The noise of time

I was struck by a comment made by a friend recently. We were talking about the difference between the practice of painting and photography.

“Of course,” he said to me, “it’s easier to take photographs; you only have to press the shutter and then you’re done. When you are painting it can take much longer.”

This does, as I tried to argue, leave aside the time the photographer may have to spend revisiting a scene to capture the best moment, or setting up a shot. It could be argued that the photographer might take several photographs before settling on the final image in the same way that a painter may make lots of sketches to start with. Then there is the time in the darkroom or at the computer processing and printing off the finished photograph.

My friend was right in one respect however; the physical act of capturing the scene in front of the photographer is an instant compared to the time it will take a painter to do the same. The photographer could be already on her way down from the hillside whilst the painter is still there with his easel, palette and brushes.

A photograph is more than just the duration of the shutter speed

The photograph, however, can represent more than just that instant. To illustrate this, here are a couple of my photographs. One of them; fingers caught at the moment of picking a gooesberry, could represent a specific instance in time: the second; an ancient timbered beam, part of the launching bay for the SS Great Eastern, Brunel’s massive ocean going liner,  could hint at a longer time period.

The first shows someone in the act of picking a gooseberry from a bush. The second picture is of an ancient timbered beam, part of the launching bay for the SS Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s massive ocean going liner. The vessel was so big it had to be launched sideways into the Thames from a specially made dock in Milwall, East London. This photograph shows a part of that launching bay, one of the huge beams the ship would have slid over on its way into the water back in 1858.

The harvesting of the fruit is a very obvious moment in time. Seconds earlier and the berry would still have been on the bush; moments later and it would be in the bowl with all the other gooseberries. Later still it could be depicted as one of the ingredients for a dessert. Photographs taken at each of those instances would have been very different from the one we have here.

The second picture, however, could have been taken at any moment. The huge beam has been there on the side of the Thames in East London since 1858 when the Great Eastern was launched (sideways because it was so big, and after several unsuccessful attempts). It has been preserved since then was not about to go away in the next few years. There have been changes but these have been gradual; it has become more weathered and the land around it has changed. However very little would have changed if I had taken the photograph five minutes earlier. Perhaps it would have looked different if I had visited at another time or day when the lighting or weather was different but unlike the other picture I would suggest it does not represent a single moment.

“The photograph cuts across time and discloses a cross-section of the event or events which were developing at that instant.”

John Berger, Understanding a Photograph, 2013 p.90

Both photographs do, however, represent more than just the time they were taken. The writer, John Berger, described a photograph as an interruption in time. “The photograph,” he wrote, “cuts across time and discloses a cross-section of the event or events which were developing at that instant.” (Berger, Understanding a Photograph, 2013, p90).

Photographs represent the past and future of the subject as well as the immediate moment

The picture of the gooseberry represents the moment of harvest but also the time before; the growth of the fruit bush and the care and attention the gardener paid it throughout the season. It also represents the time afterwards; the berries being washed and turned into jam or an apple and gooseberry pie. In the case of the beam the timescale is longer. We are taken back to the middle of the 19th century when the Great Eastern was launched, and then through the years as the area changed from one of industry and commerce to a residential park.  And we are taken into a future as the area will change again; the ancient beam will become more weathered and one day disintegrate; perhaps the Thames will rise up and flood the park leaving it under water.

Berger helpfully illustrated his idea with a couple of simple diagrams showing the moment the photograph was taken cutting through a line representing the past and the future of the subject. The more information the photograph contains for the viewer then the larger the circle representing the interruption. I would humbly suggest a slight variation on Berger’s theory. The photograph of the gooseberry being picked could be represented by the continuum of time sliced by the instance of the photograph. The moment of my second photograph could perhaps be represented by a longer period of time. Whereas the first photograph was more of an instinctive response to the moment, capturing the second photograph was part of a longer and more considered process; more equivalent to the painter?

The sound of the shutter firing ripples backwards and forwards through time

In photography, and painting, however the moment recorded is just a part of something greater; the time before and time after. In his thoughts on photography (and much else), “Camera Lucida” Roland Barthes wrote about the noise of time.

“For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches — and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.” .

(Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1993, p15)

The sound of that instance when I fired the shutter to capture the photographs of the instance of the gooseberry harvest and the timeless beam ripple back and forwards through time.

This blog was first posted in September 2017

Published by Stephen Taylor

Freelance e-learning developer and instructional designer, photographer and cyclist

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