“Creativity occurs in the moment, and in the moment we are timeless.” ~ Julia Cameron
Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking announced his book, A Brief History of Time,in the town of Cambridge in 1988, just underneath the sundial clock shown above. Hawking’s work changed how we see time, proposing that at the birth of our universe, conventional time did not apply.
Digital photography is full of time paradoxes. When I took a digital camera to Cambridge, England, and stood on the King’s bridge at midnight, cathedral clocks everywhere struck the hour. What is the paradox? Time, as measured by clocks, seems linear and logical. But those of you who have read my article about time and tide and have experienced time’s illusions, recognize that time is always present in the art of digital imaging. We’ll explore four ways photographers experience time.
Clocks package time. They give the illusion that it is specific, exact, and the same everywhere. As photographers living in an information age, we delude ourselves that measures of time are precise. It is just the opposite. Ever since English writer H. G. Wells wrote his novel The Time Machine in which the main character George traveled to the year 802,701, we’ve been inspired to break free of linear time.
Einstein took the driver’s seat in H. G. Well’s time machine when he proposed that time is relative. He showed us that Newton was mistaken. Time is not the same everywhere. Einstein and Hawking suggest that time depends on motion. The earth’s rotation causes time to dilate and speed up or slow down for clocks traveling on planes moving with or against the rotation of the earth. Time dilation is a fact. So, what we, as novice photographers, were taught about time may be only the beginning. There are many kinds of time that, in the language of The Little Prince, are essential but invisible to the eye. When we photograph, our eyes fish for images in the rapids of split seconds and catch some of them in pools of timelessness. Clock time is only a ripple on time’s surface.
As beginning photographers, we learned about time exposure and something called a “decisive moment.” When you keep the camera’s shutter open for a long time, that’s a time exposure. A peak action picture requires split-second timing.
Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is credited with the term “decisive moment”–although his own title in French was “images a la sauvette” or “images on the sly” (he thought the term “decisive moment” ridiculous)–for a single moment when subject, time and place come together for meaningful images. We’ll call these two examples of shutter speed and peak action “Time 1: Clock Time,”because they relate to time on the clock.
For example, time seems to have stopped in this picture of a girl doing a “Mary Poppins,” suspended above a street in Cambridge, England. Earlier, she was playfully leaping with a friend as they walked along. I smiled and asked her for one more jump, just for fun, then opened the shutter a split second before she reached the top of her leap. (Sports action and high-speed nature photography also require anticipation of peak moments. )
TIP: Digital cameras offer an excellent tool to develop anticipatory skills. Once you have a memory chip, you can take thousands of pictures, and missed moments won’t cost you anything. You can make time exposures, drag the shutter and use flash, or make high-speed pictures. When you photograph with your digital, try as many different Clock Time exposures as you can. Shoot in the dark with a long exposure. Seek out bright sunlight and try a 1/2000th- of-a-second shutter speed. Practice seeing peak moments even when you don’t have your camera with you.
“Time is not a line, but a series of now points.” ~ Taisen Deshimaru
Time 2: Double Time.
You can overlap two pictures taken at two different times, using Adobe Photoshop CS2®. We’ll call this “double time.” You take two now points, put them together in Photoshop, and create a new now point. Photoshop’s layers make this possible. For instance, two pictures of punting on the river Cam in Cambridge were each placed on their own layer, blended, and then combined. The still water underneath the row of punts was hidden with a mask on a second layer. The larger image above shows the result.
Tip:Be sure to make the shadow direction and intensity of one image match that of the other picture. Make sure all the images from different times are part of a single, unified concept. For a good example of double time and multiple layers, look at the lifetime work of film photographer and darkroom master Jerry Uelsmann.
Practicing double time, digital photographers can combine a black-and-white photograph from the 1880’s with one taken yesterday. There is no law that says an image has to come from a single moment in time. As you can see, double time can apply to any number of layers. Photoshop CS offers us more layers than most of us will ever use.
Time 3: Melting Time
“Why do ‘slow down’ and ‘slow up’ mean the same thing? Why is the third hand on the watch called the second hand?” ~ George Carlin
”Time flies like the wind. Fruit flies like bananas. “ ~ Groucho Marx
When time melts, our personal time sense–normally a solid, stable part of our day–dissolves. Salvador Dali, master of the melting moment, knew that his portrait subjects would grow to look more like his paintings of them. Dali understood that memory doesn’t follow linear time. Instead, it warps time like a black hole warps space. Recall his melting clocks in his most famous painting, “The Persistence of Memory.” Dali was not referring to camera time or software, but to inner states of consciousness that tell us time is an eternity, warped, like a movie scene, slo-mo, and frozen. Making digital pictures, we are aware of time, but the camera experience is so fast that projected reality slows down–or slows up, as George Carlin joked.
TIP: Since everyone makes melting clocks with ®Photoshop CS using FILTER > LIQUIFY, try for more subtle changes. For King’s College Cathedral from the roof of St. Mary’s, I used Filter > Stylize > Wind to melt the cathedral. I rotated the image 90 degrees to the right, adding a Wind Blast, and then rotated it back.
Time 4: Timelessness
“We have taken in images… they are afloat within us… as they come out in different combinations, images made in different points in time also become, in a sense, timeless.” ~ Edmund Teske
“I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell…each day was as long as a life-age of the earth.”~ Gandalf, Lord of the Rings
You have felt timelessness when you knew that the photograph you just took was “right on” or that you “nailed it.” This sense of rightness is confirmed when you see the image on the screen or light table, but it was there from the moment you took the picture. Of all the pictures on the memory chip, one or two just felt right and are vividly remembered. Because you were so deeply into taking the picture, and your awareness was with the scene–your “eyes on the road” so to speak, you were not aware of the sand flowing through the hourglass. Like Gandalf, your consciousness strayed out of thought and time.
I believe that this sense of timelessness is the essence of digital imaging. For me, the experience of being time-free is vital, for it gives hope to each day.
Clock time, double time, melting time, and timelessness follow a spectrum from specific to the infinite and indescribable. From the sundial to the hourglass to the pocket watch, we have tried to put time in a bottle. Like the shadow of a sundial on a cloudy day, time’s passage is often invisible, yet essential.
TIP: If you find that your pictures are repeating or you are in a dry spell, change your time concepts. Carry your camera everywhere, even to the grocery store. Start from where you are standing. Give yourself time to see and photograph the same scene over many years. Make pictures of each “now” moment as if it were the last one you will see. Give yourself, in your mind, an open period of time, and allow it to pass without a photography goal or deadline. Let yourself observe one subject for a long time. Don’t wait; the time will never be just right.
Text/Images Jim Austin M.A.