“To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.“
— Henri Cartier-Bresson
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When I received my first Kodak point-and-shoot camera as a child, one of the fundamental lessons I remember hearing was to hold my breath while pressing the shutter. We’ve all heard that advice, right? Hold your breath so you won’t move the camera, you don’t want a blurry photo!
Over the years, as we all do, I evolved my own technique without really understanding why… I would press the shutter on a gentle exhale after taking in a breath. Maybe it was because, while growing up with asthma and the struggle to breathe, holding my breath felt counter-intuitive even though I could swim long distances underwater without coming up for air. Breath is life.
Recently, the very act of breathing has been difficult. Wildfires are raging in Northern California, where I live, and also in Oregon and Washington State. A layer of smoke and ash has settled over the entire west coast causing toxic air quality for all life. We wear filtered masks when we’re out, the house is sealed up tight, and I find myself holding my breath between the house and the car. Our lone filter runs 24 hours a day. Breath feels like a privilege.
This past week, after weeks of searing temperatures (oh those poor firefighters), the fog moved in around the Bay Area bringing welcome cooler air, but also a change in wind direction. The smoke from the fires settled above the marine (fog) layer, and when I woke up at 7:30 a.m. it was to find the normally bright morning as dark as twilight. It was confusing, and the air seemed strangely sepia. Words like apocalyptic leapt into my mind.
It was difficult to photograph with my older model iPhone, so later that morning my daughter and I drove into San Francisco with my Canon to see what we could capture.
We stopped near Fort Point, at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. Many others were doing the same as we were… stopping to take photos and then just stand there taking in the strange altered reality. The fog frequently hides the Golden Gate Bridge, but this was different. People were quiet, raising their cameras or phones to take a shot, pausing, and then quietly getting back in their cars. It was eerie.
We made one more stop at the Palace of Fine Arts before heading home – the only place, other than the car, where it feels safe and comfortable to breathe.
I have never taken breath for granted, and won’t ever. But being without clean air to breathe for these few weeks has made me more grateful than ever for cool, crisp air that fills my lungs deeply.
And I still don’t hold my breath when I make a photo.
Stay safe and healthy, all.
p.s. All photos were taken Wednesday, September 9, 2020, and are unfiltered and unprocessed other than white balancing.