The decisive moment
After college, I was given a fellowship to travel, a sort of fifth year associated with my college but conducted on the road. My first stop was to buy a Leica at the duty-free shop in Iceland. I was so taken with the example of what the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment” that I covered all the chromium parts of the camera with electricians’ black tape. That way, I’d be able to whip the unobtrusive camera out of my half-zippered jacket and immortalize a Paris couple kissing, North African women shopping, a London bobby eyeing a demonstrator on Trafalgar Square. It seemed part of being a traveler, ready for anything.
Some uses of photography
Some photos are useful as reminders of what we bothered to see when we were there, or what we would have seen if we hadn’t been preoccupied with the camera, or even to save us from having to go. Others show what we did see as a result of slowing down.
A meditative style
I managed to capture, as we say, some decisive moments, but meanwhile to develop a slightly more meditative style. Which is a way of saying I was drawn to things that didn’t move so fast they could be savored only on film. In painting, this end of the spectrum could be exemplified by Mark Rothko. I used the camera to train me to pause and see (as I later liked to write on a computer, because the glowing screen seemed to be saying gently, “yes, yes, what are you going to tell me next?”).
In an age of digital reproduction
Now everybody’s a photographer. At least this is true of people who have their hands on even a throw-away camera at a party or an image-equipped cell phone. When the critic Walter Benjamin wrote his famous essay,“art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” he analyzed the effects of great art being printed on posters, magazines, postcards; but he wrote too early to witness the tsunami of images that sweeps over us from TV and the internet. When photos of banal family holidays are buzzing around cyberspace like sandflies, when many 30 second commercials have almost as many cuts, we are exposed to so many images that we hardly see them any more.
As if strange
Along with fast-moving, never-again-to-be-seen moments, I sought as an amateur photographer to see familiar things as if for the first time, or using the key word of the Russian “formalist” critics I read only later, to “defamiliarize” common sights. An example in literature is Tolstoy describing opera as if he’s from outer space and doesn’t know the conventions of the art (dying character vigorously articulates complex feelings in long aria). In pictures, I watched for anything that allowed me to see the familiar as if it were strange, and vice versa.