Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cartier-Bresson on Memory

Memory is very important, particularly in respect to the recollection of every picture you've taken while you've been galloping at the speed of the scene itself. The photographer must make sure, while he is still in the presence of the unfolding scene, that he hasn't left any gaps, that he has really given expression to the meaning of the scene in its entirety, for afterward it is too late. He is never able to wind the scene backward in order to photograph it all over again.

-- Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind's Eye

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It struck me as I read this, that the word 'memory' would mean something quite different to the average photographer today.

Yes, some things have not changed; scenes still cannot be wound backwards in order to be photographed again. However, we now speak of large storage capacity (i.e., digital memory) that is purportedly able to lessen our chances of missing the shots we desire. What I mean is this: a photographer who has enough space on his memory card, can keep firing and worry less about missing critical split-second moments.

Right? Well, it depends. For sports and wildlife photography, I believe so. But for reportage and journalism, I still think the restrictions imposed by the 36 frames of a roll of film (considerably pathetic compared to the hundreds of shots that can be stored on SD or CF cards) helps one craft a story more thoughtfully.

I don't mean that everyone should shift to film (although it wouldn't hurt if they did). But as many have wisely observed, today's digital photographers would do well to practise some of the values of film photography--not least of which is a careful, thoughtful approach to shooting.

No photographer can capture everything, and so in every scene there will always be the 'missed shots'. But the photographer can capture enough of the scene in such a way that will adequately communicate it to the viewer, and that should be the aim, I believe, of photography: not to shoot so much so that nothing more can be added or said, but just enough so that all that needs to be said, is.

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