Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Power of Still

Last night I was reading Kirk Tuck’s blog in which he commented on the power of still images vs video or motion “to tattoo layers of information right onto some part of the brain.” He notes that when we remember old movies, etc., it is the emotion or dialog we are more likely to recall than the moving image.

My mind immediately shot back several years to an article I read by Dr. Oliver Sacks who, at the time was working on the problem of migraine headaches. In the article he talked about patients who, when having a migraine, experienced things in ‘stop action’, a series of still images with gaps between. He suggested that could be dangerous if something unexpected happened during one of the gaps when the patient wasn’t aware of what was going on around him/herself. I wrote to him and suggested that perhaps it was only the memory that was stop action but that the experience had been continuous. Like a motion picture camera in which the light comes through the lens all the time but gets recorded in single frames, the experience the patient was relating was of those parts that got recorded. Perhaps the patient had in fact been aware throughout but didn’t retain the entire experience thus all they could relate after the fact was the stills that were “recorded” in memory.

I own cameras with video capabilities but have rarely or never used them. I have never gotten the satisfaction from video that I do from a still image. Even then I find that I don’t always recall still images with absolute accuracy. Alfred Steiglitz’ photograph “The terminal” is one that stuck in my mind for many years but I recall being surprised when I pulled it up on the web after decades of not actually seeing a copy. What I recalled was the steam coming off the horses, the driver tending them and the streetcar. I was struck by the visual clutter around them that was totally absent from my memory.

Although I haven’t done any significant drawing in years I think I approach still photography with the same sort of mindfulness that is used in drawing. Paying close attention to the subject, how it is arranged in the space of the image and its “presence”, something difficult to put in words, more than just mood, its “being”.

Kirk’s observation earlier in that blog post about quality work is well taken also. I’m currently preparing an exhibit of B&W images for a show and a big part of the effort has been to produce very high quality images, both aesthetically and physically. They are printed on Epson’s Velvet Art paper and matted with 100% cotton rag museum board. The digital revolution has largely relegated photography to the very ephemeral world of pixels on screens but there is something about a well made print that takes on a life of its own. It becomes a thing to be appreciated intimately over time rather than just as part of a passing stream.

Anyway, thanks Kirk for taking me off on that little mind jaunt and the connections it made. There is no connection to the image above and the content of this post. I took the photo a few days ago planning to post it but without any particular comments in mind. It was shot with a Canon G10 along Rt. 56 just outside Potsdam. I liked the contrasting patterns of light and dark, straight and gnarled.  I modified the image in Photoshop to emphasize those qualities.

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