At the end of every year, I get to see, for the first time, all the things I’ve already seen. New Year’s Eve is my final film pickup day for One Second, an ongoing project in which I, an otherwise sane, rational, working modern photographer, make one photograph, and only one photograph, on film, every day, with no do-overs and no second chances.
As I discussed here last year, it remains the most joyful, important, frustrating, and miserable work I’ve ever done — a meditative process as much as an artistic one, in the constant vigilance required to judge each and every moment to decide if it might be the day’s prize or, in desperation, its least-lacking.
I have been a digital shooter since my editor at the suburban newspaper where I worked in 2003 forced me — damn near at swordpoint — to switch to digital, just after I returned from the Eddie Adams Workshop, where I’d been the only person to turn up at their portfolio reviews holding plastic sheets full of slides.
The past is another country; sometimes, you need to travel thousands of miles from where you are born, to know where you are from.
Now, I spend my whole life — in subways, on planes, on foot, sitting at my desk at home — with a little film camera close at hand — a junky little instrument with no autofocus and a dysfunctional meter. Sometimes you know — you can just feel it — that something is going to break out, and you end up wasting in the waiting.
Photography is, at its core, the larceny of time, and when one must be a careful burglar, it feels doubly so. The camera is old, with a loud shutter, and each day’s lonesome exposure makes a heavy, satisfying noise to announce the theft. I am glad of it; every artist must be willing to rescue themselves from a prudent life.
It is a difficult shift from the majority of modern photography, oh-so-recently a marvel but now almost entirely mundane. Only a generation ago, photographs were memories rather than reminders; now, our moments have become momentary. Sure, the claims of endless sightings of abominable snowmen and angels and UFOs have ceased now that near every person on earth keeps a camera in their pocket at all times — an odd coincidence, that — but we’ve lost all the rest of the magic, too.
In 1950, the average American family went through one roll of film a year; today, most people make several thousand on a cellular phone and then forget each and every one of them.
The photograph, the film photograph, is as much an artifact as it is a story; there is an awkward, uncomfortable power in holding a negative in one’s hand. One makes the photograph hoping, waits to develop it unknowing, and produces it nervously. Film photographs are, in many ways, like children — in the gestation, one never knows how they’ll turn out, who they’ll be, and the product is just as fragile. Every scratch can become a scar.
And yet, it is something real, a tactile testimonial.
When I was a little boy, our home’s yard miraculously opened up one day when some soil shifted. A ten-foot hole yawned open revealing what had been the garbage pit of the colonial farming family that had lived there two centuries earlier: long white clay Dutch smoking pipes, piles of broken bottles that once contained every color of liquor, and remedies to cure every ailment known to man and beast — traces of last years’ lives, stolen from time, left by unwitting others to tell us that, even in their long absence, they are survivors.
We, too, in an age of fake news and cultural ephemera, seem to be taking to the old ways, not for pastiche but for permanence: Victrola sales are on the rise, kids with unnatural hair colors buy vinyl records by the crate, and wet plate photography seems to be making the greatest comeback since Lazarus. People are hungry to return to the things that are empirically not as good, but which are real, tangible.
Decades ago, the Voyager probe lit out of our solar system, pining for the stars, carrying in the grooves of its golden disc cargo our music, to be heard by foreigners we’ll never meet. Now, the world is getting hotter, the tides are rising, and there is some comfort in knowing that there may still be tintypes of Paris long after Paris herself is gone.
I, for my part, had a long year on the road, logging 100,000 miles in the air, doing travel assignments on four continents and teaching a workshop in Outer Mongolia. This year’s negatives bear the worn soles of all travelers — in their case, the grain and fogging left by x-ray machines at airports the world over boasting the same bald, bold lie: YOUR NEGATIVES WILL NOT BE HARMED.
I spent half my year arguing with airport security personnel that they should check it by hand, before watching them lob it, half-chuckling, into an X-ray. I lost quite a few photographs this year to this disease; others — as in last year, and probably every year until my last — to missed opportunity.
I hold fast to the tyranny of this project’s main conceit, and the price is enormous: this year, I gave at least two days’ photographs to other things only to waltz into beauty mere minutes later. Once, I found a muscular, refrigerator shaped man getting a tattoo on his chest while doing shirtless pull-ups on St Mark’s Place; on another day, I was forced to watch, helpless and near panting and camera in hand, as an impromptu wedding broke out in a Chick-fil-A.
Still, what the work brings to my life — the chance to treasure not technology, but poetry — cannot be overstated. I do not, at the end of my year, have three thousand photographs of all my lunches to wade through, but I do have this: 365 photographs, one second of my year, not just a moment but a memory, of life in our time.
More images from the past year’s One Second can be seen here.
About the author: B.A. Van Sise is an internationally-known photographer and the author of the interdisciplinary photo book “Children of Grass,” proclaimed “the year’s most startlingly original, remarkable book” by Joyce Carol Oates in the Times’ Books of the Year 2019. The opinions in this article are solely those of the author. Van Sise’s visual work has previously appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Washington Post, and BuzzFeed, as well as major museum exhibitions throughout the United States, including Ansel Adams’ Center for Creative Photography, the Peabody Essex Museum, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage; a number of his portraits of notable American poets are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. His written work has appeared in Poets & Writers, the Southampton Review, Eclectica, and the North American Review. You can find more of his work on his website.