Moments are frozen instants in the flow of time. Our life is about moments. Most art, but especially photography, is about capturing moments.
Flow of time
Time is like a stream flowing around us. It goes from infinity to infinity as far as we can perceive. But we can’t stop it or dam it up. We can’t even jump in the stream and flow with it forever. Instead, we must watch it flow by and hear the clock ticking.
Time itself may be virtually infinite, but our time is not. We have been alive a certain time, but we have no idea how long we have left. There may be many years left, or our time may be done tomorrow.
Many of us live our lives as if we have infinite time left. That is simpler and less troubling than acknowledging the impermanence of our existence. So we become numb to the passing of time. We bury our self in our job or other responsibilities or diversions. Days flow into weeks into months into years and we barely realize it. Someday we look back and wonder where the time went.
Art is moments
A characteristic of a lot of art, though, is that it records moments. They may be beautiful moments, or touching ones, or poignant ones, or frightening ones. But the moment itself is the art.
Art portrays these moments so we can look at them from outside the time stream. It gives us a new perspective on the moment. Whether the art captures the moment as a 2 dimensional image to hang on our wall, or a 3 dimensional form in the garden, or a poem or story we can visit whenever we want, they re-create for us a moment or a scene we want to save.
One of the powerful aspects of the art is that it is concrete. That is, it is fixed, unchanging, staying as it was created. This plucks moments out of the stream of time and preserves them for us, beautiful and unchanging.
What we remember
Our memories are really a collection of remembered moments. Do you remember what you did at your job last month? Probably not, but you remember that time last month when your boss came to you and praised you on doing a great job on something.
Do you remember college? Or is your memory based on some great times, some miserable times, a time when a professor said something that opened up a whole new world of thought for you?
In our lives and with our families we tend to remember events, certain happenings – in other words, moments. Everything else is just a blur.
Moments we miss
Astounding moments are flowing by us all the time. Mostly, we don’t notice. Those moments are lost and can never be regained.
Mindfulness is a practice of being aware and “in the moment.” It attempts to let us forget the past and not worry about the future, but instead be very aware of what is happening right now.
Being mindful is a good thing, but when you look up “mindfulness” it often gets co-opted by types of eastern mysticism. Ignore that. The concept is simple, even if the practice may be hard.
When I say we should be mindful I simply mean we should practice greater awareness of the world around us and the way we are responding to it. As artists this is especially important. There is beauty and interest almost everywhere. Fascinating moments are happening all the time wherever we are. Mindfulness is teaching our self to see them.
This usually involves unplugging from our technology and stepping away from the fast pace of our lives for a bit. A walk is a great tool for me. Being outdoors and getting exercise helps me see more of what is going on. Of course, this only works if we put the phone in our pocket and take off the headphones, freeing our self from our tether to the machine.
But being there and seeing the moments are two different things. We have to be open to the experience. Pause and marvel at small moments. At common, ordinary things around us that can become magical sometimes.
Photography is about moments
By its nature, photography is about capturing moments. The shutter opens on a scene in the “real world” for a fixed slice of time. The sensor records what is happening during that time slice. What we get is not imagined or fake. We have captured a moment. If we are good, it is a worthwhile moment.
Of course, I can create fantasy art that is impossible or surreal. I enjoy doing that. But most photography is a straight capture of a real scene.
The photograph is a portrait of a moment. We have plucked it out of the stream of time and set it aside for contemplation, to show other people what was there that they could have seen. Since there is such a rich flow of moments passing before us, one of the challenges is to develop the experience, the “eye”, to recognize a worthwhile moment as it is happening. In a sense, what Henri Cartier-Bresson called a “decisive moment”.
Shoot it when you see it. Painters may be able to hold a moment in their memory well enough to be able to sketch and paint it back at their studio. But photographers have to react immediately. Capture it or lose it. The famous Jay Maisel so rightly said “Always shoot it now. It won’t be the same when you go back.“
Prints freeze moments
Even in the realm of photography, there is the special case of the print. A print takes this fleeting moment and casts it in a more permanent form onto a substrate like paper or canvas or metal.
The moment becomes a real object. It has weight and form and texture. This is important because by being an object of substance, we have a different relationship with it. An ephemeral moment has been transported to a physical object we can see and touch and hold.
Even more, it has permanence. Memories are unreliable things. They fade and change. A print holds the moment up for us to see for many years to come. We can come back to it and relive it at will. Maybe only to remind ourselves that great moments are happening all the time and we should be more mindful of them.
A print celebrates a moment that is worth keeping among the continuous flow of time.