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A Moment in Time

April 26, 1996
Sometimes it pays to take a moment to step back and reevaluate what you are doing. To consider its value. Not too deep now: let's not get existential here. If you think too hard, then you realize all these passions are just ways to fill time in that flicker of life we have here on this earth. No, let's not get into that.

So what is the value of the still photograph, anyway? Why do we expend so much energy learning how to capture it, to appreciate it, to talk about it? Photography has only been around for 150 years or so, a youngster in terms of the human arts. We are just perfecting the art of putting an image on film, when all that we have learned could be just become an asterisk in photographic history.

On the photojournalism side of things, the ability to make a black and white print could soon be considered quaint, along with knowing how to use a 4 x 5 Speed Graphic. Perhaps fixer-stained clothes isn't such a loss.

But what about this: what if it were no longer necessary to develop the skill to capture a moment in time? What if your worth as a photographer no longer depended on an almost athletic ability of hand and eye coordination to snatch a fleeting expression, a fluid composition or a peak emotion?

It isn't so far-fetched. The recently-debuted digital video cameras are of high enough quality that it is conceivable to chose moments after the fact, instead of trying to pick them from the air. The photographer, granted, will still have to be in the right place, but will then be able to capture reasonable quality still images at the rate of 30 per second. The job will then be editing after the fact. No, this is not just the extension of the idea of going into a scene with motor drive blazing. These digital video cameras are small and quiet and perhaps less intrusive than a professional 35mm camera. Think of it: running through the take after the fact, narrowing it down to the one image with all the nuances you were seeing in your mind's eye. Sacrilege?

Perhaps, but perhaps we have also built a cult around an ability that still remains mysterious. We like to believe that we are born with innate abilities that distinguish us from other people: an ear for music, the spatial-motor skills to fix an engine, the grace to can a jump shot. Certainly, it was Henri Cartier-Bresson who inspired me to attempt and fail to follow in his footsteps. The small, non-descript man, with his taped-over Leica, who could blend into a scene, and watch and watch, until - click! - he's put an ephemeral whisp of time on film, when composition, action and emotion all come together, as if ordained by some photographic deity. Could I ever get all my pistons running at once, clear my mind from doubts and insecurities for long enough to make a pictures like one of Cartier-Bresson's? Well no: I had my moments as a photographer, but not too many of them were decisive moments.

What about it? What if I went out with that digital video camera and mowed down those small moments like I was cutting down wheat? Would that be cheating?

So, here we are again at a moment in time when technology again threatens to make logical and simple what was previously elusive and unexplainable. You decide whether that's a bad thing.

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