Constructing the Decisive Moment

When randomly pausing a DVD to answer the phone, get a glass of water, or whatever, I’m surprised at the number of beautifully composed still photos I see, especially in some of the better art directed shows I’m watching at the moment, such as Madmen and Dexter. In my photography, capturing the decisive moment is as much luck as it is skill. Far more photos fail than pass, because of my having released the shutter a split second too early or too late. If only I could have rewound and planned it better. You know how it is when everything is perfect but the model blinked and the eyes are closed in the shot.

So when my suspension of disbelief during a video lulls me to think that I’m witnessing real life, it was a revelation to discover that I could stop time exactly where I wanted and select those beautifully composed stills that are so fleeting at 30 frames per second.

This weekend, I was just starting to feel better after three days with the flu. I was still trying to keep a low profile, so I tried this experiment. I got into bed with my favorite old movie, All About Eve, set my camera on a tripod, and watched with the shutter cable release in one hand and the remote control in the other. I paused at the precise moments in the film that moved me to do so and captured the images. These turned out to be not the glamorous Hollywood film stills, but the same types of moments I like to capture in my portraiture, those moments of high emotion where I can reach beneath the surface and reveal something subtle. It’s interesting that in this case it might not be so subtle, since I’m photographing performers whose job it is to convey such emotions. However this is a translation of a constantly moving subject into a freeze-frame of an instant. With the viewer’s slow study of the still image, different things can be understood than in the fleeting instant that image occupies in a moving film.

In post processing I converted the images to black and white, as there were annoying blue tints in the shadows. I had to blur the images to remove the vertical lines inherent in the television screen. I found that blurring them slightly more than necessary lent a more vintage feel and mysterious, soft quality that I liked. And I found something unexpected: I’m drawn to film noir style images of distraught women on telephones in dark rooms.

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