Photography relies upon the passing of time. We choose a moment and sometimes its duration too. A long enough shutter speed de-familiarises time, blending its minutes and hours into a single frame quite unlike anything we've seen with our naked eyes.
Like fish contemplating water, Time is peculiar if we think about it. Advanced photography is as much about understanding and explaining the world as capturing it. And in the same way that a portrait can shine light on a person's character, so a camera can be a tool to explore and discover the nature of
Eckhart Tolle, author of 'The Power of Now' has an intriguing relationship with time. He reminds us that the only experience we will ever have of time is the present moment. We may have thoughts of the past, even be affected by historical wounds, but they are just thoughts in this moment. Hopes and fears
for the future may control us, but here we are still, right here in the 'now'.
The present moment is life; it is always okay, and it is always enough. Those interruptions and distractions? They're your life too. Alan Watts compared life with music; the end of the song isn't the important bit!
What has all this got to do with Holistic Photography? I'll try and explain with a story about the best series of photographs I never made.
Calella de Parafrugells is a small Catalan fishing village a few hours North of Barcelona. The golden light of sunset was painting it even more beautiful as I walked along the beach there last winter.
A pair of old old fishermen in traditional clothing were manoeuvring their ancient boat into the deep blue sea. It was a scene out of time, and I had my antique Hasselblad camera ready to preserve it.
A Hasselblad was used to take the first photos on the moon, and mine is of a similar vintage. It works like clockwork; but it works like clockwork! So with no batteries, everything is manually controlled. Confusingly, the viewfinder shows an image that's reversed left-to-right.
I had to think about the light and choose the right shutter speed to freeze the scene. But still show the movement; while simultaneously thinking about my aperture's depth of field and the effect my choice was having on my exposure. Which I had to guess based on experience.
I also needed to focus the lens manually and frame the subject on the other side of where I'd put them on a normal dSLR. And all this while choosing the 'right' moments to express how I saw the world in those few minutes.
Now I'm a bear of little brain, so I couldn't cope with each thing at once; and then an amazing thing happened.
Operating the camera became unconscious. And with my mind caught up doing that, I felt incredibly connected with the scene and the present moment. I had no thoughts of the past or future distracting my awareness, and could watch my emotions objectively.
I created a series of photographs of the boat being launched; blue cigar smoke backlit by the orange rays of sunlight. The ploughed furrow of coarse sand left in the keel's wake, taut muscles under sun-burnt skin, the tip and splash and finally, the dot past the rocks.
I can't show you these photographs. The camera, old dog that it is, never made them. But I can see them clearly in my mind's eye. I haven't inherited my grandfather's photographic memory, but something about an intense connection with the moment leaves an indelible mark. Perhaps it was this that the Romantic poet Wordsworth was writing about in his poem, 'Daffodils'.
Photography starts as a way to capture, preserve and share your surroundings; 'here's me on my holiday in Egypt (with the pyramids behind)', 'there's Charlotte with the cows', 'this is the view from my new place', 'this is what Sigma's new camera looks like'.
But Holistic Photography can also be used to express your ideas and emotions, using the world as material to do so. The photographer has an image in mind, then sets off with the camera (and Photoshop!) to find or create it. The intention is to create photographs that tell a story, show an
concept or express a feeling.
I believe that expressing ideas and emotions can make photography an art form. For example, Stielglitz made a series of photographs which he called Equivalents; they were pictures of clouds - but they weren't about clouds; he wanted them to seem almost musical.
Enamoured by the idea that a photograph didn't have to be about the subject depicted, I thought expressive photography was a higher practice. Turns out that they both offer rewards for the diligent, open-minded photographer.
Practising expressive photography puts you in touch with your emotions and ideas. You learn to recognise how the world affects your body and mind. You become more sensitive and thoughtful. Without wanting to sound 'woolly' I'll say that this approach to art deeply nourishes the soul and intellect.
Practising preservation in your photography sharpens your awareness of the world around you. A camera is an objective tool. Learning how to anticipate how a scene will look in a photograph before you press the shutter will force you to look at things objectively.
For example, a lot of new photographers have preconceptions of the scene in front of them. They generalise and see what they expect to see. This goes right back to childhood where we learned to associate caricatures with real people and animals. Generalising helps us a lot in daily life; but it is unhelpful for seeing things as they really are.
Looking at the world as it appears also means that we become more aware of change. For example, we start to notice the sun's arc across the sky so we can understand how the shadows in our scene will shift with time. Have a look; shadows move surprisingly quickly.
On a shorter time-scale, and especially with people, even fractions of a second can dramatically alter how your subject appears. Unless you're very present to the moment, it's easy to miss these fluctuations.
Try a series of photographs to explore how things change. This might be a drive-mode series of a galloping horse; or a photo taken once a year of a glacier. It is worth putting them together in a time-lapse video if you have a lot of them.
You can also experiment with your shutter speed duration to see how movement changes. Paying close attention to how things appear to you and how they are changing brings your conscious awareness into the 'now'.
Tolle suggests that to get in touch with the present moment, we can just sit still and pay attention to our thoughts and sensory impressions. After a while, the awareness may arise, 'if I am watching my thoughts, then there must be two of me; the thinking mind and the observing mind.'
Your thoughts don't make you who you are. The Bhagavad Gita talks of your body as a vehicle for your soul. Where does the body end and the mind begin?
But wait. I'm sure that our attachment to form and ego-based identity must be beyond the scope of this photography article!
The point is that unless you're in the habit, it can be tricky to watch your thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them. And your camera happens to be an excellent tool to assist you.
Start to really pay attention to the world around you for what it is. You'll find that it's ludicrously challenging to stop identifying objects for the names you've learned for them; 'my hand, George's happy face, this screen with colours on'.
But what you can do is to realise that objects are unique. They exist; reading Albert Camus' book 'The Stranger' will help explain this. Start looking twice at things, at their form. Where are they in their time-scale from creation to destruction?
Does such a time-scale exist at all for them or is it just a metamorphosis of form and meaning? Does a broken chair with no legs cease to be a chair? Photograph things as they are. Use a macro lens to highlight certain details to de familiarise them.
Challenge the meanings you automatically attach to the things around you. Watch them intently in the moment and you'll be amazed by how your awareness expands.
Ben Evans is a Barcelona-based English Photographer who teaches photography classes in Barcelona and keeps a photoblog of ‘fine art street’ photos of Barcelona at www.i-Barcelona.com.
Ben is the author of best-selling book, Photography: The Few Things You Need To Know, available
now for 99p at www.GreatBigBear.com. He is working on two photography teaching projects, Better Than 90 Percent and Holistic Photography.
He shoots Nikon, Hasselblad, Apple (iPad 3) and those little throwaway waterproof film cameras with the plastic lenses.