Time Stands Still in Clocks for Seeing


Ilse Bing, Self‑portrait in Mirrors, Paris (1931), gelatin silver print, 26.6 x 30.3 cm. NGC. © Estate of Ilse Bing

When American poet Hart Crane saw Alfred Steiglitz’s famous cloud photographs in 1923, he was struck by the uncanny ability of the camera to capture what was so fleeting to the human eye. “Speed is at the bottom of it all,” he wrote, “the hundredth of a second caught so precisely that the motion is continued from the picture infinitely: the moment made eternal.”

Crane’s eloquent words mark the entrance to the National Gallery’s current exhibition of photographs, Clocks for Seeing: Photography, Time and Motion. Works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eadweard Muybridge, William Notman, Michael Snow and others demonstrate how the photograph is essentially a “clock for seeing” — that is, something that marks the passage of time through images.

“When you start thinking about time and photography,” says Jonathan Newman, the Gallery’s Curatorial Assistant of the Photographs Collection, “in a way, you can incorporate almost anything into that theme. Time is such an essential element of what we’re interested in with photography, and why it’s important to us.”

Newman has made a judicious selection of 42 works that address the notion of time in a particularly rich and profound way — sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not. Drawn entirely from the Gallery’s permanent collection, they include both Canadian and international works made for scientific or documentary purposes, or as art, spanning a century and a half from 1868 to 2009.


Eadweard Muybridge,"Annie G." galloping (c. June 1884 – 11 May 1886, printed November 1887), collotype, 21.9 x 33.1 cm. NGC. Gift of Dr. Robert W. Crook, Ottawa, 1981

The first wall of the exhibition space features two of Eadweard Muybridge’s influential studies of human and animal motion: “Annie G.” galloping (c. 1884–1886) and Running at full speed (c. 1885–1886). The British-born Muybridge first made a name for himself with his spectacular landscape views of the American West. In 1872, he was enlisted by railway tycoon Leland Stanford to photographically resolve the question of whether a horse left the ground while trotting or galloping. Using a bank of cameras, Muybridge produced a photographic sequence depicting the stages in a horse’s gait, proving that all of its hooves did indeed leave the ground. The two works on display are thus a fascinating blend of science and art.

In addition to Muybridge’s studies, there are three images by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson that exemplify the “decisive moment.” Cartier-Bresson famously coined this phrase to describe the instant when forms converge perfectly and a photographer must snap the shutter.  “That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he once said.

In the case of the Cartier-Bresson photographs in the exhibition — Hyères, France (1932), Behind Gare St-Lazare (1932) and Roman Amphitheatre, Valencia, Spain (1933) — the artist was able to capture the split-second when a speeding bicycle came into view on a curved street, right in front of a spiral staircase; when a man jumped over a mirror-smooth puddle, his stride reflected in its surface; and when the light glinted off one lens of a bull-ring attendant’s glasses. Technology, as well as talent, was on Cartier-Bresson’s side. In 1932, he bought his first Leica camera: a small, light, versatile piece of equipment that allowed him the freedom of movement, spontaneity — and even anonymity — that he needed.


Suzy Lake, Choreographed Puppet (1976), gelatin silver print, 27.8 x 35.6 cm. NGC

On another wall, a group of photographs addresses the idea of extended time. “It’s the opposite of the frozen moment,” says Newman. “Time is evident in some way within the single frame of the photograph.” Saltmarket, from Bridgegate (1868) is part of Thomas Annan’s series, The Old Closes and Streets Etc. of Glasgow. Annan was commissioned in 1868 to document a district of Glasgow that was slated for demolition. Saltmarket captures a blur of figures lining a commercial street, facing the camera. The viewer can imagine Annan set up in the street with his cumbersome glass-plate camera and tripod, attracting far too much attention and dealing with ridiculously lengthy exposure times. The ghostly quality of the moving figures, however, is part of what is interesting about this photograph. As Newman says, “The blurring of the subjects was obviously a limitation of photography; at the same time, it becomes something quite wonderful today.”

In the final section of the exhibition, devoted to the theme of simultaneity and synchronicity, a small space is elaborately furnished like a 19th-century boudoir. All is Vanity (Mirrorless Version) (2009) is by Adad Hannah, the Montreal- and Vancouver-based artist known for capturing the subtlest of human movements in his video tableaux vivants. Hannah has said he is interested in “the uneasy space between movement and stillness, the recorded and the live.”


Harold E. Edgerton, Atomic Bomb Explosion before 1952 (before 1952, printed c. 1985), gelatin silver print, 56 x 44.2 cm. NGC. Gift of the Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1997. © Harold Edgerton, MIT, 2014, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.
Here, the artist restages Charles Allan Gilbert’s famous 1892 drawing, All Is Vanity (1892). In Gilbert’s original, a woman admiring herself in a mirror appears, from a distance, to represent a skull. Hannah re-tells this cautionary tale of ephemeral beauty using a carefully crafted mise en scène, overlain with a video element that consists of a long take of a woman’s face looking out at the viewer as if from a mirror. Hannah actually filmed twin sisters. They blink occasionally, but are otherwise quite still. Hannah’s version might be familiar to those who saw it at the Gallery in 2010–2011, in It Is What It Is.

Time and motion provide fertile material for the artist, and so does space. Clocks for Seeing is installed adjacent to the exhibition, M.C. Escher: The Mathemagician, and the two make interesting companions: one, an investigation of time; the other, a journey through imaginary spaces. Both exhibitions are on view at the National Gallery of Canada until May 3, 2015.

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