As I start out writing this, I realize that it begins by examining something non-photographic. I will, in the end, manage to bring the discussion around to photography. Trust me.
This morning, I read this post on Michael Silence’s blog. Silence writes:
All of them represent a relatively new style of writing. Anecdotal is out. Concise clarity is in. In these days of the Internet Attention Span, if you don’t get me in one sentence – two tops – then I’m gone. It’s safe to say George Will would not be on my aggregator. (Newpapers: hint)
I’m a big fan of concision. I greatly admired the tag line of a online writer who wrote short, insightful posts and closed each of them with the aphorism “Life is short. Be concise.” That said, I worry about the effect Silence describes – the “if you haven’t got me in one sentence, I’m gone” effect. When we face problems, it’s usually a mistake to try to solve them with glib one-liners that attempt to hook the reader in one sentence. Let’s face it, sometimes things just need to be longer. There are thoughts that can’t be properly expressed in a single sentence. That’s why people write books.
The risk, really, boils down to the fact that when we aim at ‘concise’, we often miss the mark and hit ‘terse’ instead.
The book I’m currently reading is Neal Stephenson’s newest novel, Anathem. It’s long – 930 odd pages. It’s long because the ideas with which Stephenson is trying to keep company are not simple ideas. They’re ideas that are best expressed by building them up slowly and incrementally, and letting the reader come to appreciate them at a slower pace. Thoreau commented that he wanted a broad margin to his life, a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse. Stephenson seems to want a broad margin to his more recent novels, and I’m not talking about the width of the white space – I’m talking about telling a compelling story and using it to get across some subtle points about society and human nature by constructing a believable but fictional world and letting those points be pivots on which the story turns. You don’t get that in a short story. It takes space, and a long narrative arc.
It takes attention span to read Stephenson’s novels, and he’s trying to sell them into a marketplace that seems more and more to be turning to instant soundbite gratification. I wonder about the effect on his bottom line. I wonder if he cares. I suspect, honestly, that he doesn’t, and that he’s writing novels as a means of figuring things out.
One of the things that I liked about SoFoBoMo was that it was a clever trick to get me to attend to one thing for an entire month, with rapt attention. I learned a lot about books, and pdfs, and layout, and POD publishing. I think, though, that the big win for me was the extent to which it drove home how little I’m interested in single photographs these days, and how much I’m interested in big sets of photos that are taken in a particular way.
I’m just fascinated by how your perceptions change when you change attention span. If you focus on a garden for ten minutes, you might come away with a certain sort of photographic series. If you focus on it for a month, you come away with a different sort of series. It’s not that the photos are better or worse when examined individually; it’s that when taken as a set the photos done as a result of photographing repeatedly over the course of a month can examine different and longer running processes at work.
But you need attention span to get it done. You have to keep making the photographs day after day, and you have to run on faith a bit, because you won’t see the longer period process stuff start to emerge until you start viewing this big collection of photos in aggregate. It’s not enough, even, to have the attention span yourself – you need to have a circle of critical reviewers who are willing to watch a long running effort emerge, and help you try to divine the messages that only a longer span can make clear.