Capturing the Moment

Serious photographers must always be aware of time if they are to succeed in capturing the moment. Getting the right exposure depends on setting the proper shutter speed, which is calibrated in seconds or fractions of a second. Photographing a moving subject in low light without a flash is difficult, because the slower shutter speeds required to get the right exposure will result in a blurry image. Even a stationary subject may require a tripod at longer exposures due to camera shake if the shutter speed is slower than about 1/30th of a second. The basic difficulty is that the camera only produces still images, while the world keeps moving.

A still image is basically a fiction, as Susan Sontag noted in On Photography. “The photographed world stands in the same, essentially inaccurate relation to the real world as stills do to movies,” she wrote. “Life is not about significant details, illuminated in a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.” Her observation is nowhere better illustrated than with Abraham Zapruder’s 27-second film clip of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, taken with a home-movie camera and excerpted a week later in Life Magazine as a series of black-and-white stills. The sequence shows the president clutching his throat as the first bullet strikes him, then slumping over after the fatal shot to his head. There were already doubts about the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman when the actual film was aired years later on television. Now it appeared that Kennedy’s head was flung violently backward and to the right at the moment the second bullet struck, suggesting the shot came from the front, not from Oswald’s perch in the Texas School Book Depository behind the president’s limousine. Which is the true depiction of events? The controversy still rages a half century after Kennedy’s death.

One might well conclude that a movie camera does a better job of capturing a world in motion, but the result is ultimately no less an illusion. The sequence of photographs published in Life Magazine a week after the Kennedy assassination was, in fact, a better representation of what was actually recorded by Zapuder’s Bell & Howell movie camera than the moving images shown on TV years later. Movement – or rather the illusion of movement – is created not by the camera but by the eye when a sequence of successive still images is threaded rapidly through a projector.

Just as movies are a succession of still images, we regard time as a succession of those moments we try to capture in photographs. But what exactly is a moment? We think of it as a slice of time, but how big a slice? In photographic terms, the exposure cannot be so long that the image would be blurred. Moments are more like points on a line, which you might recall from geometry class have no physical dimensions in themselves. There can be an infinite number of points on a line, but the points will never add up to a line. Similarly, a moment has no duration in itself, and therefore an infinite number of moments in succession can never amount to any length of time. Not only is a still image a fiction, as Susan Sontag suggested, but so apparently is the moment the photographer is trying to capture. What then does that say about time?

© Copyright 2004-2019 by Eric Rennie
All Rights Reserved