Timeless or Frozen in Time

November 7, 2010

It is Fall here in the Midwest, and I went into my backyard this morning, drawn by a most amazing, beautiful and unexpected sound.

The “rain” of leaves falling from trees as the first light of morning hits them after a frost.

Every time I watch this clip, I will remember the experience of making this video. Stepping out and being engulfed by the leaves, and the fresh air and the sounds and how it really, really was more beautiful than I could ever hope to  spontaneously capture.

Now, the recorded moment exists digitally, will be archived and can last forever.

But is it “timeless?”

Assuredly not.

It takes more than finding and recording the thing. More than picture and movement and sound to make a moment frozen in time – “timeless.”

Even in this era, when cell phones have become the new “Brownie” cameras – and videos are cheap and easy – there is a quality to a great still photograph – both in the art of making it and in the image itself – that remains undeniably powerful – that makes it “timeless” – because of its ability to stir the soul and resonate universally.

It is that power of just the right moment, captured in just the right way, that triggers so many emotions, or conjures up so many memories.

Called – The Decisive Moment – by the man widely known as the father of modern photojournalism – this label was given by an experienced master to describe what he did when he went out to take pictures.

I fell in love with photography as a kid, probably due, in no small measure, to my parents.

My mother was a painter, loved the visual arts, and spent a few years as an assistant to a group of photographers in NYC  in the 1950’s  – and later as a photo editor for Johns Hopkins Magazine in Baltimore.  She was always pointing out things like subjects, posing, composition, interplay of light in the pictures, discussing and sharing her insights.

My father had started his career in public relations after World War II, and did his own picture taking during his work  resettling survivors in a devastated Europe. When I was too young to have earned the right, he let me learn to work his trusty Rolleiflex – the one he brought back from Europe – teaching me about f stops, and film speed and iso’s and depth of field. And being a critic.  But in a good way.

And their love for visual story telling really rubbed off.

I worked hard to develop my eye… and my craft.

As a kid, the first thing I ever remember saving up for – the first thing that I ever bought myself that cost over a few bucks – was a camera – a Canon.  A 35 millimeter film camera. I wanted to have the tools to take professional quality photos.

I can remember that my dad and I shopped in some tiny camera shop near his office on Madison Avenue in NYC – finding the best price we could, so I could make sure to afford it with the money I saved from my summer earnings.  And I bought it and treasured it! And used it.  All through high school and college and the early part of my professional career.

I don’t know that I had any formal education in any sort of media creation – let alone photography.  But I always used the darkroom on campus, or rented darkroom space in the city.  Back when chemicals and smell and darkness were part of the magic of bringing an image forth on a white sheet of paper.

I took a few classes in fashion photography at FIT – the Fashion Institute of Technology in the middle of the garment center in Manhattan.  Across the street from my mom’s apartment. Pretty girls, wanting to work in the fashion trades, making a few extra bucks modeling for class. Smile Flash. Snap. Smile Flash. Snap.

But I never really enjoyed the studio.  I liked to be on the street.  Taking pictures of people in my home town. Fortunately for me, that happened to by NYC.

And I took lots of pictures.  And looked at lots of pictures. And walked the streets asking people before I captured their image on film… could I take your picture.  And they always said yes.

Street people were my favorite models.  Not the beautiful girls… the down and out, the panhandlers.  The homeless guys who posed for my camera… trying to recapture a second of dignity while I snapped before they remembered they had a bottle of hootch to get down the hatch… and let oblivion sink back into their beings.  They had such incredibly expressive faces… that made a brilliant counterpoint to the Village and the beginnings of Soho.  And of course the City…

Times Square…. The skyline… the WTC… Central Park… always beautiful.  Always something a careful eye could find.

The Canon model was an FX, if I am not mistaken.  The first affordable 35 millimeter to have a meter built in.  It was not a “thru the lens meter” but rather was mounted on the side of the camera… you got a reading of the scene in general… but not the subject in specific.  Crude but effective. A technological marvel for its day.  Imagine, you did not need to carry a separate light meter. Baby steps down the path toward digital cameras.

I took it on a backpacking trip to Europe with me.  And I remember my travel mate, Richard, had a beautiful Leica.  But I also remember that while we were on the Orient Express… heading backwards from Athens toward Paris, the Yugoslavs at the border were more interested in my camera than his, and probably thought a raggedy looking guy like me probably should not be having such a fine machine.  After all it was beautiful and shiny and looked very, very good.  And it was!

I reluctantly traded that camera in many years later for more electro-mechanical model – the Canon A1 – here was a camera that had more electronics than I really knew what to do with… and infinite capabilities.  A really adjustable tool… that I used for many years…. Rolls and rolls of Kodachrome.

Out West, another trip to Europe, my honeymoon, my first child… all seen through the viewfinder of that Canon A1.  Now it sits on a shelf in my closet.  Worthless except for the memories of putting film through it.  I miss that camera.

So now I use a digital point and shoot.  It is small but mighty with capabilities I could only dream about as a kid. It’s size makes it easy to pack, and unobtrusive.

And though these days I spend less time looking – opening my self the possibility of a photo… every once in a while I see the spark of one,  in spite of myself.

I got to know the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson – the father of photojournalism referred to earlier – when I lived in Seattle, just before heading up to Fairbanks.  The Seattle Art Museum had a terrific exhibition of his work, and I spent many hours immersed in what he did and reading why he did it.

Earlier this year, I asked, and the historians and curators of the Museum were kind enough to actually try to track down a quote that I attribute to him.  Sentiments I believed he articulated much more eloquently than I ever could.  They were unable to find the it – the source of the meme stuck in my memory.

But the gist of what I remember is –

The elements of a great photo can occur anywhere. You don’t have to travel.  If you are open to seeing and look long enough, and in just the right way, whether in your own house, or backyard or on your street, you will see begin to notice it all – constantly unfolding before you.

And so I walked into my backyard this morning in search of  future memories. Leaves Falling – creating a song as they hit the ground. Trying with video to  “fix eternity in an instant.”

But as for the timelessness – capturing the eternity of the moment… it still takes the right artist, using the right medium, with the right preparation, interpreting the instant and displaying it just so.

Cartier-Bresson again -“It’s a way of saying yes, yes, yes. And there’s no maybe.”


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