Arts in Time – Photography, Cinema & Lies

Music Dance Theatre Video and Film are arts in time. Artists in those fields who keep this in mind seem to go further than those mainly concerned with psychology or personality.
– Steve Reich, ‘Statement about Time’ in Dance Ink magazine, 1993.

Music Dance Theatre Video and Film… and Photography and Sculpture, we might also add. Paul Virilio’s The Vision Machine (1988, trans. Julie Rose 1994) ) commences with a report of a conversation between Auguste Rodin and Paul Gsell c.1911, in which Rodin describes the photographed body as ‘struck with paralysis. […] People in photographs suddenly seem frozen in mid-air, despite being caught in full swing: this is because every part of their body is reproduced at exactly the same twentieth or fortieth if a second so there is no gradual unfolding of a gesture, as there in art.’ Gsell claims that photography is an ‘unimpeachable mechanical witness’, Rodin counters: ‘It is art that tells the truth and photography that lies. For in reality time does not stand still, and if the artist manages to give the impression that a gesture is being executed over several seconds, their work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image in which time is abruptly suspended.’

But not only is convention a necessary prequisite for communication – a carefully devised convention permits deep analysis. To research movement and change, physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey invented the technique of ‘chronophotography’ – high-speed serial photography using very fast shutters. By superimposing sequences of still images to create a graph of a process, Marey expanded human vision and understanding by revealing what was too quick for the eye to see. (Sketches above from Marey’s 1885 La méthode graphique).

A different convention yields not analysis but illusion – in the cinema, the viewer synthesizes a rapid succession of still images into movement. ‘Moving pictures’ exploit a phsyiological peculiarity of the human eye and brain – the persistence of vision – to trick us, so persuasively that we forget we’re being had. If the mediation of still photography deceives us as to the nature of reality, chronophotography could be said to partially recoup this loss, while cinema epitomes the lie.