‘Cause everybody hates a tourist
—Pulp, Common People
THE SIMPLE STORY: I began this project knowing that I wanted to use the greatest depth of field possible. I have always admired the sharpness in Group f/64’s photographs of the Depression-era American West, and every detail of Thai material culture was fresh to me. I wanted to capture all that dense materiality, its grit and color, foreground to background, down to the blue pipe and the brown glass bottles of Thai energy drinks and greyish veiny dead leaves and orange garlands of marigolds and the gold and silver glitter of the figurines.
For the same reasons, I also wanted to shoot at the lowest possible ISO. Those decisions having been made, I needed to leave the shutter open for a time measured in seconds to get a decent exposure. And so I bought a tripod to eliminate camera shake. I didn’t realize that these are all decisions that a typical rank beginner makes. (In fact, I wasted a lot of time in the beginning because in a quest to eliminate special causes of variation, I let the camera’s software set the ISO automatically. Bad decision, because the camera didn’t understand what I was seeing at all. But a bad decision without consequences, because those first photographs were all terrible, anyway.)
My photography became, in a word, slow. (Of the 99 photographs, 86 are at f/22, and 95 are at ISO 100, the maximum and minimum provided by my kit, respectively.) My movements were slow, because I carried a heavy kit. A plus, because I learned every site within walking distance intimately. My set-up was slow, because I had to position the tripod. Another plus, because I had to think about composition. And the shot was slow, because I had to keep the shutter open for a long time. A plus, because the interval between tapping the iPad’s screen and the thunk of the closing shutter was somehow very satisfying.
Then I noticed the slow shutter meant that leaves, fabric, or garlands, moving, often in the breeze that arises at sunset in Bangkok, became blurred in the photographs. Another plus, because chancy, random, even suspenseful: I didn’t know what I’d capture at the time I opened the shutter. The biggest plus of all, in fact, because the blur suggested my theme: the presence of unseen forces. Spirits, in fact. All blurred.
Soon I made blur a compositional element: light trails from vehicles, blowing tarps, pedestrians walking into the frame, shopkeepers making sales and opening doors, girls taking photos, food cart workers, sewing machine ladies, even spirit house caretakers in the act. Beings in motion near spirit houses, all ghostly, showing not faces, but individuality all sanded away by the blur so that only posture, motion, gesture —Thainess — remained. Composition became setting up a blind, and I a hunter, waiting to see what would wander into view.
Slow photography means that individual persons, unless they stay motionless, will blur. I think that’s good, at least for me.1 Here I have strong views, perhaps because I was the object of an artist’s attention when young. There are no smiling Thais in this book. Thais have, it is said, thirteen named varieties of smile; a distinguished Thai general once gave a press conference where his answers consisted wholly of smiles, one after another. So how do I know what a smiling Thai feels? And if I don’t know that, what right have I as a photographer to capture that smile and elicit empathy, as a smile will do?
What is slow photography? A less simple story would be that while lugging my kit around and waiting for the shutter to close I reverse engineered an opinionated list of principles out of my practice and dubbed it “slow photography” (not knowing, as a beginner, that the term had already been invented. See the bibliography). Here they are:
1. Slow photography is slow. Your decisive moment is long. Take time to use your eyes.
2. It is local.
3. It is not globalist.
4. It is not exploitative.
5. It yields control by allowing chance.
6. It does not stun or smite.
7. It is not manipulative.
8. It is not manipulated.
9. It is not “grabbed.”
10. It is made, not taken.
11. It is cropped minimally to maintain context.
12. Shadow is good.
13. It’s better to notice than to be noticed, to see rather than to be seen, to be influenced rather than to influence.
14. The right place at the right time is all around.
My mentor, the late James Housel, once said it was his goal to make the eye dance. My goal is to help the eye caress.
Jim Austin. 2018. “Slow Photography.”
Jim Austin. 2012. “Welcome to the Slow Photography Revolution.”
Kurt Budliger. 2012. “Slow Photography Movement.”
David Campany. 2003. “Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’.”
Fred R. Conrad. 2009. “Essay: Slow Photography in an Instantaneous Age.” New York Times.
Kevin Landwer-Johan. 2018 “How Slow Photography Can Help You Improve Your Images.”
Tim Wu. 2011. “The Slow-Photography Movement,” Slate.
All items accessed 2019-11-09.
1. If my home were a village, and they knew me and I knew them, that would be another story; but that’s not my current situation.