365.342 the same river twice

A couple of weeks ago, A Lesser Photographer (aka CJ Chilvers) posted the following to his excellent blog (back when he ran alesserphotographer… now it’s only cjchilvers: own your writing and your photography):

Longevity in photos has become inversely proportional to the lack of longevity in the subject.

Apparently, this drew the ire of some readers, and so today he posted a clarification.

Let me say straight off that I agree with his point. Loosely stated: so many pictures have already been made—and are, these days, always already being made—that we must strive to capture the “fleeting moments” within our subjects if we want to make memorable photographs.

This is especially true of Fine Art photographers, landscape shooters, abstractionists, etc., and has been true of people shooters at least since Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, and likely since the first artists scribbled on the walls of the cave.*

But I do have a minor quibble, stemming from this absolutely true, yet still somewhat curious, claim: “if I were a modern day Ansel Adams, my best photos… have probably been duplicated by dozens of like-minded photographers.”

First, Ansel Adams. Let’s take that picture of Half Dome that everybody knows, the one with the moon.

How many people have made that picture? How many people have tried to make a similar picture?

There has been exactly one picture of Half Dome and Moon made (or one negative and n prints), by exactly one person. And there have been numerous attempts, some more successful than others, perhaps some that might one day be even more well known, but there is only one “Moon and Half Dome” by Ansel Adams.

So there is duplication, and then there is duplication.

Sure, I can make a picture of Half Dome. You can make a picture of Half Dome. Everyone can make a picture of Half Dome: this is likely the duplication of which Mr. Chilvers speaks.

But all of these are simulacra: copies without an original. By the very nature of time itself, every picture of Half Dome is a unique picture of Half Dome. After all, you can’t step in the same river twice.

This is, of course, not A Lesser Photographer’s point: he wants to make a picture of Half Dome that carries some longevity within it, and likely some longevity out in the world, and not simply sitting on a hard drive or in some forgotten photo album. No, if we want to make memorable pictures, there must be something in them that is more or less unique, and this is where the fleeting moment comes in.

Now the question becomes something different: how to determine the fleetingness of the moment.

Does Half Dome have fleeting moments? On some measures of geologic time, I suppose it does, though these could never be captured by a digital sensor or on film, as the time scales are too long. In the Heraclitean sense, however, every moment is a fleeting moment, though, again, this is not what Chilvers means.

Perhaps the fleeting moment of Half Dome is one where the light is just so, and the Moon is precisely the perfect spot.

If so, that moment happened once, and will never again occur in precisely the same way. Even if the Moon were to be in exactly the same spot during precisely the same phase, there would be clouds, or birds flying, or some other thing that would make it some other fleeting moment, and not the fleeting moment that Adams captured so famously.

Over on Digital Photography School, Piper Mackay captured a different way to say something similar when she wrote “…it does not have to be new; it has to be you.”

Despite the differences in language (and likely audience), I take this to capture the same sentiment found in the A Lesser Photographer post.

If I want my picture of Half Dome to have even half of the longevity of Ansel Adams’s Half Dome, my picture must have something that is does not, and that something must be something memorable or important or meaningful or especially aesthetic or whatever.

So, again, I agree with Mr. Chilvers. And I’ve offered nothing new here, and I’ve left much unsaid, and glossed over some bits that require more explication to have any meaning to most readers, and I should probably save this as a Draft and come back to it later, but I won’t: this is the curse of the 365.

D7000. Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 Series 1 (Kiron, maybe), in Close Focus mode. ISO400, 1/20th, f/8. 11 images, all with the same minimal adjustments to exposure, contrast, saturation, and vibrancy (less than 15 seconds of slider play on one image, then copied/stamped onto the other 10), plus a slight crop to remove some dead space.

And speaking of fleeting/decisive moments, did I pick the right one? Can you even tell which of the below I picked to be the 365 pic?

*to call these people ‘artists’ is likely inaccurate: they were perhaps priests or shamans, or perhaps adolescent taggers. But the they were capturing the fleeting moments of the hunt or some other otherwise mundane subject.

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