Sands of Time

Friday, March 12, 2010

According to an English system of time units, a “moment” is equal to one minute & thirty seconds. Take a moment & think about that.

Throughout the ages some philosophers have argued that time is a basic property of the universe, others claim it to be an illusion or construct of the mind. The beginnings of civilization required knowledge of seasons, length of a year, month & day. All the world’s religions have given it a central role: in astrology, stories of creation, cyclical world histories, notions of eternity, etc.

In Greek mythology, Kronos is the god of time.

Calendar is Mathematics

The sequencing of events most likely led to the early stages of mathematics. Keeping track of seasons, when to plant crops, when the rains came & harvest were all dependant upon time & led to calendars.

The year was computed to be 365 days by the Egyptians in 4236BC. Around 2000BC, the Babylonian civilization gave us the widely used modern units of time. They divided the day into 24 hours, each hour into 60 minutes & each minute into 60 seconds.
1370 King Charles V of France decrees that all Paris church bells must ring at the same time as the Royal Palace, helping end the ringing of bells at the canonical hours (prayer times) decreed by the church.
Romans constructed the first sundial in 164BC. By the 16th century, time was astronomical, founded on the movements of celestial bodies.

1967 A second is formally defined as 9,192,631,770 vibrations of the
cesium atom. For the first time, time is not defined by the movement
of astronomical bodies.

Age of Exploration

Eventually time was defined by necessity & codified by transportation. To determine a ship’s position at sea it is necessary to know longitude/latitude. Until mid 1750s accurate navigation out of sight of land was an unsolved problem due to difficulty in logging longitude. Navigators could calculate latitude by measuring the sun’s angle with a sextant. Longitude needed a time standard aboard a ship. Eventually inventors claimed the £20,000 longitude prize, offered by British Parliament as early as 1714, beginning the era of the chronometer.

Prior to the late nineteenth century, time keeping was a purely local phenomenon. The town church steeple or factory clock tower would have the official timepiece. Cities would set their clocks by measuring the position of the sun at noon, but every city would be slightly different. This local mean time led to major inconsistencies especially in railroad schedules. Eventually trains forced a standard time upon the country so they could run on schedule. Even so a national time in the USA was not adopted universally, along with time zones, until 1883.

1884 Twenty-five countries accepted Greenwich, England, as the prime
meridian (0 degrees longitude). The prime meridian gradually becomes
the basis for time throughout the world. Liberia finally adopts it in 1972.

Telling Time

To add to the problem the very concept of time separates different civilizations. In Western culture it is largely thought of as quantitative, linear & logical. It is monochronic. In the East, time feels unlimited, cyclical & without strict boundaries. Many things can happen at once & it is called polychronous. The very nature of telling time around the world emphasizes the divide: 7:23pm, half past five, douze heures moin dix (11:50, France) or top of the hour of the horse (noon, Japan).

Theory of Relativity

What does this have to do with photography? After all photographers record tangible things. However photographs not only document place in history, they record distinct periods of history. The three dimensional place can be pinpointed by Cartesian coordinates. You can put your finger on it. But photography also influences time, which can be measured in Einsteinian “space”: What is today? How far are we away from home? How long did that take?

Our contemporary concept of time is divided into past/present/future. And although Aristotle & Saint Augustine questioned whether the past & the future really exist, photographs peer into at least two, maybe all three. Different cultures process the three in different ways. And most people give little thought to the possibility that their definition could be different from anyone else’s. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity changed all that. It is a little abstract but time introduces a fourth dimension.

Studies show that the more industrialized & economically developed a country is, the more fast-paced it tends to be. In more primitive societies time often puts less pressure on its participants. In the USA, “time is money”. In Japan time is etiquette. In Mexico it is a mere suggestion. In other environments it can be used as a weapon or as a means of control. On my first trip to Haiti, we found ourselves waiting impatiently for all our appointments. Come to find out, there was a one hour time difference from one side of the small island to the other. We had started out in the Dominican Republic &, although separated by a short distance, its rival Haiti did not share the same time zone. This only exacerbated the two opposing cultures.

Anthropologists list the toughest things to cope with in a foreign land.
Second only to language is the way we deal with time.

The Theory of Relativity forces us to fundamentally alter our perceptions of space & time. Time combines with space to form an object called space-time. For example, when we are looking at the distant stars we are seeing them as they were in the past.

Photography merges time & space. Why has this not found more traction? In a photograph the influence of space is obvious. We can still witness all the flotsam & jetsam that has been recorded throughout history. The thousands, millions, billions of prints, negatives & slides hidden away in envelops & drawers, when stacked up would reach the moon & beyond. (That is harder to do with pixels.) Every photo tells a story but its effect on time is less heralded. The fractions when added up may only be a few minutes, hours in the lifetime of a prolific photographer. But the riff in the space-time continuum is no less warped. Every photo tells time too.

Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.
Dorothea Lange

Camera as Watch

A quality camera is a precision instrument. It divides our experiences into discreet, “quantum leaps”. And the photograph is like a label on the memory contained within that encapsulated period, a specimen that we can catalogue & store away for retrieval when we need to reference that era. The aggregate of our photographs is an almanac of our lives.

The camera mechanically masters shutter speeds. When we want to be stingy with time we can display the hard, crisp outlines of a moment with a fast shutter speed. If we care to be more generous or lyrical, we can blur the edges & reveal a softer span, an evolution, a progression of life around us by employing longer shutter speeds. Sort of like Picasso painting different sides of a face or David Hockney with his Polaroid collages that depict different views in a room. As artists we can measure time with scientific precision or with poetic license. Concrete or ethereal.

No neophyte immediately comprehends this relationship with time but after becoming familiar with such brief spans, in camera time, hundredths of a second become an eternity. Moving around in such infinitesimal periods is liberating. Armed with a motordrive you begin to anticipate the future. Each choice magnifies isolated moments.

One demonstration I do with students is to have them close their eyes & I drop a dime & a quarter on the hard floor. We can easily differentiate which is which. Subsequently after a little practice we can also “hear” fractions of a second. You can detect the difference between a half second & a hundredth of a second. We can “savor the moment”. Sometimes, while taking pictures, I feel time is a sentient being.

After being assigned the annual report for Boston Ballet, I had one image in a major exhibition of dance photographers. Very proud of myself for being included with such august masters of the genre, I attended the opening. Standing in front of a couple of outstanding images, one of the principal dancers sidled up to me. After brief small talk, he expressed his disgust for dance photography. I was ready to knock him down. But then he revealed to me that to isolate an imperfect “transition” from one position to another was anathema. Also in a photograph you could neither hear the music nor feel the rhythm. “Dance is Movement”, he said. I have been pursuing that ideal ever since.

Time lapse & high speed photography are opposites. They expand or reduce our perception. Using our cameras we can capture the passage of hours or a fraction of a second with one image. We can “see” actions that are too long or too brief for our senses normally, draw conclusions we could not imagine before. Photography is a mute witness to history & allows us to stop time & suspend life. Like Star Trek/science fiction it screws with reality, exhancing our knowledge exponentially. Paradoxically any run-of-the-mill photograph controls time.


Richard Dana March 19, 2010 at 1:45 PM  


Great reflections on, and explorations of time.
Thoght I'd share a few excerps from a recent Poem-

Being on time, in time, out of time,
ahead of time, killing time, passing time...

In the zone, athletes slow the game down, see
the whole picture, help it unfold. The clock has nothing but time,
the big play is just in time.
Jazz musicians syncopate time, on the upbeat, polyrhythms,
reach back in time...

Before Global Positioning Satellites,
children asked
“When will we be there? Are we there yet?”
Digital time? Global time? Any time all the time ...


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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.