A Frame Around the Moment

“The whole genius of haiku is that they don’t mean anything,” wrote Frederick Buechner in an essay entitled “The Remarkable Ordinary” in a volume of the same name. Buechner gave as an example this little gem by the 17-century haiku master Matsuo Bashō:

An old silent pond.
Into the pond the frog jumps.
Splash. Silence again.

How could that haiku mean anything? It describes a small moment and is told just as quickly — all of 17 syllables, and then it’s done. So what has transpired here? A haiku, Buechner says, “tries to put a frame around the moment.”

Buechner starts small, with a simple haiku, but he then goes on to say that writing, art and music are all essentially trying to do the same thing: to put a frame around the moment. But why? Here Buechner makes a distinction between what the Greeks would characterize as chronos time, which can be measured by a ticking clock, and kairos time, or time as we experience it qualitatively. When a writer or artist or musician puts a frame around a moment, it is kairos time that he or she wishes to capture, as if to say, “Pay attention to this.”

Buechner does not mention photography, but it immediately struck me that capturing the moment is precisely what I do as a fine-arts photographer. The cameras I use have all sorts of buttons and dials for adjusting the focus, focal length (depth of field) and such. But the adjustment I start with is the time of the exposure, which is calibrated in seconds or fractions of a second.

Getting the right exposure depends on setting the proper shutter speed. 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. Getting the shutter speed wrong can result in an image that is overexposed or underexposed, depending on the level of ambient light.

The way a fine arts photographer approaches his or her craft will differ from other types of photographers. A crime-scene photographer is interested in facts. A sports photographer is concerned with capturing action that is significant to the outcome of a game, akin to what photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to as the “decisive moment.” A fine arts photographer is aiming at something closer to the visual equivalent of a haiku, a small moment that has no significance beyond itself. The exposure setting on my camera is calibrated in chronos time, just like the cameras used by a crime-scene photographer or a photo-journalist. But the moment I seek to put a frame around is an expression of kairos time.

My favorite example is an image by a Swiss-born photographer named Robert Frank, whose collection, The Americans, remains one of the most iconic works of the postwar era. His subject matter was mostly small moments captured on the fly as he toured the country on a Guggenheim grant. The photograph I have in mind was a bit different. It was taken at the largest ticker-tape parade ever held in New York City, honoring General Douglas McArthur on his return home from Korea in 1951. The image was shot from well back in the crowd along the parade route, with no particulars of the occasion beyond a bright snow shower of ticker tape cascading from the office windows above. Several women hold up open compact cases, hoping to catch a glimpse of the motorcade in their mirrors. MacArthur isn’t even visible in the photograph, and yet there is no mistaking the excitement of the occasion. The moment Frank captured is pure kairos.

“The photographed world stands in the same, essentially inaccurate relation to the real world as stills do to movies,” wrote the late culture critic Susan Sontag. “Life is not about significant details, illuminated a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.” Sontag’s complaint was two-fold: first, that photographs present a slice of time, not a flow; and second, that they alter reality by putting a frame around it. “To photograph is to frame,” she wrote, “and to frame is to exclude.”

You can certainly argue that Robert Frank’s image of the ticker-tape parade in New York City falsifies the event by excluding General McArthur. But then, the photograph isn’t about General McArthur. If it's about anything, it’s about the women in the crowd excitedly holding up their compact mirrors to see over the crowd in a snow shower of ticker tape. It’s a small moment with a frame around it, and as such is essentially no different from what any writer or artist or musician tries to do. All of us are in the business of saying, in effect, “Pay attention to this.” As a fine-arts photographer, I work in chronos time in hopes of capturing kairos time. And If the photo gods are smiling, the moment I put a frame around will be timeless.

© Copyright 2004-2023 by Eric Rennie
All Rights Reserved