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.