The phrase “Decisive moment” is inextricably linked to the master photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Its meaning is in sharp focus to any seasoned photographer. Finding a special real world scene, framing that scene in the camera, and simply being ready to press the shutter at a peak moment in time sounds like a relatively simple task, but just ask any photographer… It takes pure instincts, technical skill, and a lot of just plain good luck about being in the right place at the right time. When you capture that decisive moment with your camera, it’s one of the most satisfying feelings ever!
There has never been a precise definition of the word “photograph”. Credit has traditionally been given to Sir John Herschel when this word began to appear in the literature in the first half of the 19th century. The two greek words from which it is derived loosely translate into English as “Drawing with light.” However, in modern times where light sensitive substrates range from film emulsions to electronic semi-conductors and where we also understand that the human visual system is in itself a light-sensitive electro-chemical process, the meaning of “drawing with light” to form a permanent or semi-permanent image recording is surprisingly ambiguous. In its delightful simplicity, it does not truly differentiate between the human reflexes of an artist holding pen or brush and silver halide film or modern CCD and CMOS sensors. Thus, although the word photography itself is indeed a brilliant choice for a radically new artistic medium as it emerged in the 19th century, we still lack a more precise definition to distinguish photographs from other kinds of media like paintings and drawings.
Some curators and scholars of photography attempt to constrain the term photograph to the use of traditional silver halide film and papers. Yet during the film era there have been numerous exceptions where imaging processes using chemicals other than the salts of silver are widely regarded and accepted as photographic processes. Moreover, in this modern day era of digital imaging the popular terms like photo, photograph, and photography are so pervasive that we can no longer simply regard photographs as images produced solely by film era materials, processes, and methods.
So, what then is a true photograph? Well, maybe for most of us, it simply comes down to “I know it when I see it”, but in order to see it, the image must linger. It must have some degree of persistence. Ideally, it must have a very high degree of image permanence.
No matter how you define photography, the permanence of the photographic record is therefore an inherent property tightly bound to the very nature of photography. It can be ignored, but it cannot be dismissed. It’s why we care so much at Aardenburg Imaging & Archives about all images: artistic, historic, and/or merely sentimental ones in the mind of their viewers, lasting not just for days, weeks, or years, but for generations to come.
Mark H. McCormick-Goodhart
Director, Aardenburg Imaging and Archives