taking photos has become a way to mark almost any moment, there is often an unnoticed tradeoff. Photography is so easy that the camera threatens to replace the eyeball. Our cameras are so advanced that looking at what you are photographing has become strictly optional. To my surprise, no monument I saw in Israel could compete with the back of the camera. What gets lost is the idea that photography might force you to spend time looking at what is in front of you, noticing what you might otherwise ignore.

All this has spawned a rebellion that I consider myself part of: Call it the slow-photography movement.

* * *

I am not a professional photographer, nor even a particularly talented amateur. It's a waste of time trying to lecture anyone on why they should take "better" photographs. Nonetheless, it is worth asking: What is the point of taking pictures? And what, if anything, is being lost in the culture of fast photography?

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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.

But if photography was once for special occasions, today we have an astonishing ability to document every passing moment. That can, of course, be a lot of fun. If nothing else, the whole world now knows that you really do look different after a few drinks. But the ease of photography has also spawned an ambition to create a record of our lives that is roughly as long as our lives. If some primitives once supposedly feared that photography would steal their souls, today we fear that to fail to photograph is to lose something forever. But fighting time is a losing battle. The effort to record everything is vain and soon starts to feel empty.

That's why, eventually, anyone who considers her- or himself "into" photography becomes interested in beauty (and using a camera to create it). The difference between documentation and the beauty impulse is that the latter has the power to produce not just a memory, but an emotional response in any viewer. That's very different from the impulse to record. For group pictures are never beautiful, nor are photos in front of the Eiffel Tower. (It is big, and the subject is too small.)

You do need to slow down at least a little to create beautiful photos. And yet fast photography is not the enemy of good results, by the logic of volume: If you take a thousand photographs, one or two will turn out great. Professional photographers rely on this logic, and it is also the raging theory on African safaris. At any given moment in the Serengeti, thousands of shutters are clicking, and among the gigabytes of crap are a few photos that will turn out great.

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