It seems almost too self-evident to be worth saying, but the passage of time is central to photography. So many stages in the photographic process are bound up in it, from the length of the original exposure to the period of time that has elapsed between the image being made and a viewer looking upon it, and the effect of this on the way an image is understood. Noting the technical similarities between early cameras and timepieces Barthes described the former as ‘clocks for seeing’ an apt metaphor which I find myself constantly returning to.
The thing that I increasingly believe makes the history of photography interesting is that it is really a history of the relentless pursuit of speed. One might imagine that in a visual media each major innovation would be one of improving image quality (as has been the case in, for example, cinematography). But in photography each advance, from Daguerreotype to Polaroid, digital single lens reflex to the camera phone, has been first and foremost about increasing the medium’s pace, often indeed at the expense of image quality. It has been about shaving off a few more minutes or seconds between the moment that the photographer feels the desire to make an image, and the moment when it is visible to a third person.
With each innovation it becomes harder to perceive the remaining distance between current technology and the inevitable achievement of some form of near instantaneous photography, by which I mean photography which is conceived, created, and shared instantly. Many saw the mass availability of the phone camera as the dawn of a new era because it meant that an imaging device was constantly within reach, but as anyone who has used one will know a camera phone still leaves plenty of opportunity to miss potential photographs. It must still be on, be readied, be aimed.
It is not in practice the same as having a camera which is constantly at the ready, constantly trained on the scene ahead and whatever it might offer, ready to record it all, quite literally at a word. Google’s new wearable camera-computer ‘Glass’ perhaps comes close to this, and represents a step nearer to what may prove to be a photographic terminal velocity, a point where photography hits a technical or perceptual glass ceiling and can become no faster.
Because what could be quicker to use than a device which is constantly worn and activated by sound? Perhaps one which is directly integrated into the eye and controlled by thought. This starts to sound like science fiction, but then some of the wildest imaginings of the twentieth century now seems laughably prosaic, once futuristic communicators for example now look like incredibly tacky mobile phones. Perhaps in another fifty years the prospect of a camera in the eye won’t be so ridiculous, eventually perhaps we will not be talking of innovations that shave seconds off the time taken to photograph, but fractions of seconds.
Maybe we are still further from this boundary than it seems, perhaps just as we appear to reach it there will once again materialise a way to break through it. Computers predicatively rendering ‘photographs’ in response to our thoughts, without the need to ever use a camera, or some sort of quantum photography, anticipating our desire to photograph long before we even know it ourselves. More science fiction maybe. Feasibly it will prove a barrier that is impossible to even reach. I remember reading not that long ago that due to the functioning of our nervous systems, we all live slightly in the past. However fast our reactions, and however close at hand our cameras, photography may never catch up to the present, what we see may in effect have always already passed us by.
But what if we did reach it, what then? Maybe the need to fundamentally reconsider one of the axioms on which photography rests, causing us to question long held truths about it’s relationship to time. Perhaps the cult of speed, which seems so fittingly central to such a modern media as photography, will wither and be replaced by something else. Perhaps photography, which has always been so effective at breaking open familiar narratives of time, will end up exploding its own comfortable narrative, that of the history of photography as one of relentless progress.