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Why is Photography Such a Slow Process?


Why is photography such a slow process?

Taking a photograph is now easier than ever before. Over a hundred years ago Kodak told us:

“You take the photo and we’ll do the rest”

Now we don’t even have to wait for them. In a world of instant gratification we can view the results of our endeavour immediately. This puts more pressure on the photographer, as others demand instant results and now that we are in the digital age, all things photographic have been made quick and simple. When a photograph takes only a fraction of a second to make, what is the delay? Many new to photography arrive with these expectations. Teaching photography brings you up against this demand all the time. A former colleague taught in the studio, he would start by getting the students to plan their shot. Then use 2 ½ hours to set this up, make two large format exposures and before tidying up, all within a 3 hour session. Quite quick I thought but it took some weeks for the students to appreciate what they were doing which is turn contributed to their understanding of the longer term project. We describe exposure times of just a second, as a long exposure. Perhaps we should talk about the length of time from conception of an idea through to final presentation. This could be as short as a day or as long as a lifetime. However the real difficult task is to decide what to photograph, the approach you intent take and what you are trying to say. This is where the focus for this article lies.

Each generation and genre has created its own exponents. One of the greatest was Eugene Smith and his work in Minamata. He spent years documenting the story of how pollution got into the food chain and then lead to a terrible legacy for the local community. His most famous photograph “Tomoko in her Bath” is very intimate, showing the mother cradling a handicapped child in her arms, surrounded by black emptiness. Philip Jones Griffiths in his work Agent Orange, Collateral Damage in Vietnam looks at the long term consequences of others actions. Both these stories cover international stories that are beyond the resources of many of us. However John Blakemore’s Tulip’s and even the approach of Tony Ray Jones or Homer Skyes and their commitment to looking at the customs of the English is within our reach. This approach and the value of its out come is clearly shown in the recent Arts Council exhibition, “There is no such thing as society”

You will need to believe in the worth of your endeavours and that they may not be appreciated now but the rewards may lay in the future. It will be important to share your ideas, show your contact sheets, which are the greatest learning tool but now seem largely defunct in this digital age. As each version of Photoshop is released and new RAW format conversions suggested those wanting to find an escape in the technical aspects of the craft can find themselves being lost for ever. Release yourself from the burden of equipment and settle to a technical approach that works. Jem Southern has settled to the use of one camera and a lens. He allows this to record every detail and may produce no more than 10 finished each year. There is a need for the photographer to leave the comfort of their lounge and experience life. Elliot Erwitt suggested you will not take any great photos sitting on a chair. As photographers we record what is in front of us and have to work with what is there. We are not in control of the outside world and that is our problem but in fact some of our best images are from the most challenging conditions. The skill is knowing where to stand and when to release the shutter. Many find these constraints too restrictive and a new movement of art photographers have evolved, who construct an image within the studio or record the aftermath of an event. Many like Simon Norfolk have rejected new digital technologies and maintained their affection with the view camera. Finding that it demands a measured approach that makes us think about what we want to show. In cost terms alone it makes sure that we carefully consider the moment we release the shutter.

Photography is like a jigsaw, try to think of the whole work and find the individual pieces to make it happen. Find out about a place and buy a good pair of shoes. Many will travel to the other side of the world, while the real challenge will be found around the corner from where we live. Those who parachute into a location will leave with a shallow and superficial view. Photographers such as James Ravilious who spent 17 years documenting the lives of the rural community where he lived in Devon give us a far insightful understanding of the subject matter, as did Smith, who lived with those who were suffering in Minamata.

Most of us juggle a full time life with a passion for photography and this further slows the process. It will take time to develop an approach that works and while the photographs come out, it is more difficult to decide why some work and others don’t. This is where sharing your contact sheets and work prints with colleagues and peers is essential. There needs to be tenacity in your approach and a calendar year is probably the shortest period of time that could reasonably be considered for completing a project. The taking is easy, it’s your editing, how, when and where you present the final outcome that are difficult. Only once the sequence is complete does the jigsaw show its full story. At times you will go around in circles, unable to find the photographs that will fill the gaps in your jigsaw. The more photographs taken, the more the frustration comes, are they good enough to show and how emotionally involved have you become in some of them? You will ask which to remove and this is where your colleagues and peers who have seen the project develop will prove their worth. If they are honest, they will remove you from the personal involvement and be your best critics as well your best friend.

Some will just give up trying to complete the full story and just write a large amount of text that will fill in the missing pieces or others may just give up all together. However those who preserve will see the benefits. Some projects will be completed by a deadline, while other themes will run for a life time. David Hurn continues to take photographs of balloons and people reading. While others will hand the baton of their project on to others, as Ian Berry’s English was taken up by Nick Danziger’s The British.

Sometimes our ideas come to an end but a visit to an exhibition, a discussion or even a new piece of equipment may open up a new way of thinking. At the low times the motivation will ebb away and it will be easier to find reasons and excuses to do something else. However like many passions, once bitten you are stuck for life. The longer term project will allow us to fully explore an issue, it will give us the time to develop a way of working. During this time our focus may change, as one idea develops into another. The outcome will evolve, as much as being created. We will be its guiding hand, our view may be influenced and changed by time and events. However whatever the outcome it is the journey that will have opened our eyes and been the experience we will take with us. Those who do nothing will not make the mistakes that enable us to find more about ourselves, as well as others.