How many times in the past month have you looked at a photographic image for more than eight seconds?
Once, a group of university art students were asked to monitor the people coming and going from a major photographic exhibit. They noted the time when a visitor to the exhibit entered and the time that they left, then divided that duration by the number of pieces of art in the exhibit. There were exceptions, but, on the average, their viewing time worked out to eight seconds per piece of art. This is about the same time it takes to cut a piece of meat on your plate, put it in your mouth, chew it and swallow. So, is eight seconds the average time for consumption of both food and art? From a recent experience at my photographic art exhibit, I think it might be.
When I present one of my fine art photographs it is because the image and how I’ve prepared it are meaningful to me. The most important things about my art for me are that it is mine, it is original, and it stirs up an emotion inside me. When I place such an image in an exhibit I’m making myself vulnerable to public opinion. It is a risk that all fine art photographers take.
As I watched people at my exhibit, I saw many of them walking slowly along the image wall, almost never stopping to consider a particular image. It occurred to me that they were ‘consuming’ my images without really ‘digesting’ them, just like they would consume food at a fast-food restaurant. Did they really not like my images or have they been conditioned to look at photographs in such a cavalier way?
We live in a world filled with photographic images. I think this has desensitised us to the medium of photography. A Calgary based photographer, Dan Gordon, who was the head of the photography program at ACAD before he retired, related a true story to me that I thought was telling. Several years ago there was a significant photographic exhibit presented by Dan and half-a-dozen other accomplished and well known photographers in Calgary. The exhibit was in a gallery on ‘Gallery Row” on 11th Avenue, which at that time was a place known to have good art. The photographic exhibit was much above the norm with interesting and artistic art on display. One day, when it was his turn to be at the exhibit, he was waiting near the door to greet people when two women stepped up to the entry, peered in and then said, “Oh it is just photographs” and then turned and walked away without looking at anything. To me, that behaviour is wrong. All art should be given a chance and photographic art is no different.
I’ve wondered whether if we have so much going on in our lives that we won’t or can’t take the time to appreciate either a quality meal or photographic art?
Consider how we normally eat at a fast food restaurant. The consumption is an instant ‘hit’ of taste, satisfying, but momentary. Each mouthful usually never takes more than eight seconds to chew and swallow, often less.
When we eat at an exclusive restaurant, we tend to consume our food in a more mindful way. We take the time to look at a carefully prepared meal, smell the food, savour it in our mouths, and appreciate taste sensation that occurs. I find that, when doing so, I have a much better chance to remember something from my past that these sights and tastes evoke. It usually involves a memory of particular people in my life or a particular place or event. Hopefully, we appreciate the effort and culinary art required. We might take time to talk over our experience with friends, either at the dinner table or later. Whatever it is, we get out of it more than just satisfying our hunger. We tend to have some kind of emotional experience associated with eating and there is usually more than eight seconds involved.
If a fine art photograph is going to have some impact on us, it will take more than eight seconds to look at it. The next time you get a chance to see an exhibit of photography, take your time and give your busy mind a chance to slow down. Take in what you see, not only for what the image is, but for what else it might be to you. Talk with others about what you see. Discover what they are experiencing when they look at the same image.
If we apply some focus to experiencing fine art photography and don’t just quickly consume it, we might come away more often with something internal, something unseen, something that stays with us. It is often a personal memory, but it might evoke some basic artistic sense that we have for the shapes, tones, or colours in the photograph. Whatever it is, we will gain something inside our minds and hearts. A good photograph is not just an image, it is an experience, both of the photographer and the viewer. At its best, it is a vehicle to connect with one another.