I have only recently learned of the Slow Photography Movement. I thought it was a group of photographers dedicated to the “slower” pace of film-based photography. That is not so.
As I listened to Matt Payne’s Podcast on Slow Photography, I realised it was more about an attitude towards your own photography. It’s a counter-culture swing against the current trends in image-making.
What I got out of the interview was their emphasis on being in the moment. That is, to be conscious of your experience of what you are seeing, rather than racing into taking a photograph.
Awareness as the Creative Factor
In an article I published over 20 years ago I expressed similar sentiments in describing my photography workflow. I was writing about what I termed Awareness. I stated that Awareness is the most significant creative factor in photography and the least discussed.
Awareness, while being in the moment, is also mixed with past and present experiences. It can even be shaped by your childhood memories, experiences, and your interpretation of them.
But Awareness is also about educating yourself about your subject. To know it, to immerse yourself in it, to go beyond the superficial. It requires time to gain understanding, compassion, and sensitivity to its nuances. These qualities will not only guide your photographic compositions but also your decisions during printmaking. Awareness becomes incorporated into the very ethos of your photography, determining how, when, and where you display your images.
Not so new Slow Photography?
In 2000, I wrote my article, Awareness, within the context of producing my large format colour calendar of Western Australia called Horizon. My workflow for the calendar consisted of using colour transparency sheet film, a wooden field camera with three lenses, a tripod, and a handheld light meter. It’s a very simple photography kit with limited choices. Today, I still use the same camera. Simplicity frees me to be more receptive to what I am seeing.
But, I wonder, have the fundamentals of meaningful landscape photography really changed? We now live in an age where photography is instantaneous, prolific, highly portable, and can be shared globally. In the race for social media popularity, image production is prolific and comparisons between other photographers are inevitable.
For me, the philosophy behind the Slow Photography Movement is not new. I invite you to step back twenty years ago, to when I first shared my thoughts in an essay about landscape photography, and compare them to where we are today.
“Everything in the world is invisible, except that which we make semi-visible. By the introduction of awareness, all things can become visible”
Mevlana Jalalu’ddin Rumi, Sufi mystic, 13th Century Persian poet
Tension and Balance
One of my earliest visual memories as a child was on a summer evening. I was lying in my bedroom staring out through the darkness of an open window. The night air was warm, humid, and still. Out of the darkness, an enormous bolt of white light burst across the sky. Snaking and splitting, it drove a forked path into the ground.
In that instant, the sky was transformed from black to palest blue, burning a ghost image onto my retina. An image of a gnarled old jarrah tree, within the frame of the bedroom window. Silhouetted against the sky, its branches reach upwards, opposite to the lightning’s direction. It was as if both elements were communicating in some secret way.
There was a roar of thunder, the weatherboard house shook and for a fraction of a second, this image framed by the window seemed strangely satisfying. It was as if an emotional tension created between these elements was held in some magical balance by the rectangular window frame.
Harmony within Chaos
Years later, as a photographer, I would obsessively seek out that mystical feeling of balance between visual elements and emotion, framed within the viewfinder of a camera. Nature provides me with some of the most compelling subject matter, capable of evoking simultaneously conflicting feelings. These can be joy, wonderment, awe, and fear. Such tension between emotion and the reality of the physical forms that naturally occur through nature’s forces is inspiring. It is this search for beauty, balance, and harmony which finds me making photographs in wild places.
Striving for Simplification
Other than a tool, cameras are of little interest to me. This is not to imply a lack of attention to technique or disinterest in new technology, merely that they are secondary to making the photographs.
Sound technical knowledge comes from familiarity with equipment, materials, and regular practice. Simplification of tools and techniques is, to my mind, highly desirable. Simplification can accelerate learning and is also a practical necessity to minimise the weight of my backpack.
The Camera as a Box
To make the images for this calendar I use a large format, wooden field camera. It is basically a box shape with a lens at the front of the box and a ground glass screen at the back, with leather bellows in between.
The leather bellows allow the lens to be moved closer to the ground glass screen or further away from the ground glass so that the image can be brought into focus on the screen. To see the image you have to throw a black cloth over the ground glass screen and place your head under the cloth, just like in the old days. The image is dark, back to front, and upside down. You cannot hand-hold this type of camera, it must be mounted on a tripod.
The camera has no electronic circuitry, no auto-focus, or a built-in exposure meter. Sheet film is carried separately in a film back which is inserted in place of the ground glass screen before I make a photograph. I use three lenses, representing wide-angle, normal focal length, and short telephoto in this film format.
Working within Limitations
I don’t use filters, except for clear ultraviolet filters which are there for lens protection, although I sometimes take these off. All of my colour photographs are made on transparency (colour slide) film.
Great effort goes into matching the colours reproduced here in the calendar with those colours actually recorded by the film. I prefer to use mostly one film type, being familiar with its exposure and colour characteristics under a wide range of lighting conditions. I determine exposures using a handheld light meter.
This camera is bigger than a 35mm or medium format camera and is slower to use. However, for me it has advantages. There is a high degree of clarity in the reproductions that are obtained from the larger 4×5-inch film size. This is important to me so that I can preserve maximum detail in the calendar images. Preservation of detail also heightens the illusion that the viewer could literally walk into the photograph and touch the subject.
A Conscious Sequence
As the camera is slower to use, the very act of making a photograph becomes a more conscious series of sequences. I am required to think carefully of my viewpoint, the subject’s form and dynamics, the contrast range of the light, and all of this prior to getting the camera out of the backpack. I don’t want to go to the trouble of unpacking my camera for an image that I think is mediocre.
Blinded by Preconceived Ideas
It is not so much the subject, but your feeling towards the subject, which matters most in photography. To make an aesthetically pleasing photograph requires an awareness, comprising of an understanding, compassion, and sensitivity towards the subject.
Awareness is the least discussed element in good photography and a lifelong process. I have passed areas I have previously visited and have been surprised by the potential images I had not seen. There is the constant trap of approaching the subject with preconceived ideas and when the prevailing conditions do not fit these ideas, returning empty-handed.
Awareness is a Lifelong Process
This process of gaining awareness is the most significant creative factor influencing my compositions. To me, compositions are about feelings. They are a melting pot of experience and understanding that the photographer brings to their subject and it is how these feelings and thoughts correlate to the size, shape, and placement of elements as they are composed on the ground glass screen.
Building your awareness of your subject requires you to go on your own inner voyage of discovery, to develop your curiosity, to constantly be open to the unexpected.
Within Nature, I find this process of awareness infinite. It is not only a physical and creative process for me but a spiritually rejuvenating process that I can find nowhere else.
Revised essay from 2000 Horizon Images of Western Australia Calendar, Stormlight Publishing, Applecross, Western Australia, 2000
Have the fundamentals of landscape photography changed?
Since this essay 20 years ago, photography and the way we share images have undergone massive changes. However, with all those years passing, the sentiments I expressed then, remain my guiding principles today. Many of these principles are expressed in the new Slow Photography Movement.
Those principles affect what, where, and when I photograph. They guide me with my compositions, as a process of discovery, of photographing the subject “as found”. Rather than approaching with preconceived ideas, being receptive enables the subject to be revealed to me.
My aim is to discover a vision through awareness, rather than impose a vision through affectation. I’m not comfortable with cutting and pasting skies or adding or subtracting elements. Unless the viewer can recognise a surrealist style, passing off such images as something experienced undermines the medium of photography.
To understand the subject is to move beyond it being a mere object. On the other hand, a lack of understanding of the subject can, unfortunately, lead to treatments of beautification and decoration, to fill that void of experience.
A philosophy to improve your photography
The philosophy of Slow Photography Movement and Awareness has the potential to improve your photography. It does not matter if you shoot film or digital, large or small format. It is an attitude that is counter to the current online race.
Slow Photography Movement and Awareness are about the importance of experiencing the landscape, rather than the endless output and consumption of imagery.
So, when you are next out with your camera, slow down. Forget the camera for a moment and enjoy the landscape, the reason why you are here. As you pause, decide if you really need to make that photograph. It’s OK to enjoy that magical sunset or wonder at that amazing cloud formation without getting your camera out.