I remembered something today that a professor told me back when I was in college. He told my classmates and me that we should not think or talk about taking pictures, but instead that what we were doing was making pictures. His reasoning was that when you make something, you approach it with the mindset of a craftsman, as someone who gathers together the material at hand, intentionally manipulating and arranging it in just such a way that communicates the idea, be it a feeling, a statement or a question. This was the point he wanted to get across; that good images were made when we considered the intention of our action. It has stuck with me ever since.
All these years later, I still hear that instructive voice reminding me to take time and consider my image, my process. However, I can’t help but feel that prioritizing the word “make” over “take” does a disservice to the sometimes emotionally driven action of taking something.
Photography, in some respects, is the act of stopping time, of freezing a moment. Hiroshi Sugimoto has said of photography that “Taking a photograph, I realize, is to fossilize the present day.” Whatever else might be the subject of his photograph, he is aware that he is using the light captured by his camera to preserve a moment in time.
But what about the act of taking an image? Perhaps the only difference between taking a photograph and making one is time. Time to pre-visualize, a technique Ansel Adams stressed the importance of. Taking an image is to focus (or not) on a moment and capture it from that unstoppable flow of time, and thus preserving it beyond the fleeting instant it would have been. It’s a smile just before it fades. It’s a bird on a branch just before taking flight. It’s an impulse.
Yesterday, as the sunlight was fading and the apartment growing dimmer by each passing minute, I reached for my camera to photograph my dog, Shea. She was posed in an uncharacteristically subdued manner. As I positioned my tripod and found the framing of my soon-to-be image, I thought about whether or not I was making this image or taking it. Meanwhile, just today, I attempted to snap a photo of her in a different pose. I had been reading, and so I didn’t have a camera at the ready, nor was any nearby. I decided to risk disturbing her even though it was only midday, and she had spent the morning filling our apartment with whining appeals to me in an attempt to sway me to play with her. Appeals that, at best, only went half answered by way of a few tosses and tugs with her favorite orange toy every now and then.
I lifted the blanket, which had been keeping my feet warm. It’s a slightly chewed up thin sheet of cotton, deep blue with a narrow pinstriped grid of alternating gold-white-gold threads and a tag still attached which reads “property of Air Swiss” (my guilt nowhere to be found). My feet felt the crisp shock of chilled air. Shea, thinking this was some action signaling my intent to play, widened her eyes at first, forming an expression which seemed to be both excited and fearful, and then leapt from the couch.
My picture was gone. Just like that, the moment, which had seemed frozen in real life, passed in a whirlwind of misinterpreted action. Still, I finished what I started out to do. I went and retrieved my camera from its resting place perched atop an old, solid aluminum Tiltall tripod marked with chips, dents, and scratches from years of use, most of them not my own making.
Thinking back on yesterday’s image and the process of making it, I couldn’t help but feel that yes, I did make yesterday’s image. But had I been able to capture the moment I saw today, that would have been an image I took, if for no other reason than a desire to preserve an unlikely moment I knew was teetering on the edge of vanishing.
Sometimes a photograph is made. We have the luxury to plan ahead, even if it is only a few seconds, or take our time piecing together whatever it is we see into whatever it is we want to say. Other times, the images we capture are taken, whether by cause of impulse or merely the necessary quick action before whatever in front of us vanishes, changes, or passes on to something else.
~ S. R.