The Problem with Moments

| February 1, 2014

I experience a period of frightening clarity in those moments when nature is so beautiful. I am no longer sure of myself, and the paintings appear as in a dream. –Vincent Van Gogh

Photography is the art of moments, whether it is Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” when all elements serendipitously converge into a harmonious composition, or the camera’s shutter blinking for a fraction of a second, or the attention span of an Internet viewer or the time it takes the human brain to recognize and classify an image (13 milliseconds, according to a recent study).

Among the most revealing books I read in recent years is Flow by  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who describes the psychology of the “optimal experience.” In the book, Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as:  “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” It occurred to me that such a state – such involvement – cannot be confined to moments, disconnected from a greater, more lasting, experience.

The reason this definition stuck in my mind is the memory of the first day I spent in the wild with a camera. After many hours of looking for subjects, thinking about compositions and light, and just savoring the intoxicating scents of a beautiful spring day, the sobering resistance of the film crank, telling me I used up all 36 exposures, felt like waking up from a dream. It was this experience that set me down the path to becoming a photographer. To this day, this state of transcendence and loss of time, more than any anecdotal image I might make, is what keeps my fire burning and why photography had so far been the most persistent thread in my life for nearly three decades.

I may well be wrong, but my sense is that many who have never known a world without gadgets and the Internet, and who are accustomed to a sustained bombardment of short-lived missives and images, rationing attention in short bursts and constant context switching, may not actually experience such a state. Otherwise, I’m not entirely certain why competition and popularity play such a pivotal role for so many photographers today. I know I speak for others of my generation when I say that, having experienced flow in our work, we’ll take any opportunity to head out with a camera, over any amount of time staring at mind numbing streams of social media banter.

So often I find myself engaged in a composition, thinking and refining and contemplating, when my subject remains static, when nothing other than my thoughts is changing, where Mr. Cartier-Bresson would have died of boredom waiting for a decisive moment; and yet I am so elated and immersed in the experience that no other thought even enters my mind. Worries disappear, discomforts never registers in my conscious mind, and nothing else deserves attention until after the click of the shutter.

If indeed the practice of photography fails to elicit such states of flow, it may well be because so many are concerned with decisive moments rather than decisive experiences; with anecdotes rather than stories; with external affirmations rather than inner meditations.

To be truthful, it is highly unlikely that I would still be photographing, let alone with ever increasing enthusiasm, for all these years if it were not for these flow experiences. Someone viewing my images may never know it, but if pursuing my work does not reward me with such elevated states of consciousness, there would be little reason for me to practice it, regardless of popular appeal or any other consideration.

The Loneliest Season

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (9)

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  1. Michael says:

    Yup, I know this flow thing too! (btw “or the attention span of an Internet viewer” … good one!)

  2. Jim Heywood says:

    Well said. If I could articulate my thoughts as you do I would add a few of my own – expanding and clarifying my own personal “flow.” Thank you, Guy, for your thoughts expressed time and again that nearly parallel my own – though on different levels. And of course, thanks for sharing your beautiful images.

  3. Guy, I can identify with this. Way back when I first started seriously making images, I was out on a beautiful winter day in Alberta with the sun shining brightly. I don’t recall if I made many images throughout the day, but I recall an experience I had just as the sun was setting. The thing that snapped me back into reality was the sun blinking out as it descended under the horizon. I had three rolls of Velvia in my hand and yet I don’t recall reloading the camera or much of the time that I had been shooting. Even the route I had hiked to get to where I was had eluded me as I needed to follow my tracks back to my vehicle. I do recall, after reality hit, a great feeling of having had an amazing experience and having a fantastic awareness of the quality of light that had just happened! I did manage to get some nice images, but honestly that was a bonus!

  4. Florian says:

    I particularly like the last sentence. I guess the viewer will hardly ever know about the experiences and feelings that the photographer had while creating a photograph and therefore attaches with his/her images. In my opinion everybody somehow struggles with this “clash” of the subjective view (of the photographer) with the objective view (of an uninvolved public).

    Thank you for your thoughts!

  5. Gail Platz says:

    Very eloquently stated! Times when I have been out photographing in the wilds by myself, I arrive at this state of mind. It’s a very peaceful moment when I am totally immersed in my surroundings, and the beauty speaks out to me. Rarely does this happen if others are there. Taking the photo is almost secondary.

  6. Sarah Marino says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post because it perfectly describes how I feel when photographing. The pure joy of being lost in a moment and experiencing the feeling of a quieted mind is one of photography’s most important gifts.

    I certainly hope that this more contemplative approach to photography is not a generational difference that is becoming lost with younger photographers, as you imply above. I know many younger photographers who embrace the kind of approach to photography that you describe in this post. These people are more quiet and introspective and thus do not fit well into the world of social media. The louder voices who embrace the shallowness and competitive nature that comes with social media do not necessarily define a generation of photographers (or at least I hope they do not since I fall within the “millennial” generation and hope my generation has more to offer than the attitudes that are on display on 500px each day). Since you teach workshops and seminars, I would be interested to know if you encounter these same trends that are prevalent online with younger photographers when interacting with them in person.

  7. Guy, I’m so glad to read your mention of the book Flow. Csikszentmihalyi’s writing on creativity has been important to my personal and professional development, and like you, I’ve extended his notions to my experience of the out-of-doors (and when I’m really focused, the everyday world).

    Sorting out–over the years–why I photograph has inevitably forced me to revisit why I go to nature. At times, I’ve erroneously conflated my motivations in this regard. It’s not to photograph. It’s not to write. I had to figure this out: it’s because without nature I couldn’t do these things. Flow helped me understand this.

  8. Guy Tal says:

    Thank you very much, everyone, for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    Sarah, interestingly we don’t get too many young people on our workshops. I can speculate about why that is, but without knowing for sure it’s hard to draw useful conclusions.

    That said, I do know several creative and thoughtful photographers in their 20s who produce fantastic work, so certainly this is not a blanket statement, but it’s hard to argue that the numbers (of followers) do tell a story.

  9. Your second to the last paragraph on the state of photography today just goes to show the pitfalls of emulation. Modeling success is a very important step on the path, but it can also become a trap. One photographer became great with his incredible intuitive timing in his street and people photographs, but when large numbers of people try to adopt his philosophy long-term and carry it across genres, their work has little depth. Sarah brought up some good points too, but to her generation’s credit, I don’t believe they are distracted and scattered by nature. I believe their attention deficit is due to overzealous embracing of the technology that causes these patterns, with far too much exclusion of lasting connection with nature, with people in person and with other high quality values and direct experiences in life. It shows up much more like an addiction than a character or generational flaw. Hopefully the issue merely stems from being young and inexperienced and hopefully it can be outgrown, rather than becoming the new norm. I am very glad I have outgrown many of the life-wasting habits of my early youth.