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Modern photography is steeped in the instantaneous: exposures are so brief that the unassisted eye in the same interval (less than half a second) would see nothing. The modern photograph always shows us what we have never seen before, hence its eternal allure. As the snapshot (a term borrowed from duck hunting) became popular a hundred years ago, photography tended to become not a ritual but a reflex, its object the recording of events (wars, weddings, births, sunsets, vacations, etc.) rather than the composing of images. By revealing that which we do not see (the trotting horse with all its feet off the ground; the pattern of granddad’s socks), photography discovered an optical unconscious, just as psychoanalysis (which rose to prominence at the same time as photography) discovered a psychological unconscious.
Photographs are a kind of residue: traces of a moment once present; they can be compared to brass rubbings, impressions taken directly from the surface of the world. They are also the result of the accumulation of light over time, however short the interval. And as photographs reduce a world of three dimensions to two, they also reduce time to its single aspect of the past. All that a photograph can say temporally is: "this was." In photography, Now is replaced by Then.
Fast photography offers a glimpse into the moment. The glimpse is a figure of memory, too brief to consist of seeing; in “real” life we “see” only in the after-moment, where the image, the glimpse, adheres: the face in the crowd, the pattern of a garment, gone and then remembered almost instantly in the vanishing moment, perhaps even an extended moment, grasped as having just been perceived. The glimpse flares out of the dark room of the present; its analog is the blind spot in the retina, where the optic nerve enters. Fast photography wants to squeeze the moment into the instantaneous, to collapse Then into Now.
The blind spot is the zero point of seeing, where seeing itself is impossible (even the gap created by the blind spot in our field of vision is invisible to us) but nevertheless occurs through the agency of the blind spot. The blind spot is the apt figure of the present moment, where nothing resides; the residue of the moment collects all around it: the moment proves to be flexible, stretchable, squeezable.
One of Daguerre’s earliest photographs shows the street below his studio window at noon on a summer day in 1838. There are no people in the street and no moving vehicles; and then on the sidewalk the ghostly image of a trousered lower leg suspended above a stool. The leg belongs to the invisible client of an invisible shoeshine boy; it has been unmoving long enough to register on the plate. The materials that Daguerre used required exposures of more than a few minutes, enough time for the stream of people and vehicles to move past the lens without leaving an impression on the emulsion. The result is a hallucinatory glimpse of a busy Paris street completely deserted (something that no one has ever seen), save for a trousered lower leg (also never seen before), in the middle of the day.
The photographs displayed here were made with a pinhole camera set up on a tripod to keep it immobile. To expose the film you uncover the pinhole and count off the seconds. The camera has no viewfinder, so the image is composed by estimating the angle of view. If you align the top of the camera with the horizontal and the back of the camera with the perpendicular, you get “proper” parallel lines. The tiny pinhole keeps everything in focus; depth of field is infinite. The absence of a lens results in a certain unsharpness, and eliminates the barrel distortion caused by wide-angle lenses. These photographs are not snapshots; they are more like blotters soaking up light, and time; in them the moment is extended, stretched out. In slow photography, Then and Now engage our perception in turn, like the vase that looks like two faces and then a vase again. Slow photography reveals another aspect of the optical unconscious: the duration of things; time stretched out. What cities leave behind is evident in certain neighbourhoods, certain buildings, in architectural details, in monuments that no one looks at any more: these appearances are the contents of a civic unconscious, residue of an earlier time: a sign of the collective forgetting, that when illuminated, allows the past to flare up in the present moment.
See the rest of the photographs in Geist #50.