I was on the metro in Paris one evening when two voices broke the communal trance. An American tourist was complaining that all ten photos taken of her on the steps of Montmartre were blurred. They had to drop all romantic ideas about drinks at Saint Severin – they had to go back and get a good shot, otherwise there had been no point in going at all. Her companion agreed, and bemoaned her own phone’s sudden loss of battery power – she had tried to upload too many of the afternoon’s photos onto Facebook. Their querulous dialogue continued until they left at the next stop, and I pondered. Here were two young women utterly blind to the beautiful city around them, able only to construct their experiences through the lens of a phone. It was a brief spectacle that signified a greater trend – and an inhibiting one – in the world of photography.
Indeed, the idea that a primarily digital age has stalled our capacity for creativity is no rare debate in any corner of culture. Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, recently claimed that the power of sharing on the Internet has killed the ‘analogue’ process of creative writing. Grayson Perry’s current series of Reith lectures on BBC Radio 4 mount a confident argument for the degradation of the art world. It’s no surprise then that the fast-paced, information-saturated society of the twenty-first century has triggered a counter-cultural Slow Movement.
Slow Food, Slow Fashion and Slow Journalism are among those initiatives encouraging us to savour the virtue of quality over quantity in our appreciation of culture. As a traditional artform similarly overtaken by the speed of its own mass expansion, I half expected there to be a strong following for Slow Photography already in place. Although I found a few like-minded arguments while scouring the Internet, I was amazed, scrolling through a more expansive list of Slow Movements on Wikipedia, that Slow Photography received no attention.
Last year, Fortune magazine claimed to have calculated that 10% of all the photographs ever taken were shot in 2011. This year, Facebook revealed that over 200,000 photographs are uploaded to the social networking site per minute. Next year, Yahoo predict that over 880 billion photos will be taken. Photography is at the centre of the digital revolution; even without the statistics, it’s easy to look around and see that we’re snapping away on our smartphones at an increasingly fast rate.
Point, shoot, Instagram, hashtag, share – like a production line of reflex actions, photogaphy has become a means of obsessively recording our everyday moments, largely with vain intentions. I include myself in that mass: I’ve whiled away many a train journey pulling ridiculous selfies for Snapchat, and the odd photographic exchange on Watsapp is hugely enriching to any long-distance communication. But as superb these digital advancements may be, I still think there is a pertinent question to ask about how we can reclaim the value and a meaning of a photo.
Perhaps there’s a consensus that these ‘slow’ principles in general are synonymous with a kind of cultural snobbery. However, the problem is not that too many pictures are being taken by too many happy snappers (though I do wonder how many of them list ‘photography’ under the ‘interests’ section of their CV). The problem comes when three clicks on an iPhone and a pre-prepared filter together constitute a new version of creativity. In other words, the practice of photography has become all about quick spurts of expression, and we are robbing ourselves of the experiences and processes that can occur with patience behind the camera.
So what exactly are the principles of Slow Photography? Tim Wu, another advocate of the movement, conducts a strong argument by asking ‘what is the point of taking pictures?‘ His answer is quite simple: ‘The goal is the experience of studying some object carefully and exercising creative choice’. The patience involved in finding the right angle for a photo can be a hugely liberating and rewarding effort when you’ve found your result. Photography is about finding the optimum perspective – it seems an obvious point to make, but two pictures will never be the same – and often the joy is all in the discovery. Whether it’s the Eiffel Tower of a rose in your back garden, the subject of a photograph is ultimately redundant against the presentation of that subject. There’s a huge difference between taking a photo of an interesting thing, as opposed to an interesting photo of a thing; I’d say the mainstream conceptualistion of photography has swung too far towards the former idea.
To expound on Wu’s ideas, however, I think that the way we choose to display our photos is as pivotal as how we take them. My Dad recently published his photography online at www.martynhayman.com, and if there was ever an advocate for Slow Photography, I’d like to say this is it. With travels spanning six continents and fourty-six countries, it’s a stimulating exhibition of thirty-five years’ worth of material. In one gallery you’ll find a rural 1980s China in the midst of post-Mao economic reform; in the next, the iconic lanterns of Sensoji in Tokyo against the soaring landmarks of a commercial capital in 2008. There’s Venice at dawn through the lens of a 1980s film camera juxtaposed with the dusk of a Nikon D200 in Dubrovnik. The richness of substance and style is an extraordinary feat.
Ultimately what makes the collection so special is the two years of thought and consideration he’s dedicated to sifting, editing and refining his selection, asking us for marginal preferences between photo A and photo B. I’m not saying that we should therefore build up our iPhone camera roll for years before allowing ourselves an upload frenzy. I’m suggesting, as a key principle of Slow Photography, that by investing a personal, thoughtful connection with our work, the possibilities are limitlessly thought-provoking and exuberant – not only for the artist, but also for his audience.
We’re in a world that wants speed, results, instant connections. Whether we really thrive on those things is doubtful – to pinch that familiar slogan, ‘speed kills’. Our digital age may have given rise to a short-sighted idea of creativity, but it has also succeeded in turning photography into a widely-accessible activity. There are fewer obstacles to the creative potential of individuals than there ever have been, so in true Slow Photography style, relax the pace, savour the moment and go for the deep zoom panoramic.
Photos Copyright © 2013 Martyn Hayman