Time is common to all of us. We are all given the same amount of time each day. Most of us are not as aware of time flowing by as we are of the events we have scheduled at certain times. Rather than moaning about how busy we all are or talking about productivity, I would like to discuss time as a creative element.
What is time?
“Time is the continued sequence of existence and events that occurs in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, into the future.” Deep, but it helps frame the problem.
We all “know” what time is, but we would probably have a difficult time describing or defining it. Yet it is what we live in. It controls almost every aspect of our lives. We all experience it constantly. We can’t control it or buy or sell it or save it. It flows on by with no regard to our desires.
It may be a cliche that we all have the same amount of time each day, but like most cliches, it is very true. We can’t control it, we just decide what we are going to do with it.
Most art deals with moments
Most art, and most photography, captures discrete moments in time. This is the conventional view of the world. It is what we think we see all the time. Don’t take it as me sounding critical of capturing moments. I do it all the time, too. It records an event or a place or a person at a certain moment, and that matches and triggers our memories.
In a sense, it is our way of freezing and controlling time. As photographers we usually think in terms of the best shutter speed to use to stop the action, to minimize blur. This is the right thing to do for normal image captures. We, and our viewers, expect the moment to be recorded in sharp detail with no distractions like blurred movement.
Photography is unique
Photography is unique in it’s ability to represent time in varying ways. Time is one of the variables of the photographic process.
If you are painting or sculpting you usually represent what you can see or imagine. We seem to see things still, not moving or traveling through time. And it is very hard to imagine what the movement of time looks like. We may be able to see the effects of years or centuries on something, but even then it is impossible to visualize what it looks like as it is happening.
But photography has time built in as one of the parameters being controlled. We balance aperture, shutter speed, and sensitivity (ISO) to determine an exposure. Think about that for a moment: we can adjust aperture and sensitivity to set the time window of an image to whatever we want. Within limits.
Yes, we usually use this to set the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the motion. But that is just the normal convention. We could just as well make the shutter speed very long to observe motion over time. Some photographers do this regularly to feather moving water. It is almost a convention of landscape images, sadly.
I know my friend Cole Thompson gravitates to very long exposures to give a different view of the world. Many of his images create very interesting effects.
I have recently found myself drawn to visualizing the passage of tiime.. More and more I tend to use relatively long exposures, often hand holding the camera, to examine the effects of movement over time. Some of my images done this way do not have a single sharp edge in them.
This may seem controversial to many photographers. We are trained to maximize sharpness. We buy very high resolution sensors and ultra sharp lenses to record the sharpest detail possible. But I use those great sensors and sharp lenses to record – blur. A waste? That is an artistic judgment.
One of the things I am trying to capture is the unseen way things move over time. We know they move. We can point to it and say “that is moving”. But it is nearly impossible to visualize what it really looks like as it moves. That is what I am exploring.
The image with this article sort of illustrated this idea. This is an event called Cowboy Mounted Shooting. It is a speed and shooting event at some of our local rodeos. I believe the blur and slow shutter speed capture the speed and dramatic action of the event better than a crisp, frozen frame. The sharpest focus is on the face of the horse. That seemed appropriate to me because one of the things I wondered about is how the horse felt about guns going off over his head.
A new viewpoint
This concept is a new viewpoint for me. Time exposures are certainly not new and I have done a lot of them over my career. Now, though, I am more consciously using time as a creative element. Instead of a limitation of low light I now see it an an opportunity to show a new view on the world. I am working on a series that emphasizes this. Maybe more on that later.
Time is too much of a subject to cover in depth in a blog post. It is a theme I will probably return to in the future.