Some years ago family and friends gathered to celebrate my father-in-law’s 100th birthday. Born when Teddy Roosevelt was president, he was old enough to remember World War I and was already an adult when the stock market crashed in 1929. He was at least a decade older than most of the men who fought with him in World War II and nearly 40 when my wife was born after the war. During the McCarthy era he lost his teaching position for refusing to name names, then waged a successful six-year court battle to get his job back. He retired reluctantly at 70 and began a new career as a poet, publishing his work in small literary magazines. His only complaint about living so long is that he had outlived most of his friends, although he still appeared to have many.
By any reckoning, my father-in-law’s 100th birthday was a special occasion. The key moment came when we drank a champagne toast in his honor. Here I faced a dilemma. As the designated family photographer, I had to decide whether to raise my glass or my camera. My father-in-law’s oldest friend talked about how they had met during the war. My brother-in-law, who had lost his own father before marrying into the family, said he had found another one. Then came the toast. I snapped away; the moment was captured.
Looking at the photographs later, I saw I was not the only one to raise a camera rather than a champagne glass at the critical moment. In doing so, some of us chose to take ourselves out of the moment in order to preserve it. But what is it that has been preserved? All serious photographers understand they are producing works of fiction, however much they may appear to reproduce the reality of a moment. Just by pointing a camera, they are putting a frame around their experience that does not exist in reality. “Life is not significant details, illuminated by a flash, fixed forever,” Susan Sontag wrote. “Photographs are.”
The essential artifice of photography was more apparent in its early days, when long exposure times ruled out any thought of capturing the moment. Mathew Brady could not hope to photograph a soldier at the moment his life was ended by a bullet, as Robert Capa did during the Spanish Civil War. Brady and the photographers who worked for him mostly took pictures of battlefield corpses during the American Civil War because they didn’t move. Live subjects in photographs then often had to pose with head clamps to keep still, which is why so many looked embalmed in formal portraits.
Even with today’s faster shutter speeds, people tend to play to the camera, taking themselves out of the moment in order to be preserved for posterity. What then does it mean to say that we have captured the moment? The very presence of a camera alters the event, turning reality into a photo op. It’s not just the photograph that is a work of fiction but ultimately the moment itself. Sontag once described a still photograph as a slice of time, which also describes a moment. But what exactly is being sliced? Time exists only when you think about it; a moment exists only in recollection. A photograph then is the most human of all artifacts, a pure expression of thought.
Susan Sontag, On Photography