Photograph of black rubber tire by Mark Whitney
Artist: Mark D. Whitney
Media: Digital Photograph

Photographs: Gone in a Hundredth of a Second

I was reading the transcript of an interview with Lee Friedlander when one of his comments struck a personal chord with me. Best known as a street photographer, in the 1960s and 70s Friedlander developed a style known as ‘social landscape’; urban and suburban landscapes of people, their surroundings, and how each influences the other. Here’s the part of the interview I mean (LF is Friedlander and JPC is the interviewer John Paul Caponigro).

LF I don’t know. If you are a painter or a writer, you can go back and redo something. With photography, you can go back and try but it is probably going to be different because you only get that one shot, that hundreth of a second.

JPC There are only so many decisive moments.

LF I don’t even mean it’s as powerful as a decisive moment. It is impossible to go back, in the exact sense. A fraction of a second makes it work. Perhaps a second later, it is something different.

The ‘decisive moment’ spoken of here is a common term in photography derived from the American title of a book by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Bresson is famed for knowing the exact right moment to click the shutter in order to capture the essence of a scene.

“Photography is not like painting,” Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said. “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

Of course Bresson’s photography mostly records people in motion so missing the decisive moment means the subject has moved on, changed position, or changed expression. It’s pretty obvious that if you miss the moment you’re looking for in that situation then you’ll never get that chance again.

I think what Friedlander is talking about is a bit more subtle and a bit more about the photographer and his\her relationship to the subject than just the timing of a shifting event. Even scenes without any movement in them can have a certain point in time when the subject and the artist are in harmony. Strike that moment and the photo is perfect. Miss it and everything falls flat.

I experience this sort of thing all the time. Something catches my eye and the images begin to flow in my mind. The interaction between the subject and myself goes back and forth. Seeing one aspect causes me to look at things a different way which presents more ideas which makes me look at still more possibilities. Eventually the feedback loop runs out. I’m not sure why, but I can sense that it’s time to move on.

Now I may return to that exact location later and it can even be under almost identical light and weather conditions, but I can never seem to recapture the same flow. If my equipment fails and the images I made the first time are destroyed, I can never go back and ‘re-take’ those images. I’ve tried. It just doesn’t work. They’re lost. I might find something else. Something similar maybe, but never the same. I’ve changed. The world has changed.

If I can go to the same spot anytime I like and always come away with essentially the same image then something is wrong. I’m not thinking. I’m not imagining. I’m not creating. It’s time to put down the camera and ask myself why am I there.

A photograph is not a mechanical reproduction of a scene. It’s a nexus. An infinitesimally small point in the inexorable flow of time where the physical elements of the universe meet with the mental and spiritual preparedness of the photographer. There’s no returning to that point. It flows away like a leaf on a stream.


Comments on "Photographs: Gone in a Hundredth of a Second"

  1. Hi Mark,

    Thought-provoking. At the most creative moment (most in the “flow” maybe), the observer and observed can’t be separated. And time is the cruelest separator of all. Your references to flow and harmony are evocations of unity of observer and observed where those terms lose their meaning…. Or something! It would be interesting to hear more about what you mean by flow.


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