Photography and Time

What is the relationship between a photographic image and time? 

Often this question is reflexively answered by asserting that photography acts to “freeze” a moment of time.  This assertion, however, is both inherently wrong and misleading in multiple respects.  Putting aside the deeper question of whether time is a fundamental or an emergent property of reality (a question not likely to be directly relevant to this issue),[1] in no way can a photograph freeze time.  The physical mechanics of photography, whether digital or film, necessarily contradict this claim:  the shutter is released, and stays open for the prescribed length of time, after which it closes (or the sensor turns off, or whatever; the precise mechanics are unimportant, as the passage of time is a common element to all).  In no way is the shutter (or the equivalent) open for a single instant or “quanta” of time (whatever that might be).  Because the shutter is open for an ongoing period of time, a photograph does not freeze time, but instead compresses it.[2]  A photograph is not a frozen moment of time, but is instead the compression of a series of sequential moments.  Stated differently, a camera treats the photons that arrive at the sensor or film over an ongoing period of time as if they had all arrived simultaneously.[3] 

As such a photograph creates the illusion of a single moment, when in fact it is by its physical nature a compilation of a series or a continuum of ongoing ones.  This is true of every photograph, and not limited to time-lapse photographs, exceedingly long exposures or other seemingly special cases.[4]  A photographic image is inherently a temporal artifice; every photograph is a composite image.  In short, the so-called static nature of photographs is a myth, notwithstanding its near universal acceptance.[5]

This point would be completely obvious and almost unworthy of mention were it not for the fact of how strongly this aspect of the photographic process resembles the architecture and processes of consciousness itself.  The temporally illusive nature of photographs mirrors the fictitious nature of consciousness’ now.  Consciousness is inherently “historical.”  Our now is not now, but is the result of each of our brains stitching together our individual now from a variety of prior sensory inputs, each of which originates at a different moment in time, traveling at different speeds and over different, if overlapping, periods of time, which is then synthesized into a unified, conscious, now.  Our now is always the past (more accurately, multiple pasts); our present experience is always a memory.[6]

Moreover, the statement that a photograph freezes a moment in time also falsely implies that a photographic image can be comprehended as a thing in itself, somehow divorced from any observer and thus somehow outside of time itself.  A photograph necessarily operates only in the context of the interaction between the photograph and the viewer, between the observed and the observer.[7]  Unless and until this interaction occurs, the photograph is as “undeveloped” as unprocessed film.  While the parameters of this interaction are complex, suffice it to say for these purposes that any such interaction between the photograph and the viewer occurs in, during and, if the photograph is sufficiently engaging to the observer, over, a period of ongoing time.  Looking at a photograph is no more static an event than the photograph itself.

Further, each photograph necessarily implies a time before and a time after.  There was some prior state or set of events before that at a minimum preceded, and perhaps even directly resulted in or caused, the time and event(s) captured by the photographic image.  A photographic image also implies that there is some future state or set of events after, which followed and may have directly resulted from that which was captured in the photograph.  While the strength or intensity of such implication varies from photograph to photograph, it is nonetheless always there.  As such, a photographic image is part of, and inherently in, the flow of time, rather than a frozen – and implicitly independent or isolated – moment.

What, then, is the significance of the foregoing?

First, the notion of a photographic image as an accurate record is, as a matter of physics if nothing else, a fallacy.  Because a photograph is a temporal illusion, an unstated composite of a series of moments, all photographs are inherently fictions.  This is not to imply that photographs are fictions solely for this reason.  It does mean, however, that even if one could somehow “control for” cultural bias and other issues, a nonfiction record would still be impossible.  In this respect photographs resemble human memories, which are always constructs, but nonetheless often feel intensely “real.”[8] 

Second, in tension with the prior point, a photograph’s compressive temporal character nonetheless does have the potential power to reveal and provide insight about the visual world.  At one level this is simply a function of more data; the open shutter over a period of time allows more information in than might otherwise be the case, as does the preservation, albeit subject to editing and manipulation, of this information.  The compressive process allows this increased amount of information to be seen, seemingly at once (on a conscious or subconscious level) and over time.  But, perhaps more importantly, inherent in this compressive process are temporal boundaries:  a start and a finish, an opening and a closing.  By setting limits, the visual experience is circumscribed in time, thereby becoming more defined, and therefore more accessible.  The opening and closing of the shutter creates a temporal frame as much as the elements of a particular composition creating a visual spatial frame, thereby isolating a particular thing or scene for emphasis or study.  Now rather than then, and in every case also implying a time before and after.  These temporal coordinates, locating a photograph in time, are as much a part of the composition as the spatial elements of a photograph.  Indeed, the fact that the details or nature of the before and after are often ambiguous and in many cases unknowable can result in incredibly powerful images.  Take, for example, Crewsden’s photographs:  clearly something happened before to the characters in these fictions, clearly something will happen after.  At most these before and after states are barely suggested; indeed, it often seems as if these characters have little or no knowledge as to how they have found themselves in this position, in this moment of time.  The existence of before and after, coupled with the difficulty, or on occasion, an outright impossibility, to determine what those states might actually be, lends a particular power to those photographs.


[1] For purposes of this inquiry, it makes sense to treat time as “real,” if for no other reason than because time is a core (perhaps the core) aspect of conscious experience.  Irrespective of time’s reality as a matter of fundamental physics, it is undoubtedly ever present — and thus functionally “real” — as an experiential matter.  As frequently observed, it is virtually impossible to speak about any conscious experience without reference, either explicitly or implicitly, to its temporal aspect.  While this fact has no necessary ontological significance as to time’s status as real or fictitious, it is clearly indicative of time’s central and inescapable experiential role.  Given this, whether time is a fundamental or an emergent property of reality does not change the analysis of the relationship of time, at least at an experiential level, to photography.  Moreover, the characterization of something as not “real” merely because it is an emergent property rather than a fundamental one is ultimately not a particularly meaningful distinction.  My consciousness is no doubt an emergent property that will cease upon my death, but that does not make it any less “real.”

[2] Conversely, a motion picture creates the illusion of an onward progression of time by means of a sequence of nominally “static” images.  These processes are effectively mirror images of each other, and each is fundamentally an illusion.

[3] The fact that the shutter of a modern camera need often be open only for an imperceptible period, as compared with the lengthy exposures required by early photographic technologies, has the effect of creating the appearance of a frozen moment of time and making the compressive aspect far less obvious.  In this respect early photography was more revealing of its true nature.

[4] The fact that this compression process is obvious in some photographs (i.e., blurred movement, trails of light made by moving cars, and so on) and not in others (an apparently static scene) in no way changes this fundamental fact.  The lack of obviousness of this aspect of the nature of photographs contributes to their inherently misleading nature.

[5] Of course, a photograph is always a construct:  photons hit the sensor or film, which “interprets” the photons to represent various colors and luminosity values (the manner of which varies depending upon the sensor, the settings in a digital camera’s processing unit, the particular film and its processing, and so on).

[6] Perhaps the singular exception to this observation is the moment of one’s own death.  If one’s now is a historical construct of consciousness based upon prior sensory inputs, then presumably that construction cannot occur at and after the time of death (or an earlier cessation of consciousness or damage to the body).  In short, one cannot experience the moment of one’s death.  The most significant moment of one’s conscious life is inherently unknowable.

[7] This does not imply that the viewer is or needs to be someone other than the photographer.  Essentially the same process, albeit with different dynamics, occurs in either case.

[8] Another inherently misleading aspect of every photograph is the spatial framing process.  Because a photograph has a limited angle of view, even a randomly aimed camera both includes and excludes.  In a deliberate photograph, this gives the impression of that which matters, and that which does not:  an impression that may be of either questionable validity or significant insight.

© 2017-18 Lawrence Gottesman.  All rights reserved.   Revised Feb. 24, 2018.