Of all of Earth’s millions of creatures, few are more succinct than the average mayfly, which like us lives on the water, lives on the land, and lives in the air, but doesn’t live very long. The mayfly is a little flitting creature that has the shortest lifespan of all the things here: just one day, just one short spin around the planet’s axis. You’ve probably passed thousands of them. You’ve probably never noticed.
To the mayfly, perhaps, time seems more precious. I’ve not spoken to many mayflies- they rarely come to my dinner parties- so I’m not sure if they know their sojourn here is up as soon as their clocks start. But they might, making one left turn instead of a right, have the existential dread of wondering if they’re wasting their time.
I am, I suppose, a mayfly photographer.
Three years ago my colleague, the military journalist C.S. Muncy, gifted me on New Year’s Eve a small lacquered box full of 35 millimeter film. I’d been a professional digital shooter for a decade and a half before, and he’d given me the rolls as a thoughtful way, he hoped, to drive me back to my roots. Counting the mismatched rolls, I saw he’d given me a box of 372 exposures – one, I noticed, for every day of the year and a couple of mistakes.
Since January 1st, 2017 I’ve made one, and only one, film photograph every day, with no do-overs and no second chances. I’m still doing it, and will still be doing it as long as they still make film and at least one of my right-hand fingers remains.
It is a challenge more philosophical, perhaps, than technical. Making only one film photograph a day requires the photographer to live in every single moment, day in and day out, forced to take each and every one second and simultaneously savor and weigh it, to ask: is this the best my day has on offer? Could I, would I bet that something better was coming? Every day, looking closely, something important does seem to wander in, either by chance or by appointment. It’s also exhausting: while it makes for good bumper sticker advice and bar toasts, in reality it’s quite difficult to live every moment like it’s one’s last. It’s harder still to live like every moment like it’s one’s first, and darn near impossible to live like it’s one’s only.
Thus it goes with little things, mayflies and moments, the passing population of our world.
I call it The Infinite Present; every photograph in this series, like every photograph everywhen, stretches one present moment into infinity. In exhibition, they’re usually presented in conversational pairs, always untitled, always dateless; I’ve come to learn, watching all my moments, that many days have echoes, and that the same messages return even while the pitch and timbre might change from month to month or year to year.
If photographers are thieves of time, it’s a strange thing to be a criminal bound by rules. So, while I treasure the beautiful anguish of this project, the contemplation and challenges it provides me as an image-maker, perhaps it’s better to live a life not as a mayfly photographer, but as a mayfly poet. After all, my life and work is bound on all sides by poets and their creations; who is to say that the poetry of absence is not as important, and vital, as the poetry of presence? Perhaps there is a value, in the end, to the value of the Infinite Absent as much as the Infinite Present.
After all, at the cusp of the project’s fourth run around the sun, there are about 900 photographs so far. Some of the images are terrible, made too early, made too late, fouled by bad judgment. So it goes. There’s no recourse- once a photograph is made, it’s done forever, and many of my best photographs are never made at all. It’s easy to remember the time I made a day’s photograph only to run into an impromptu wedding in a chicken sandwich shop- black tuxedo, white dress, beige nuggets, the works – just five minutes later.
Just as infinitely present is the day I broke one of photography’s primal rules – never shoot from inside your moving car – only to seconds later pull up alongside a sedan, waiting at a stoplight, from which the owner had disappeared but which still contained a labrador retriever, sitting up in the driver’s seat, his paws on the wheel. I’ll never know why, and you’ll never see how.
Perhaps that’s fine. After all, some of the worst things in my life, as the mayfly poet Mark Twain once quipped, never even happened.
By B.A. Van Sise
B.A. Van Sise is a photographer based in the United States. His pictures have been published in The New York Times, on Getty Images and he is a US Nikon Ambassador.