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17 - Down Time


Objectivity & Insights

The last statement above was about the setting aside of mistakes to allow solutions to percolate into consciousness.

It brings up the power of down time elsewhere in photography.

E. B. White was a:

. . . demanding worker.

He rewrote the first page of "Charlotte's Web" eight times, and put the early manuscript away for several months, "to let the body heat out of it."1


Yes, do edit out the obvious clinkers, and set aside those that are clearly keepers.

And, do keep the in-between photographs for a time.

You may see one of them in a different light a month later.

Garry Winogrand often waited years to develop film.

He wanted to separate the photographing experience, especially his emotions, from the editing experience.

If I was in a good mood when I was shooting one day, then developed the film right away.

I might choose a picture because I remember how good I felt when I took it.2

After Winogrand's death, the Museum of Modern Art obtained a grant to process 2,500 undeveloped rolls and 6,500 devloped rolls without contact sheets.


When you're doing a project, stop doing the project for a time.

I call it going on miscellaneous.

You'll return to your project refreshed.

Sometimes a project can become oppressive.

Author Joseph Epstein described this phenomenon in regard to writing.

After describing how fewer than 500 people earn a living completely from writing in the United States, he writes:

Things get worse.

Mordecai Richler, the Canadian novelist, once said that he divided his life between the time before he decided to become a writer and the time after—and the time before was better.

What I believe Richler meant was that once one determines to write, one no longer confronts experience directly; it becomes "copy," recyclable in stories, articles, essays, poems.

True, nothing in a skilled writer's life is wasted. But there is something mildly—and sometimes more than mildly—gruesome about collecting experience for one's work the way a certain kind of person collects grievances.

I, for one, would never make the mistake my wife did of marrying a writer.3

A photographer can't recycle everything into his or her photographs, as can a writer into text.

Yet, a project can become visually impairing—much more than you want to see is the project.

Photography Can Get in the Way

Photography can connect you to yourself, to others, and to the world.

Having the identity, photographer, being occupied doing a project, as in I need this picture, and the camera itself, physically, can form a needed barrier between you and surroundings that are unsafe, distressing, and so forth.

However, sometimes, photography gets in the way.

Colin Fletcher was hiking from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other end.

But as I moved into position a gust of wind sent camera and tripod crashing over.

And afterward the shutter refused to function.

I had brought only this one camera down into the Canyon, and at first I simmered with frustration.

But within and hour I discovered a new fact of life.

I recognized, quite clearly, that photography is not really compatible with contemplation.

Its details are too insistent.

They are always buzzing around your mind and clouding the fine focus of appreciation.

You rarely detect this interference at the time, and cannot do much about it even if you do.

But that morning of the Serpentine reconnaissance, after the camera had broken, I found myself freed from an impediment I had not known existed.

I had escaped the tyranny of film.4

Recently, I arrived at a trail head and suddenly felt something was missing.

My camera bag was still in the car.

When I reached the top of the mountain, five hawks were riding the thermals a few feet below my perch.

Instead of photographs, the scientist in me wondered if the hawks had etiquette for how close they would fly near each other, especially when flying toward each other.

The memoirist in me surmised that if I had played "hawk" with my brothers, we would have eventually had to crash into each other, unlike the hawks.

If I had my camera, I wouldn't have had those thoughts.

So, occasionally, don't reach for your camera.

Sunset Example #1

Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig drew Television Sunset, in which a parent and child watch a sunset on TV, as the same sun sets outside their window.


Sunset Example #2

Minor White wrote:

Often while traveling with a camera we arrive just as the sun slips over the horizon of a moment, too late to expose film, only time enough to expose our hearts.


For more, read John Flinn, of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote eloquently on this topic: Trading in Kodak Moments for Some Real-life Memories (Printable version).

1 Angell, R. (2005, February 14 & 21). Andy. New Yorker, 132-148.

2 Van Riper, F. (2003, January 31). Garry Winogrand: Huge Influence, Early Exit. Washington Post,

3 Epstein, J. (2004, April). Writing on the Brain. Commentary.

4 Fletcher, C. (1968). The man who walked through time. NY: Alfred A. Knopf.