Appreciating the Art of Slow Photography
In the Non-Photographer’s Lens, we feature contributions from the consumers of photography, those we meet while shooting, and from people who spend more time beside the camera than behind it.
Well here we go again, I thought, as the vibrant colors of a desert sunset started spilling across the sky. The show was starting and we were not in our seats. The sky full of dynamic, three-dimensional clouds had promised a beautiful sunset, but we had a long way to drive and decided to “see where we are later on” and “stop if it’s a good one.” Apparently, we had not internalized the lessons of the past. As we crested a hill and rounded a bend, the view opened up to brilliant color splashed across the western sky. The photographer in the passenger seat let out a few heavy, painful sighs and the sprint to find a decent sunset subject was on.
When my husband Ernesto first told me he wanted to get back into photography, I don’t think I really got it. I mean, I enjoyed taking pictures as much the next person, maybe even more… The profound beauty of the natural world thrills me and it’s fun to try to bottle it up! I’m also a sentimental person, fond of freezing life’s little moments into images to treasure later on. But isn’t that everyone? What he had in mind when he talked about getting into Photography, with a capital P, confused me. He wasn’t talking about taking professional portraits, not dreaming of becoming a world famous National Geographic photographer… so, what? Images of amateur photographers’ work at the county fair, stock photography of fall leaves floating in rivers, and Microsoft background images came to mind. You’ll be another person like the rest of us with cameras, but with a fancier camera snapping photos of pretty things. How novel!
Okay, I’m exaggerating how confused I was about the lure of photography. But ultimately, it just didn’t register to me as a truly artistic pursuit or major life change so much as a pastime with a new toy. If you’re capturing a beautiful thing rather than creating it, is it really art? I wondered. In my imagination, it didn’t figure as whimsically or romantically as say… painting, or even as film photography, with the magic and alchemy of the darkroom. All the while though, happily unaware of my ignorant doubts, Ernesto was excitedly researching DSLRs in advance of a trip to Marseille and rhapsodizing about the art of photography.
He dove in without looking back and I was happy to support him as he plunged deeper and deeper, seeing how much fun he had and impressed by his dedication to learning the technical aspects of this rediscovered hobby. Somewhat intentionally and somewhat by way of proximity, I learned more about the photographic process over time and began to appreciate its finer details and creative elements. He engaged with my questions, quips, and ignorance happily and generally avoided the exasperation to which he was likely entitled.
For example, we discussed the relativity of light and color. Despite my feelings that the digital camera lacked the magic of a paintbrush, I was surprisingly loyal to the automatic settings and preset functions of point and shoot photography. Editing seemed like cheating reality somehow, using software to make a sky artificially more beautiful or the colors more vibrant than they were in the actual moment. To Ernesto, none of this seemed problematic. “It’s ALL relative though,” he explained one day, “the camera is just an instrument, so if you don’t intentionally adjust the settings during or after shooting, the ‘reality’ in the photo is just one version based on a group of settings you’ve had no control over.” He was right, when using an automatic camera setting, you relinquish a lot of control over how you remember moments. Shooting manually, however, there is room for a lot of nuanced, subjective interpretation of a moment. And that was the key piece I failed to see early on: photography becomes art when the photographer interprets a moment in time intentionally and crafts that interpretation in a way that says something.
Thanks partly to conversations like this, I’ve realized that my issue is not so much with editing as a whole but with hasty, careless, or overdone edits seemingly aimed at garnering quick and superficial “wows” and likes on social media. What falls into that category of undesirable editing is somewhat hard to articulate and honestly, quite subjective. Even so, I think you know it when you see it, especially if you slow down your scroll or observe an image on a larger scale than a phone screen.
I’ve come to understand that in order to craft a compelling image, quality editing is nearly as essential as careful shooting. Now, rather than debating the validity of the process, Ernesto and I engage in more interesting conversations about what a place really felt like in the moment, how to bring that out in the editing process, and what story the photo is meant to tell. I’ll look at a photo and ask, “but wasn’t it more…glowy? I remember the trees being more brilliantly lit,” or we’ll discuss which shot has the best composition for expressing a certain feeling.
The amount of work Ernesto puts into his photography is impressive (to see his work, visit his website!) Family members often remark about how his camera takes great pictures, and people ask him about what equipment to buy in order to take awesome photos, without realizing that the instrument is a small part of the whole deal. I love to play Photographic Advisor and Composition Consultant but I am daunted by advanced camera settings and editing techniques. It speaks highly of the final products of accomplished photographers when you understand the entire process.
Something that I’ve realized more and more recently is that art in general requires discipline, practice, and occasionally, failure. It requires the meeting of technical skill and creative vision and it doesn’t usually just happen. Artists working with other mediums are allowed time to make a masterpiece, why should photographers hurry their work? As a non-photographer, I deeply respect the Slow Photography approach because it defends the integrity of the photographic process as an art form. By slowing down and opting out of point and shoot culture with its generic filters and whiplash content, there is more room for artists to celebrate the details, relish in rich context, and pursue truly excellent final products.
Lately I was beginning to think we had sort of arrived: he was focused on slowing down and enjoying the process, and I was able to appreciate and participate in his photographic pursuits better than ever. But then I found myself frantically cruising down that highway in Utah beneath a brilliant desert sunset, feeling the familiar tensions of the past creep back in. He was kicking himself for missing out on an amazingly photogenic sunset and I was frustrated that another moment was being soured by the angst of a bummed out photographer. Attempting to salvage the situation, I pulled off and onto the highway several times, encouraging him to just “take a shot!” and “try something!” Unsurprisingly, it didn’t exactly pan out. Then, hilariously, we found ourselves in exactly the same situation the very next night – another epic sunset, more tension and scrambling. It seemed the universe was intent on teaching us the lessons we’d ignored in the past.
In the end, Ernesto may have not captured any stunning photos either night but we did walk away with some valuable perspectives. I was reminded again that quality images typically require time and intentionality; they aren’t lying by the roadside waiting to be snatched up. Some may happen spontaneously but seldom are they born in moments of desperation. By encouraging him to scramble for a shot I was ignoring the Slow Photography values. For his part, Ernesto was reminded yet again that not all moments are for capturing with a camera, some are just to be experienced. Slow Photography defends the notion that things should be done at the right speed to make them more meaningful. Whenever possible, we should experience moments naturally at an enjoyable pace, not forcing things and creating unnecessary stress.
Finally, I think we were both reminded that Slow Photography is meant to be an approach, not a destination. Although embodying the philosophy is challenging at times, it’s something to come back to over and over, and becomes more reflexive with practice. If you ask me, it’s well worth it, regardless of which side of the lens you hang out on. If you have a fine art photographer in your life, you inevitably interact with their photography regularly, and understanding the slow approach may help you understand their work better.
If you are a consumer of photography, I encourage you to engage with the photographer at that art show or with the online blog that caught your eye. Observe the details of the interpretation, engage about process, and appreciate the work as art if the photographer has crafted it as such. Support the time and skill they’ve poured into the image you enjoy and notice the message it conveys. Both sides stand to benefit by doing so and the artistic process will be made complete by fostering human connection. After all, that’s what it’s all about.