When the novel by Sten Nadolny with the same title as this post first was published in 1983, slowness was still mostly a synonym for mental retardedness. The value of slowness indeed needed discovery. Since then slow has become hip. We have a slow movement encompassing slow food, Cittaslow, slow parenting, slow gardening and even slow fashion. And, of course, we have slow photography.
Slow Photography came up during the last 10 years as a reaction to digital photography and the seemingly easiness of picture making in the age of the smart phone. It refers to photography that uses old techniques and processes, from camera obscura and view cameras, to film, wet plate and other old development techniques. It favors a slower, more deliberate approach to photographing, but also the physicality of development of analog film and prints. Slow Photography is actually a growing trend surprisingly especially among younger art photographers.
But a deliberate process is not necessarily tied to analog photography. Also a digital photographer can choose to slow down. Many, if not most, of my own photographs nowadays are made using longer (> 1 second) exposures. In order to achieve such long exposure times I have to use strongly darkening filters in front of the lens. But the filters are so dark that many of the tools of a modern digital camera simply don’t work anymore. Autofocus fails, looking through the viewfinder just shows pitch black and even the camera’s light meter doesn’t work properly. Like in old times exposures have to be calculated manually instead. This leads to a process where scene selection, focusing and light metering all happen before the filter is screwed on. Every slight change in scene selection or focus requires that the filter is first removed again. This leads to a more careful approach in composing the scene, but also forces the photographer to pay attention to proper focus and exposure.
While thus Slow Photography mostly refers to a process, which can be either analog or digital, a sentence in a TED talk by the slow evangelist Carl Honoré hinted at another quality of slowness and one, I think, that is equally relevant in the context of photography. Honoré, who is the author of the 2004 book “In praise of Slowness”, suspects that the fondness for speed in Western culture derives from our linear notion of time.
Now indeed, modern physics and the second law of thermodynamics seem to suggest time as a directed, irreversible arrow from order to disorder (or rather: entropy). Still, even in Western societies other strong perceptions of time as a circular phenomenon have survived. Our calendar, the seasons and many other natural cycles, which we also celebrate in recurring festivities show that we use cyclic and circular notions of time besides the strong linear notion that things come into existence and then decay. Therefore, I think, Honoré misses that linear and cyclic notions of time have co-existed for a long time. Intuitively I’d say, though, that industrialized societies and economics seem to emphasize the linear character of time, while agrarian societies have a stronger dependence and emphasis on the circular aspects of time in Nature. Not surprisingly, the acceleration of live speed Honoré observes would then be a result of the industrialization of Western (and other) societies. People’s discomfort with this accelaration could be a reaction to an imbalance, where linear aspects of time are overemphasized at the cost of its circular eddies.
If we accept that such an imbalance exists, slow photography can have another role (and meaning) in emphasising and defending a cyclic view of time in pictures. Long exposures of clouds and the sea, for example, emphasize their connection through the water cycle. Waves and ripples in the sea actually become clouds in such a picture. At the same time the hustle and bustle of small waves and clouds dissolves into stillness. All movement then happens only in the mind of the viewer, we think it into the picture because we know its there. This method of only suggesting something in a picture and leaving it to the viewer to fill in the missing bits has been an established technique in Asian art.
Hopefully, it also enables us to look at a landscape not only as a collection of pretty things and forms, but as a process against which we can calibrate our inner time.