Kairos In The Hills: Photography Philosophy - James Lomax

Henri Cartier-Bresson once said he was not an artist but simply made photographs. This was a refreshing remark. He didn’t need to embellish or justify his achievement with words, because his images speak for themselves. I’ve always liked his famous concept of the ‘decisive moment’ with its philosophical implications. His work was grounded in photojournalism but extended beyond it. Many of his pictures depict a split second instance of interesting composition or emotional expression. As the man jumps, catch him there, it will harmonise with the background. As the people talk on the street one of them is upset, likely to express this in her face at a definitive point of conversation. Many examples, like poems with concentrated meaning. An abstraction from linear time, taken from a context where something precedes and something follows.

His work is sometimes explicable as theatre, with unexplained mood and mystery. It has narrative meaning which fascinates. Life passes around as we walk public spaces and we partly ignore, partly don’t recognise the complex layers of experience. A camera freezes and isolates configurations of human exchange for later perusal, like Wordsworth’s notion of emotion recollected in tranquility.

One difference between street and mountain photography is that of immersion. In the hills you want full contact with nature and a photograph conveying perceptual space. In the street you take anonymous snaps and move on. You don’t want interaction with your subject, you want a picture.

There’s a related word for these ideas in ancient Greek philosophy, kairos. Kairos is a critical position in time and space: a decisive moment. In mythology the strategic intervention of Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, is loosely connected. When people conflict or reach stalemate Athena’s arbitration resolves it, entering from another world. Kairos is also the name of a mythological figure eventually endowed with the status and attributes of a god, suggesting transformative potential.

Plutarch wrote “in all works of art beauty is, so to speak, the product of a large quantity of numbers that achieve a single kairos by a system of proportion and harmony.” Kairos is referred to alongside the principles of kallos (beauty) and summetria (harmony).

The decisive moment implies an aesthetic order and disclosure of meaning. Walking photography, whether street or mountain, needs alert attention different from what the Greeks called acedia: the anaesthetised feeling when we filter out surrounding information. Cartier-Bresson described a photograph as “a condensed form of thought.”

Chronos is mechanical and material time as when you look at your watch. Kairos refers to subtle rhythms and harmonies spanning across time. You work with kairos in mountain photography. Nature unfolds around you in the duration of rock and flux of weather while you are the witness. The hills are full of decisive moments. You walk through changing curves of shape and shade and beauty. A turn of angle, shift of light, and there’s your picture.

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