On Slowness & Excellence
Dorothea Lange almost never took her most famous photo, the shot of the Migrant Mother and her children huddled against her that we now recognize as the face of the great Depression. The story of this enduring image is the story of what almost wasn’t. Lange was on her way home, wrapping up a one-month field assignment for the FSA, and passed by the pea-pickers camp where the subject of her photo would be. She drove right by the camp, thinking she’d already done enough. Twenty minutes later, compulsion gripped her to turn around.
On arriving in the camp, she approached the tent of the woman who’d be the subject of her photo and pulled out her camera. She took 6 frames, the last of which would become the iconic photo we know today, and drove off. After a month of work, it was a ten minute stop, on a whim, that would yield one of the most enduring photos of all time.
The patience Lange demonstrates, both in the moment to turn around and the actual act of shooting, is a lesson in patience as a form of excellence. Dorothea Lange took 10 minutes and 6 exposures to create her iconic image of the woman looking out. That seems fast at first (wow, only 10 minutes to create one of the most iconic images of all time?) But when you think about it, 10 minutes and 6 exposures is an eternity in our digital aesthetic.
After a month of work, it was a ten minute stop, on a whim, that would yield one of the most enduring photos of all time.
Contemporary photographers, equipped with equipment that Lange could only have dreamed of, will shoot for an hour and return with hundreds of exposures. The expectation, fueled by Instagram and a culture of constant production, is to come away with dozens of images we’re happy with. Instead of 10 minutes of rapid-fire movement and iterations, Lange carefully moves around and recomposes, using each previous frame as a touch point for a better next shot.
A look at Lange’s contact sheet from this session (all the exposures she took) demonstrates how clearly methodical she was, framing her subjects and slowly working her way to the truth in the photo needed to take. She starts wide, encompassing the camp and the children. She slowly moves in until the final shot is simply the woman, bearing the weight of her children and drawing all of our focus to the lines on her face and the intensity of her eyes. Each image in the contact sheet tells a story of bleakness and despair, but the final image is transcendent and powerful. Would we rather a dozen middling shots in 10 minutes that we’ll likely forget soon after we take them, or one excellent shot we can look back on for years?
Lange exhibited slowness — a surrender to the time excellent work demands. She wasmore concerned with getting it right, pursuing excellence in her work, than with rushing home or getting a cursory shot to add to her portfolio. This stretches beyond the moment between her and her camera, but to the whole of her work. Lange had produced a whole portfolio in the month she’d been in the field, yet she was clearly still unsatisfied. Her compulsion to still hunt for the right photo, instead of calling it a day and heading home, is indicative of an uncompromising patience in the search of excellence.
Put this another way: the most accomplished photographers — Bresson, Leibovitz, Adam — have careers that span decades, and while you can find rolls and rolls of their film, their portfolios only stretch to maybe a few hundred photos. The excellence of our pursuits can be understood as a product of moving slowly and with intention: we must iterate through the process until we get what we want. This is true across mediums, as artists use their bodies of work to circle themes until reaching the truth they’re searching for: Bong Joon Ho’s relentless assault on understanding class, Kendrick Lamar’s dogged insistence tackling Blackness in America, Basquiat’s exploration of colonialism in America’s urban centers. The patience to create, build, and understand in pursuit of a singular goal is the universal, hidden foundation of all excellent work.
The practice of slowness is difficult. It isn’t just a question of patience, but an active choice to move slowly enough to let your instincts ferment into insight. In the moment, we can feel overwhelmed by a ticking clock, and over time, we often feel defeated as our body of work doesn’t meet the demands of our vision. But it is this slowness, with yourself and your process, that is the key to excellence.