Unwinding Time: Clocks for Seeing at the Art Gallery of Alberta

Michael Schreier, Watercourse/Stone Suite, 1994–1995, 13 azo dye prints (Ilfochrome), 20.3 x 25.4 cm each; image: 20.3 x 25.4 cm each. Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada

In a world inundated with images, photography’s ability to fix a moment in time is easily taken for granted. Since its invention nearly two hundred years ago, photography has captured fleeting events, allowing us to see in ways that were once inconceivable. Photography has altered our connection to the past, and to the world around us.

Our histories and memories, both personal and collective, are now shaped by photography and the glimpses it gives us — however fragmented and imperfect — into the passing parade of life. As a medium, it also extends human vision, allowing us to see the dynamics at play in the tiniest slivers of time: things once beyond the capacity of human perception are now knowable through photography.

Originally presented at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in 2015, Clocks for Seeing: Photography, Time and Motion is now on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA). This compelling exhibition features works drawn entirely from the collection of the Canadian Photography Institute (CPI) of the NGC.

Gary Schneider, Telma, 1990, gelatin silver print, 92.3 x 74.6 cm; image: 91.1 x 73.4 cm. Gift of the American Friends of Canada Commitee, Inc., 2002, through the generosity of John Erdman. Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada

Clocks for Seeing includes works ranging from the historical to the contemporary, and from science to art. Its title comes from a lyrical passage in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, in which he relates the sound of cameras (particularly old wooden ones) to the sounds of time (bells, clocks, watches), and describes cameras as clocks for seeing.  

The exhibition is structured around three loosely organized themes: the frozen moment, the extended moment, and simultaneity. As might be expected, the frozen moment explores photography’s ability to capture a specific instant. It begins with William Notman’s The Bounce (1887), which depicts members of the Montreal Snow Shoe Club tossing a fellow member above their heads in an annual ritual. The image appears to be an early example of stop action photography, with the tossed man suspended high in the air. It is actually a staged composite image, created from multiple exposures taken in the studio. 

When the photograph was created, lens speed and film sensitivity were only just beginning to capture movement without substantial blurring. Around the same time, photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey began taking advantage of improvements in the medium’s speed to undertake motion studies.

Eadweard Muybridge, Running at full speed, c. June 1885–11 May 1886, printed November 1887, collotype, printed by New York Photogravure Co. , 47.9 x 59.1 cm; image: 16.1 x 44.3 cm. Gift of Mrs. Virginia P. Moore, Ottawa, 1981. Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada

Muybridge used grids and multiple cameras to capture and portray animal and human locomotion. He was the first to provide photographic evidence that all of a horse’s hooves left the ground at the gallop, creating quite a stir in the art world, where similar depictions were often at odds with this newfound knowledge. Muybridge created over 100,000 photographs related to motion, 20,000 of which were reproduced in the eleven-volume set Animal Locomotion, published in 1887. The exhibition includes two plates from the set “Annie G.” Galloping (c. 1884–1886) and Running at Full Speed (c. 1885–1886).  

This section also features works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, master of the “decisive moment;” Harold Edgerton, who pioneered the development of high-speed photography in the 20th century; and, O. Winston Link.The latter is represented by the remarkable Hot Shot Eastbound, laeger, West Virginia (1956) which captures a speeding train, plane and automobiles — all at a drive-in theatre — as part of series documenting the end of the steam era. 

In this same section, Sorel Cohen’s The Camera Can Obliterate The Reality It Records (1978), and George Legrady’s series Floating Objects (1975–1980), are more contemporary works that raise questions about photographic veracity and authenticity, as well as the ways in which we understand and interpret images. As Auguste Rodin once said: “It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop.” 

William Notman, Niagara Falls, 1869, albumen silver print, 33.2 x 41.9 cm. Purchased from the Photography Collectors Group Fund, 1999. Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada

Under the theme of the extended moment, the exhibition focuses on depictions of motion and events within a single still image. In William Notman’s Niagara Falls (1869), for example, the motion of the rushing Niagara River appears as a velvety blur. At the time, this blur would have been impossible to avoid, because of the need for lengthy exposures. 

In the intervening years, however, this same type of blur has become a recurring motif, signifying movement and the passage of time. It can be seen in Michael Schreier’s beautiful Watercourse/Stone Suite (1994–1995), in which the long exposures required to make the in-camera prints soften the gentle flowing river and swaying vegetation.

It is also apparent in Michael Snow’s Manifestation (Autorisation of 8 Faces) (1999) and Suzy Lake’s Choreographed Puppet (1976), where long exposures capture the blurred figures of the artists as they enact the performances that become the basis of the works. In Serge Tousignant’s Snow and Time Drawings (1977), the blur of falling snowflakes become the excited marks of his drawings, each a material expression of time and movement.

Serge Tousignant, Snow and Time Drawing No. 4, 1977, electrostatic print, 71.1 x 106.7 cm; image: 66.6 x 101.8 cm. Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada

Gary Schneider’s Telma (1990) represents a different approach to the extended moment. The photograph belongs to a series of “durational portraits” that use extremely long exposures and the intimacy of a dark studio to penetrate the rehearsed expres­sions often put on for portraiture. Schneider positions his subjects on the floor beneath a large-format camera. Then, in total darkness, he slowly moves around them, tracing out different parts of the face with a small flashlight.

The last theme in the exhibition is simultaneity. The works in this section can be understood as conflating temporal or spatial experience in some way, allowing multiple viewpoints or moments in time to be experienced simultaneously. In Harry Callahan’s street scene Randolph Street, Chicago (1956), for example, walking figures merge into one another as three, or possibly four, separate moments are combined through in-camera multiple exposures.

Kristan Horton, Disposable Gloves, 2009, ink jet print, 145 x 111 cm; image: 136 x 102 cm. Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada

Kristan Horton’s Cubist-like Disposable Gloves (2009) is also combination of exposures — in this case, taken from multiple perspectives as he circled a pile of cast-off materials on his studio floor. He then used a computer to combine the images in chronological order, and with varying degrees of opacity. The final work is a layering of time and space, brought together within a single image.  

With fifty-seven photographs and an intriguing video installation, there are many great works in Clocks for Seeing. All are fascinating in their own right. And all are elegant reflections of photography’s ability to stop both time and motion, while creating compelling visions of reality as seen through both the lens and the artist’s eye.

Clocks for Seeing: Photography, Time and Motion is on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta until June 18, 2017.

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