To what extent is photography a medium of time?
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Essay, 2018

The extent to which photography is a medium of time can be argued in numerous ways. Still photography and moving-image both give different effects of time; the first is a method to freeze a moment indefinitely, causing it to become a direct link to the past, and the latter suppresses the sense of time due to the ‘real time’ nature of cinema. Throughout the essay I will be evaluating the use of photography and how its evolution from being used as a scientific tool to record fractions of time has changed. It allows photographers to bring past events to present day, encouraging awareness of how we process the sense of time. In a photograph we believe that an action is still ongoing because it has been preserved - frozen in time - even though the action would have already been completed. Additionally I will be exploring the nature of moving-image and how through movement there is continuity and narrative, which in turn provokes a sense of time. These areas will be researched and evaluated throughout the essay in order to address and measure the extent to which photography and cinema can be used as a medium of time.

The evolution of photography shows how concepts and ideas around it’s use have changed. Photography emerged because scientists wanted to study fractions of intervals of time; they were trying to discover how to take moving reality and turn it into a static record. Immediately photography can be seen as a medium of time and as told by Chitra Ramalingam, photography developed this way to show the passage of time1. However, philosophically, the photograph is something different. Argued by Charles Sanders Peirce, a photograph is the combination of the icon and the index, two types of signs2. However, his theory is a triadic theory combining the representamen, the interpretant, and the object which translate to symbol, index, and icon3. These ideas relate to photography, and in particular still photography, because a photograph that depicts something (icon) is the footprint of an unrepeatable movement (index). From the works of Peirce, it can be seen that photography was developing to be understood as a tool used to pause a moment in the past, providing the viewer with an the ‘unrepeatable moment’. Hence, photography can be seen as a medium of time because this moment that was once in the past, has been ‘frozen’ in time allowing it to be viewed in present day.



The idea of bringing the past to the present moment has been studied in detail and its evidence lies in numerous photographs. When deciphering the association between time and photography, Roland Barthes has been a prominent writer and philosopher in understanding this relationship. Barthes has argued that the photograph is ‘an illogical conjuncture between the here-now and the there-then’ and the photograph acts as a way of separating a moment from the continuity of time4. Figure 1 is an example of a historical photo, where the viewer attempts to process the fact that the outcome of the scene depicted has already happened. Yet at the same time, the viewer feels this moment is present because, as suggested by Walter Benjamin, the searching between past and present moments is an attempt to rediscover the immediacy of a moment that has long been forgotten5. This subsequently involves the complicated debate that the photograph has been yet it is still to be which is why Barthes suggests that a photograph ‘establishes not a consciousness of being-there...but an awareness of its having-been-there’ arguing that in every photograph there is the evidence of this is how it was6. Therefore supporting the idea that photography is a medium of time; it brings the past to the present.

In terms of evaluating the sense of time that surrounds cinema and moving-image, one must look at the continuity of film as well as the narrative of film. Continuity of cinema opposes the idea of instantaneity in photography because, as discussed by Mary Ann Doane, ‘the instant - embodied in the film frame - must disappear in order for movement to emerge’7, suggesting that cinema cannot rely solely on a decisive moment as a photograph does, but instead provokes a sense of ‘real time’ through continuous shots of movement. By suppressing the sense of past through inducing a continuous stream of moving-image, cinema records movement with invisibility and has been suggested by Raymond Bellour as a ‘juncture of the visible and the invisible’8. This invisibility is crucial to leading a viewer into believing that what is happening in a film is happening in real time. Therefore it can be understood that cinema and moving-image can be used as a medium of time because movement displays the change of something and change, in this instant, represents time.

Narrative in film can be seen as a way that moving-image is used as a medium of portraying time, because, as Barbara Probst suggests, film is close to life; it has chronological flow9, which can be understood as allowing the viewer to become immersed rather than an outsider looking in. Hence moving-image and cinema become mediums that project time as the continuous present, encouraging the immediate moment to become more important than all that has accumulated prior to it. This is because movement evokes the idea that what has happened already is not as significant as what is going to happen next provoking the idea that moving-image is a medium of time. However it is more so a medium of present or future time, whereas photography is a medium that allows a view to the past.



The idea that time is portrayed solely through movement in cinema, is not entirely true as seen by Chris Marker’s La Jetée where a single change in a series of photos gives the impression of movement by jump-cutting through stills, depicted in Figure 2. It is hence argued by Peter Wollen that ‘movement is not a necessary feature of film’10 due to the fact that the still photographs of the woman sleeping are suddenly broken by her eyes being open. This direct contrast to beliefs that cinema must have movement, shows that time in cinema does not have to be depicted through continuity only. La Jetée was a shift in perspective and Wollen redefined cinema around it as suggested by Raymond, changing movement-image to time-image11. Rather than time being expressed through movement, it is expressed as time itself, completely adjusting how cinema is used as a medium of time.

When studying La Jetée, it can be compared to very early photography by Eadweard Muybridge. His photography studied humans and animals in motion and by inventing the Zoopraxiscope, he paved the way to modern cinema12. Not only was this the beginning for modern cinema, it was the first time that photography was seen as a medium of time. Muybridge's work evolved from scientific photography to art and the sculptor Auguste Rodin described his work as a way ‘where time is abruptly suspended’13. Through displaying photographs taken one after another at small intervals of time, as seen in Figure 3, the viewer can feel time passing. The authors of Time Stands Still have analysed how Muybridge's photography relates to time. They have suggested that the ‘photography may be thought of as an artefact...of time passing in the scene depicted’14 providing support to the argument that photography is a medium of time because it shows time passing. It can also be noted that through these early photographs many began to assess what this meant for photography with some, such as William Henry Fox Talbot, concluding that ‘the subject of every photograph is time itself’15. Therefore it can be immediately seen that photography was regarded as a link to time and shortly after Muybridge's’ work it becomes quite evident that photography can be seen as a direct medium of time.



The idea of still photography showing movement through a series of photographs evidently comes before La Jetée because of Muybridge's work, so why did Marker return from moving-image to still photography? Understandably it can be seen that cinema does not need the continuity of moving-image to portray movement. However Bellour suggests that, due to the breach that has been opened by immobile matter, there is consciousness that said matter has in fact interrupted the movement16. Throughout La Jetée, the narrative moves between past, present and future. Still photography as argued by Wollen, ‘lacks any structure of tense’ which has been an ongoing complication in photography, yet ‘it can order and demarcate time’17. Although Wollen suggests photography and film can differentiate time to be able to portray the past or the future, there is not a simple answer to whether or not a singular photograph has a tense. Therefore, when looking at photography, it can be seen as the past being brought to the present, and when looking at cinema or moving- image with continuity, there is the sense of ‘real-time’. However cinema, and in particular La Jetée, which doesn’t have the standard nature of continuity (in most cases continuity is depicted through movement), the sense of time becomes more of a mystery. The still photographs once again return us to the argument of Barthes: the here-now and the there- then. Although this topic may be complex, there is still a sense of time being evoked, and therefore cinema and moving image can be argued as a medium of time.

To conclude, in this essay I have reached the judgement that photography is a medium of time. When reflecting upon on the research and information gathered between still photography and cinema or moving-image, it can be seen that although they both have different means of approaching a sense of time, they both do in fact provoke past, present or future. Still photography, I have argued, brings the past to the present. It reunites the viewer with an event that happened in the past that we cannot process as having happened yet. This is because the photographer has frozen a moment as it was, so when we come to look at it in the present day, the moment that has passed is extended to us. As long as the curiosity returns when viewing the photograph, so does the moment it was taken in. Cinema however, is more complicated in deciding exactly how it is used as a medium of time. Through continuity and narrative, it evokes a sense of time. Continuity is vital when trying to display ‘real time’ as it requires constant movement to oppose the stillness of photography. Therefore cinema becomes quite different than still photography, because rather than bringing the there-then to the here-now, it shows us the present by leading the viewer into believing what is happening is happening in real time. This creates a large sense of the present time rather than the past. Nevertheless, throughout my research, I discovered that
movement in cinema isn’t the only method of creating time because displaying a series of photographs can be jump-cut through which also creates a sense of time. As a result we can see that cinema has at least two methods of being a medium of time. Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that although photography is a medium of time, the extent depends on how effective the artist can bring the past to the present or lure the viewer into believing what they are witnessing is happening in real time.



References
1 Chitra Ramalingam, ‘Fixing Transience: Photography and other Images of Time in 1830s London’, in Time and Photography, p. 3.

2 Charles S Peirce, ‘Logic As Semiotic: The Theory of Signs’, in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, p. 98

3 Herman Parret, Semiotics and Pragmatics: an Evaluative Comparison of Conceptual Frameworks, p. 26-27.

4 Roland Barthes, ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, in Image-Music-Text p. 44.

5 Walter Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’, in One-Way Street and Other Writings, p. 243.

6 Barthes, ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, p. 44.

7 Mary Ann Doane, ‘Real Time: Instantaneity and the Photographic Image’, in Stillness and Time, p. 23.

8 Raymond Bellour, ‘The Film Stilled’, in Unspeakable Images, p. 108.

9 Frédéric Paul, ‘In Conversation with Barbara Probst’, in Barbara Probst, p. 143.

10 Peter Wollen, ‘Fire and Ice’, in The Photography Reader, p. 80

11 Bellour, ‘The Film Stilled’, p. 100.

12 Tate, ‘Motion Pictures: The Zoopraxiscope’, Zoopraxiscope

13 Brian Clegg, The Man Who Stopped Time: The Illuminating Story of Eadweard Muybridge - Pioneer Photographer, Father of the Motion Picture, Murderer, p. 248.

14 Phillip Prodger and Tom Gunning, Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement, p. 58-59.

15 Geoffrey Batchen, Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography, p. 93.

16 Bellour, ‘The Film Stilled’, p. 100.

17 Wollen, ‘Fire and Ice’, p. 112.


Bibliography
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Ramalingam, Chitra, ‘Fixing Transience: Photography and other Images of Time in 1830s London’, in Time and Photography, ed. Jan Baetens, Alexander Streitberger, Hilde van Gelder (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2010) pp. 3-23

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La Jetée. Dir. Chris Marker. Argos Films, 1962 (https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=aLfXCkFQtXw&t=947s)



Images
Figure 1. Adams, Eddie, ‘Saigon Execution’ 1968. Rare Historical Photos, 13 May 2014, https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/saigon-execution-1968/ [accessed 14 December 2017]

Figure 2. Marker, Chris, ‘La Jetée’, 1962. Youtube, 27 October 2017, https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLfXCkFQtXw [accessed 27 December 2017]

Figure 3. Muybridge, Eadweard, ‘Boys Playing Leap Frog’, 1887. Metropolitan Museum of Art https://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/268831 [accessed 5 January 2018
]















© Jess Hay
artist based in Glasgow