Thursday, January 2, 2014

Photography is about moments—not time

Photography is trapped in its scientific roots, but its practitioners fail to recognize that its origin is still its greatest strength. 

Photography was born of the scientific age. It is chemicals and ground glass  and machined parts, used to capture time slices the eye cannot perceive and for which the practical mind has no use. In this, photography’s strength is its objectivity, and ability to record the unrecognizable. 

As a scientific tool, it shines when used that way. 

As an instrument of creativity, art, and expression, however, it must be freed of the father of chemistry and mother of misperception. To flourish on its own, photography must be used to capture moments—not time. The realism of objectivity married with the fascination of frozen moments can have art as progeny only when the warmth of art is added. And art is motion.

Walter Benjamin

Photography was disruptive to the art world, and the monumental efforts of Eadweard Muybridge set the tinder aflame. The short story is that Governor Leland Stanford had a bet that horses “flew,” because that’s what he saw happening. Sketches and paintings represented the motion of horse legs otherwise, so Stanford funded Muybridge to settle the issue with photography. 

It was a grand venture, requiring technological innovation, new chemical processes, new mechanical solutions, and it cost more than $1 million and six years of time. At the end of it, Muybridge vindicated Stanford’s vision over art’s, showing that when galloping a horse will have all four legs underneath it while moving forward, rather than the fore and rear legs stuck out as popularly depicted. 

The revelation set off a firestorm of debate in the art world, which is instructive today and gets to the heart of the purpose of photography. Paul Gsell was a protege of Auguste Rodin’s, and recorded many of his conversations with Rodin. In response to Muybridge’s photographs revealing that the way horses had been drawn in art was not how horses really are, Rodin said: 
“And this confirms what I have just explained to you on the subject of movement in art. If, in fact, in instantaneous photographs, the figures, though taken while moving, seem suddenly fixed in mid-air, it is because, all parts of the body being reproduced exactly at the same twentieth or fortieth of a second, there is no progressive development of movement as there is in art.” 
* * * 
"[I]t is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop, and if the artist succeeds in producing the impression of a movement which takes several moments for accomplishment, his work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image, where time is abruptly suspended."
* * * 
“[H]orses appear to run; this comes from the fact that the spectator from right to left sees first the hind legs accomplish the effort whence the general impetus results, then the body stretched out, then the forelegs which seek the ground ahead. This is false in reality, as the actions could not be simultaneous; but it is true when the parts are observed successively, and it is this truth alone that matters to us, because it is that which we see and which strikes us. . . . Note besides that painters and sculptors, when they unite different phases of an action in the same figure, do not act from reason or from artifice. They are naively expressing what they feel. Their minds and their hands are as if drawn in the direction of the movement, and they translate the development by instinct. Here, as everywhere in the domain of art, sincerity is the only rule.”
Art, Auguste Rodin, Paul Gsell, at 74-78.

There is no inherent disability in photography which prohibits it from achieving the sense of progressive motion captured in other art forms, like Rodin’s sculptures. The only impediment is the artist’s refusal to break free from heritage: a photographer who presumes he must be true to the history of the photographic invention (as a tool of science) will take soulless, static pictures with the misguided intention of crisp clarity, and which—as a direct result— do not contain the reality of sight we experience in life. 

That, however, is a choice. Photography has artistic reach beyond the other mediums, and it is only by failing to embrace those options that photography may fail as art. Photography’s great advantage is that it captures the same detail and depth in a fraction of a second that the eye and mind can perceive—a level of effort that could take a painter years to reproduce on canvas. But that detail and depth is artistically meaningless if it doesn’t also capture the life of the moment.

Rodin shows the path away from cold, scientific utility into the warmth and meaning of art, and that path is to capture moments instead of slices of time.