A Still Image

Why a ‘still’ image? Why ‘still’? How Why name my website “A Still Image?” Why would I choose for my photography to pursue the still image? It might be helpful to ask how a still image differs from a moving image?

Perhaps this is a relevant question: in social media the moving image has taken over from the still image that took over from the written word as being most effective for the goal of social media strategies: that is to attract your attention. Well, maybe better, for distracting you, stealing your attention from what you had planned to do.

In an overcrowded world of so many seeking our attention thanks to the changes in technology and the accompanying notifications and pings and fast scrolling and tons of messages, that bit of moving image on the screen is so much better to gain one’s attention, better than the immobile still image that had its day when it supplanted the effort it took to read a headline, let alone the effort to read a body of text. My writing here is not good social media practice, not very effective communication in today’s world.

However, I would suggest, moving away a focus from the still image to a moving image is to give our lives over more to the messaging of others and leave behind our own telling of the story of our life. The difference in part is illustrated with the descriptors ‘moving’ and ‘still.’ That difference for me is in seeing life as it appears and seeing life as it is. It’s a difference of time, and ironically, attention.

A still image holds a moment in suspension. In contrast, the moving image is 24-30 different frames a second. The moving image is about the next moment, about the anticipation. The moving image is about the moment coming next, acts as a distraction from the present moment. Always about what’s ahead, not about now.

The single frame of the still image is not about time moving on, but time held. The still image is about the contemplation of a single moment, is about staying with the moment, knowing more about a single moment by stopping time. With a stillness of view, one allows oneself to examine and reflect on, rather than be taken from, distracted from, the moment one’s in.

Staying with the moment, one is able to contemplate that moment, contemplate what that moment actually means for one. Only living through the next moment as with moving images, may also give one a sense of meaningfulness but the meaning generated by moving images is more a stimulation, often now an overstimulation, of one’s senses. That stimulation of the senses makes it seem to us something important has occurred when all that’s actually happened is we have undergone a continual barrage of our sensory receptors. Quite differently, meaning that comes from the stillness of contemplation is a meaning of inner experience, going inside oneself, feeling what is behind the outer experiences of the world by removing oneself from the experience of the outer world. Distraction just keeps us in the activity of the world outside of us, never to stop, to reflect on what is behind all the activity, what it means to us.

Each mode, still and moving, serves a purpose and a way to get somewhere.* But we should ask ourselves, each one for we all have a unique perspective, ask where we are we going? If we are not asking that question -questioning- then the creator of the stimulus is dictating a life to us. By questioning the world as it is presented to us, we choose for ourselves what matters, what has value for us. Making our own choices means we have control over our own lives. Only by slowing down and questioning the received world do we determine the meaning of our lives. Having time to explore the suspended moment, as in a still image, leads one more deeply into the nature of things, not things as they appear, but things as they are. Only by suspending time can we imagine, dream, explore our own self outside of time-moving-on. 

The moving image takes us to a place the moving image determines. The moving image doesn’t give us time to question the journey we’re on. It leads. It dictates the story. In  the end we assent to or dismiss its story. With contemplating the still image -our dreams and imaginings- we determine the direction we go in, become our own story, a story determined from within our own being, a result of our own determination.

What does this say then? With letting the experience of the world distract us and keep our attention on the activity and priorities of others in the world, then our life is determined largely by the messenger of that stimulation. Oh, advertising doesn’t affect me, people say. Sorry. That is just not the case. The most sophisticated AI, the AI that has beaten humans at the game of GO, the gold standard for AI, that AI is being used for what? That most sophisticated of AI in the world today is used to choose your YouTube selections for what to see next. Sorry. You can’t win against it. However, if you stop being sucked in to the vortex of a marketer’s strategy to fix your attention on them, question your activity, then that questioning and examining makes you the determiner of your life experience. By questioning, stopping, examining, you make the choices for your life, not the makers of the distractions flying at you. This contemplation, though, is not momentary. You would need to stop, really stop and for a long time be still enough, put yourself into the stillness of silence.

That’s a big difference for the way most of us live now. It comes down to who controls your life. And from that realization, it’s about your discovery of the meaning of your own life, rather than living someone else’s life.

With the moving image, meaning is achieved by constant stimulation; the stimulation leads us to feel something has changed in us, something of import has happened. But in actuality, we’ve just had our senses stimulated by a lot of light, and lines and colours flying by. With the still image, the line and the light, the colour and the shape is not flashing by, not about stimulation. Instead, in the stillness of our contemplation, the line and light, colour and shape play on the structures of our perception, enter the deeper recesses of the black box of our unconscious. In a way it could be said the unconscious is who we really are. Ninety percent of the business of our brain is this black box. Contemplating the composition of an image, its light and line, its colour and texture leads us inward, takes us into our own deep selves, takes us to a knowing of self, to a tapping into the dark mind where our inner self resides. A worthy still image goes below the surface of what we see, is not about things as they appear before us, but is about things as they are.

As stillness takes us inward, deeper into itself, and so deeper into ourself, a good photograph helps us to feel more of life … and so feel life more.

As literary critic John Banville describes, art is not about making a great statement; it’s about a gesture that awakens one, in a brief moment, awakens one.

Different images will speak to different people for we are none of us alike. You may find an image you love, for some reason love, something about it you love. In the stillness of the image drawn to you by love, you are able to explore, imagine, dream. A famous photographer whose name I forget would regularly go into his art museum, take a stool, and for six or eight hours sit before one image discovering more and more as each hour passed. Emily Carr when painting in the west coast rainforest would spend most of the day sitting in place without lifting her brush to paint, waiting as she did until the trees before her spoke, told her about themselves first, before she painted.

Spending much time with a still image that we love slows us down. In this way, we find solace, discover our own self, recognize our own humanity, away from the speed of life racing by. Why a ‘still’ image? To suspend time passing; to contemplate time being.

Perhaps this image is chosen for its irony: it is an image I like, of the person I love, who is looking out to sea, in representation of the idea of the article of taking time to see: to see in the imagination of the inner self. It is not just a sea and not just a dark cloud and not just a bird in flight: that is for her at that time, for her standing on that rock. And for us: not just a woman standing on a rock. In the stillness there is more than we can know.

* Nothing is as simple as a short few paragraphs might suggest. I feel moving images can act as a still image as well. A director of moving images can shoot those moving images in such a way, frame it just so, connect the frames so well over the course of viewing that the viewer can be left with a strong sense of a scene as if a single image. That impression remain with one as if a single view, the action suspended actively in a moment. A wonderful moment that allows for our contemplation as does a still image, a moment that resides in our imagination, plays inside our dreams and imaginings.

In a different way to the effect of a still image, it seems the contemplative effect of a moving scene occurs not at the time of viewing, but hours or days later, comes to one after a time. A still image seems to require one to be observing the image to contemplate its thought for us. It seems that way. How is it with you?


Addendum: If this makes sense to you at least in some way, let me throw in a 180 curve, an about face. Let me expand the question: why any image at all? Some years ago I overhead two men in a restaurant talking about a golf game. Quite excitedly they described the course, shots on different holes, fighting the wind. This had been quite an emotional game for them.

Only later did I realize they were talking about a computer game of golf. I thought how could this be better than standing on a real golf course and feeling a real wind in their face? In fact, it wasn’t golf they were excited about but the computer game.

Of course, computer games aren’t still, but it started me thinking that maybe the purpose of my photography should be to tell people not to look at my still images. Should an image appeal to someone, I would like to suggest she or he pursue what is depicted in the image as better than the image itself. leave go of the image. Acclaimed photographer Diane Arbus said that the subjects of her images were far more interesting than her images of the subjects.

Seeing is really an attitude or perception, that is, how our brain selects and interprets the stimulation of our senses. When we visit a gallery, well, the truth is the owner of the gallery wants our attention. Everything of the experience caters to us, our ego. The attention is on us, either for a public service of the great galleries or for our business as with the commercial galleries. In either case, the galleries cater to us. The art work is hung at a height suited to our viewing, distance is given for comfortable and ideal viewing. The temperature and quality of air is to our liking. We even are made to feel special for visiting. All of this caters to us, to our ego. All of it makes us the centre of the gallery experience.

Now it is true for a public gallery we pay admission, and it’s high enough to be a cost most of us feel. And the aura of a gallery does suggest that one is in some kind of temple. But you have to work at it. Most people go to special exhibitions and if they are good then a lot of people go, and the experience is more of a market fighting with others to get in front of the work or settling for looking through people. I like to go to an exhibition a few times. After the first viewing I’ll be first in line to get in when the art gallery or museum opens. Then I’ll walk well into the exhibition. That gives me time before the other people who start at the beginning of the show to catch up to me. I can be alone in a room for a while with some great art, all alone in the silence. Well yes a security guard comes with me but she or he is quite quiet! To get that different perspective, different relationship with the art, I have to work at it. In our society, it’s hard to not feel the experience is about me, about the viewers, art subservient to the viewers, not about the art.

The art is there for our viewing. In fact the research shows people spend only a matter of seconds viewing each work. One study found people spending twice as long reading the label than looking at the artwork. If instead it was difficult for us to view the art, if we had to work at it, overcome some difficulty, feel a bit uncomfortable, earn our way to see the art, then the art would appear to us differently. We would no longer be the centre of the attention in the gallery. Instead by having to pay a physical cost to see the art, we would in turn feel we were paying obeisance to the art; it would have primary place. If a work was, for example, in a 600 square meter room that was hard to find, a single work all on its own, hanging 6 meters off the ground, then our relationship to that art would be different; the art would take precedence, have more importance than us. Consequently, our attitude would be different, would see the art differently, not as something to please us, but in its indifference to us, in its own beauty indifferent to us, us seeing our relationship to it differently, it could then teach us about life, could then awaken us to something other than our own ego.

Yes, contemplating a landscape in nature surely gives more to us than contemplating a still image of a landscape. What can we say then? Let us say the images are our teachers, teaching us to see. The artist eye framing the image, sculpting the light, choosing line and colour, concentrates our eye, helps us to see better. Creative work provides us focus, shapes how we see, and so in viewing an image, what we see is how the artist has seen, the artist sharing that with us.

But perhaps our goal is to learn to see for ourselves, see the world as alive, see ourselves alive in the world, see that the tree itself has something to say to us, teach us. More than any image of a tree, a tree would itself speak to us of deep things, tell us of things as they really are. The image of a tree in its artistic concentration of meaning would point us to the subject, to the tree, so that we too might experience as the artist, to see the tree for what it is, and through that, not the art image but the tree itself, see ourselves for who we are.

By being attentive to the tree, by making the tree more important than ourselves, we might come to abandon belief in our superiority. Humans might then begin to see that nature is the wise one.

The still image is a bridge, telling us what we love, teaching us to be still, to listen. If the still image might give us the practice of stillness, of turning within, then in the stillness of the moment, the silence within us appears to us. Within that silence, only by coming to the silence we hold within, only there, in that place, the sages teach, do we find the whole of the world. To be with ourself within is to live inside the world. To be with ourself within is to listen to what wisdom the world has to tell to us. The world within, that experience of the world, is in fact the world itself. In contemplation of the world about us, we find our own story and our peace. Writes Thomas Merton, monk and poet, ‘what we have to be is what we are.’