Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Moment is only 1/500th of a second

The great street photographer and gifted teacher and mentor, John Free, has several videos that can be watched online. One of them is called 1/500 of a Second. In it he contends that as photographers, and as artists seeking to capture fleeting moments on the street, we really only have 1/500th of a second to do it in. This refers to the speed the shutter of the camera opens and closes in. Not long is it? And that's what he says. I've watched this video several times now and each time it makes more and more sense: I have seen for example in one image I took, a young woman who looks on the verge of tears judging by the way she's holding her mouth. But in actual fact she was laughing and chatting with a friend as they walked. I just caught her in that 1/500th of a second.

The way I use my camera is that I tell it what aperture to use. This means I determine the size of the hole through which light passes to the sensor in the camera. The camera then sets a shutter speed which will give the best (in its opinion) results. After watching Mr Free's video again today I thought I would look at some of my recent photographs and find one that had a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. What I did was pick one pretty much at random out of three candidates. And you can see that above.

Who is it? What's it a photo of? I hear your questions. Well, this image represents, among so many other things, 1/500th of a second of this young man's life. Not a long time, you might be thinking, in the big scheme that is a single human lifespan. So, we see a young man, caught in a flash of a second. What else is there in this photo to give us a clue to those other who, what, where, when, why and how questions. There is a wire fence through which he is looking; there is a set of hands behind him clutching the wire fence. Then there seem to be blurred figures behind him in the background.

We can look at his clothes, his reversed baseball cap. That could give us a clue. Maybe. We see the word "Original" on the cap. Another clue? Perhaps. We see a metal ring piercing his lip. Now we're getting somewhere! Well maybe, maybe not.

And this is where I must offer an apology. I am sorry, but I can't tell you anything about this photograph. Well it's not so much that I can't; it's more that I won't. You see, I am a street photographer, an artist at large you might say. My job is to capture that "decisive moment" as the master Cartier-Bresson described it. Or the 1/500th of a second as the great John Free has labelled it. Something in the moment before I aimed the camera, then pressed the shutter, made me do it. I can't say what it is. Call it intuition, call it instinct. Or you could even call it an artist's sensibility to the environment and situation.

You see, it is you, the viewer of this image who has to answer the questions. But, you reply, how could we possibly know? We weren't there were we? That's true: I was there, you were not. The gift that street photographers give to the world is this: we offer you fragments of time, decisive moments, fractions of seconds, tiny tiny slices of lives as they are lived in all their day to day ordinariness and banality. We also offer you, sometimes at least, dramatic slices of life, humorous fragments, sad fractions. That's what we do as artists: we communicate our vision of the world in our own medium at a given moment. For me, it is that 1/500th of a second.

I invite your stories of what this image is telling us. This is not a trivial "guessing game" or quiz; this is an exercise in bringing into life stories. It doesn't matter really what the 'facts' are; the key thing is what truth can be told through art, through this particular 1/500th of a second.

Peace to you all.

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