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?

Click to view a slide show.

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?

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.

No, the real victim of fast photography is not the quality of the photos themselves. The victim is us. We lose something else: the experiential side, the joy of photography as an activity. And trying to fight this loss, to treat photography as an experience, not a means to an end, is the very definition of slow photography.

Defined more carefully, slow photography is the effort to flip the usual relationship between process and results. Usually, you use a camera because you want the results (the photos). In slow photography, the basic idea is that photos themselves—the results—are secondary. The goal is the experience of studying some object carefully and exercising creative choice. That's it.

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. It may sound like semantics, but it makes all the difference. When you look carefully and avoid trying to label what you see, you inevitably start to notice things that you mightn't have otherwise.

If Step 1 is a long consideration of the subject, 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. Making such deliberate decisions requires a little bit of courage, for you cannot blame the camera if the results are bad. Yet these choices are, to my mind, the whole game. They are what individualizes photography, what puts the stamp of your personality on the photo.

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.

In my experience, slow photography is a deeply enjoyable and almost hypnotic experience. The hours seem to zip by, especially when you're alone.

You can, of course, do slow photography with a fast camera. But fast cameras aren't designed to go slow—even a digital SLR can almost seem to force you to speed up, take more pictures, and get on with it. If you really want to force yourself to do slow photography, the best way is to deal with the demands of older equipment. Non-automatic cameras force you to slow down, way down.

I like to use old single-lens reflex cameras, in particular Canons from the 1970s (the A-1 and F-1 are my favorites). But if you really want to impose limits, a twin-lens reflex camera will force you to take your time. I sometimes use a Yashica 124-G, a onetime best-seller that I bought in Mumbai, India, a place where plenty of antiques are in everyday use. As the name suggests, the camera has separate lenses for the viewfinder and the camera itself, and it shoots what is called "medium-format" film. Even this antique is actually a compromise: The slow-photography purist uses a large-format camera, the kind that Ansel Adams once employed. These are cameras that weigh a ton and take a long time to set up. And while I said results aren't the point of slow photography, a look at these large-format photographs by Fred R. Conrad shows what patience can yield.

The name slow photography evokes a direct comparison to slow food, and over the last 10 years there's been a greater recognition of what fast food has done. It is not just that it makes us fat. It robs us of something else: the experience of food. And while photography is not as fundamental to human existence as eating, what is at stake does matter: It is how we experience life's important moments. Click to view a slide show  on slow photography.

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