Beyond Terminal Velocity

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Motion study, Eadweard Muybridge, 1886

In a recent piece I argued that the technical evolution of photography has always been leading towards some form of ‘instant’ photograph. By this I meant a photographic technology which makes the elapsing time between photographer desiring an image, and it being shared with that photographer’s audience, effectively imperceptible. I wondered if achieving this might present a challenge to our understanding of photography in the same way photography has often challenged how we understand time, and felt this might be a topic to discuss a little more.

Part of the appeal of photography is its ability to abstract the way we see the passage of time. Photographs by their nature never show events in what we experience as ‘real time’ instead they visually compress or expand a moment, allowing us to see things that the limits of our physiology would normally make invisible, for example by freezing a speeding bullet or drawing out the slow arc of the sun across the sky.

By revealing the movement of the effectively invisible, photography can force us to reconsider how we understand these things, and can lead to a better understanding of time. An early example of this was Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering motion sequence photography, reputedly commissioned to settle a bet over whether a galloping horse takes all of its feet off the ground, something imperceptible to the human eye. Photography allowed Muybridge to settle the question, to dismiss one of two conflicting narratives of the world.

Muybridge’s rather functional, scientific images proved to have huge public appeal, something some theorists have attributed to the pace of change in the late nineteenth century, and perhaps a growing public sense of temporal dislocation as once familiar ideas about space and time were exploded by incomprehensible new technologies. Motion sequence photography captured something of the zeitgeist of the era, perhaps because they offered an opportunity to understand time in a world where it was becoming ever more central and important, and at the same time speeding ever more wildly out of control.

Photographs can also challenge our notion of time and how it works, rather than support it, because of the privileged status of photographs as artefacts that exist inside and outside of the present. While a photograph physically exists as part of the on-going movement of time, subjected to all the physical processes that entails, it shows something irrevocably isolated in the past. This temporal incongruity often has no noticeable effect, but certain photographs can break the thin separation between past and present, projecting  an ‘illusion of the real’ directly into the now.

I first experienced this while still at school, skipping through a history textbook I came across a photography of the Russian monk and mystic Grigory Rasputin. I felt an overpowering sense that something was emerging out of the image, almost as if this long dead person was in fact right in front of me. As I became more aware of the effect I experienced it again, the contents of certain images refusing to remain where they belonged. The effect is subjective, the causes unknown, by way of explanation it has been suggested that certain photographs behave in a similar manner to traumatic memories.

Freud compared the functioning of memory to a camera; experiences are recorded, but then must be processed and assembled into the narrative of memory. Theorists including Ulrich Baer have argued that memories of traumatic events, and certain photographs that in some way also defy understanding or resist historical categorisation refuse to be simply stored as part of this narrative. Instead they remain unsorted, uncategorised, repeatedly and unexpectedly intruding into the present like a terrible memory.

Turning to photography’s own traumatic history, it’s only relatively recently that discourses have found voice that describe photography in ambivalent terms. Certainly at its inception and for maybe the first century or so of its existence, photography, a technical and conceptual child of the enlightenment, firmly represented ideas of rational scientific progress. These ideas were undoubtedly undermined by the rupture that followed in the wake of the Second World War.

The use of the products of rational progress to perpetrate brutal and irrational acts and advance profoundly anti-progressive ideologies demanded a reconsideration of the narrative of progress. It lead to the disturbing realisation that technologies like photography are not inherently progressive, but at best neutral, and can as easily be deployed for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ purposes. It can be used to guide a bomb more accurately onto it’s target, or it can be used to locate a bullet in a victim’s skull. Photography is no impartial observer, it takes the side of whoever pressed the button.

But despite this rupture the idea of progress as an end in itself still holds huge sway in the world. We retain a childish belief in things like the apparently endless possibilities of scientific ingenuity, the boundless productive capabilities of capitalism, the limitless resources of the natural world. But hitting some sort of technological glass ceiling, or reaching in some sense the terminal velocity of the medium would perhaps in a very small way challenge this still further by reminding us that progress is finite, that there is not always more, to discover, to produce, to consume, and of course, to photograph.

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