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The Death of the Moment

The photographer Richard Avedon once quipped that “[photography] is the death of the moment.” While seemingly macabre, the statement reflects the fact that still photography captures a point in time – the moment. That moment is of course fleeting. It is here and then gone forever.

The great draw of photography has always been the desire to preserve the moment. Unlike a painting, or other art forms, there is the feeling that a photograph is somehow more real. That moment actually happened – here is its recording. Look at it and remember.

I am fond of saying that photography is not real. It is an illusion. Part of the illusion is the technology – what lens was used, what aperture, what shutter speed, what lighting. What was included – or not included – in the photograph. And of course there is post production – which pixels were altered in this digital age.

And yet a photograph, while not being real in an absolute sense, can be very real in an emotional one. That moment Avedon speaks of is different to everyone experiencing it. We remember the visuals differently, the emotions, the smells, the taste, the experience. A photograph cannot possibly convey what we humans experienced unless the emotions are added back into it. That is the photographer’s responsibility. That is my responsibility.

Take a young dancer. A dancer’s life is full. Practice. Lessons. Performances. School. Life takes the moments and blurs them – a video recording on fast forward. What exactly was the moment? The only thing for certain is that it is gone. What was it like to be a young dancer? Is there an image that can possibly encapsulate this experience into a single frame? Is there something that can summarize, simplify, unify?

Perhaps the photographer can help.

Look at this image.

Surely this moment didn’t just happen. Ballerinas don’t normally spontaneously appear under highway underpasses. The image is obviously lit, and processed, and the subject fully aware of what was happening. It is a staged moment. It is a portrait.

And yet to that dancer, and to everyone who knows that dancer, perhaps this is the reality of that experience. All the lessons, practices, performances. Those hours of blood, sweat, and tears. The moment when the dancer is en pointe, she is alone on that stage, at one with her art, and all eyes are on her. Even if that stage is a highway underpass.

Perhaps that underpass is a metaphor – the work was hard, the sacrifice great, the journey not always pretty. Yet what emerges is the dancer, beautiful,  spotlighted, alone.

Would it be fair to say that this photograph captures a moment representative of this period in a dancers life? Does it reflect not only the reality of this particular moment (highway underpass, photography session), but that of what this moment represents? That moment is gone now. That period in that dancer’s life is in the rear view mirror. But it has been preserved. The story has been told with a visual clue. It whispers, no need to shout.

That is the photographer’s job. That is my job.

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