By Tara McLennan
Tara McLennan is a PhD student and tutor at the University of Technology Sydney. She is currently working on a non-traditional thesis (Photography’s Album: how smartphone photography mediates lived time), and she teaches undergraduate subjects in film studies.
[This is the text version of a paper presented on the day. It is a summary of a work in progress and in no way a finished product. Comments and feedback on the ideas in this paper are most welcome and encouraged. Please ‘leave a reply’ in the box at the bottom of this page.]
On a rainy afternoon, in a crowded train, I open Instagram to kill time. I slide my finger over global snatches: a morning sunrise, a coffee steaming on a table, a pug deflating at someone’s feet. The movement and pacing of this photographic interaction has, until recently, been buried beneath my primary motive: distraction. A couple of years ago I started a thesis on how smartphone photography mediates lived time. Through autoethnography, I’m exploring how engagement with networked personal images filters memory, presence and a sense of futurity. Since starting the project, my attention has been pulled to the spatial and temporal nature of scrolling and shooting. I look for the motion, flow and pauses in exploring the Instagram feed. Today we’ll be looking specifically at the act of browsing, which is only one element of smartphone photographic practice, and is co-constituted with other gestures, such as shooting, liking, and posting. Further discussion of how these various processes dynamically interact with browsing will be important at a later date, but for the time being, we’re on this humid city train, passing the time with a photo feed.
Many are bent intently over glowing screens, heads bobbing and swaying with the movement of the carriage. Next to me, a woman skims through her Instagram homepage. The pace of her glance is a skipping-stone motion; two or three photos rush by, a brief glance alights on something (maybe she taps the like button); and the stream continues. Uploaded fragments are played at the casual speed that suits light engagement. It is not the narrative process of turning pages in a family album, or the chronological click-and-hold of a slide show. The motion of these digital images exists somewhere in the space between stasis and fluidity. Personal photographs are frozen as isolated shots, but as networked images they slip away beneath glass screens, transiently passing through the smartphone frame.
On the interstice between stasis and movement, practices of Instagram browsing call to mind a theory propounded by film-maker Andrew Taylor; that of the ‘still-moving’ image. Taylor lectures at the University of Technology Sydney, and makes films based on collected slide show images. His latest project, recently screened on the ABC, was First Person Kodachrome (2014) – a film made entirely of personal carousel images, both a history of his family, and a tale about the medium. He calls attention to hybrid visual forms, that cannot be classified distinctly as either cinema or photography, but instead challenge the viewer’s temporal engagement with an image. “If we think of cinema as a series of projected still images – as in, a second of moving image is typically 25 projections of still images – then still and moving image photography form two ends of a spectrum, and the slide show occupies a space somewhere in between.” (Taylor, “Dead but Still/moving – the Slide Show and Documentary, a Space between Photography and Cinema” 10) This is the ‘still/moving’, and in Taylor’s work, the use of this theory opens awareness to photography and cinema’s connections with time, as a source of change and becoming, a symbiosis of life and death.
While the dialectical stasis and motion of Instagram photographs could be described as ‘still/moving,’ the browser’s practices are not used to invite conscious awareness of time’s passing. Instead, Instagram is frequently sought as a way of escaping or shutting down time, particularly in those moments of waiting and boredom that infuse transitory spaces – such as the train, the waiting room, the car, and the bathroom. (“Cisco Visual Networking Index”)
This presentation discusses the ‘still/moving’ by suggesting that such hybrid images can only unfold an awareness of lived time when attention is drawn to the act of looking itself. The glance, the gaze, and the prolonged stare – these different regimes of sight can resist or succumb to the viewer’s sense of being in time. Personal photographs on Instagram may transgress the boundaries of stasis and fluidity, but the browser uses the social media platform as a means of denying their own embroilment in the continual melt of change.
To come to a closer understanding of this, we’re going to look at creative practices that have engaged with the ‘still/moving’, from the work of the Left Bank filmmakers, to the experimental projects of a photographer in the digital age. Through this brief overview of ‘still/moving’ material, we’ll continue to ask how these images are being used to draw attention to the act of looking as a form of temporal awareness. The look that observes itself is one way to experience time as multiplicitous, ceaseless, and non-chronological; in other words, a self-reflexive gaze allows a viewer to intuit what philosopher Henri Bergson termed duration (which we will turn to in a moment).
We started on a train, and we’re moving back to when trains were new on the scene. They embodied modernity’s emphasis on time as something to be measured with precision. Rebecca Solnit highlights how the inventions of the industrial era, such as the railroad, the telegraph, and the telephone, stem from a particular scientific pursuit: “the defeat of time by splitting the second and rendering everyday time and space completely knowable and translatable.” (Sutton 69) This was also the period that produced photography.
It’s 1878 when Edward Muybridge lines up a series of cameras alongside a racetrack, each one triggered by a thin piece of string along the horse’s path. Already we see photography and cinema at play and how they’re affecting the human perception of time. These sequences are the first realisations of those fleeting moments where all four hooves are in the air, although Muybridge’s work is not only giving us a glimpse of the spaces in-between perception. There are dualities in these sequences – are they still or moving? Do they achieve the scientific ambition of that period, to slice time into fragments? Or do they in fact open our awareness of time’s fluidity?
Henri Bergson writes of time as duration – a conception of temporality where past, present and future coalesce in each given instant. In his philosophy, chronology is an imposed construct on the fluctuations of experience. Moments can’t be isolated from one another, contrary to what schedules, clock-time, and calendars promise. Each second bleeds into others in a broad sweep of continual change. The goal of nineteenth century science was, in other words, impossible – time refuses to be dissected neatly into distinct fragments, and it cannot be controlled through representation. Duration highlights that we are subject to time, rather than the other way around. However, instead of feeling ourselves as part of the endless becoming of life and change, Bergson says we establish an artificial relationship to time, as though we were outside of it. (Bergson, Matter and Memory; Bergson, Time and Free Will)
To illustrate this, he presents us with another image, one that speaks to both cinema and photography: the flight of an arrow. Human perception seeks to freeze the arrow at distinct points in space-time, to map it out in chronological sequences, A, B, C. However, in duration, the becoming of the arrow’s flight can’t be arrested mid-air. All moments of its arc are connected, sharing a pulse across past, present and future. Try as we might to divide it into isolated parts, time mercurially fuses together. (Bergson, Matter and Memory)
Does Muybridge’s horse show us the impossibility of making a cut to time? Is it an example of photography’s stasis, or cinema’s fluidity? Perhaps, it shows that photography can’t simply be viewed ‘still,’ and cinema can’t simply be seen as ‘moving.’ According to David Campany, the horse sequences may look destined for animation, but that was not Muybridge’s aim. Instead, he “pursued instantaneous arrest, the decomposition of movement, not its recomposition. Stopping time and examining its frozen forms was [the] goal.” (Campany 22)
When I hold my gaze over a still or frozen image, a sense of time’s ceaseless motion surfaces through my way of looking. “With a photograph,” writes David Sutton, “we are presented with an image that is static but that nonetheless can give a powerful sensation of time passing. We are suddenly internal to the change of the world and can glimpse the enormity of past and future that the photograph suspends.” (Sutton 38)
The stillness in the image paradoxically heightens my own embroilment in the movement of time. As I look, I am subject to continual change, and can also intuit the overlap of different moments– the lost instant of the snapshot is entwined with my present. Roland Barthes explores the multiplicitous threads of time in this still image, a portrait of young Lewis Payne on death row. In looking at the picture, he sees that the young man is simultaneously dead, and about to die. He is both absence and presence, caught in the viewer’s sight. (Barthes)
But to intuit this non-chronological interweaving of past, present and future, the way we look is key. Barthes and Sutton are both writing about letting a still photograph seep into them. Context, pacing, modes of viewership can all change the photograph’s impact. When there is a sustained connection between viewer and image, death and life reveal their symbiosis.
Agnes Varda’s television series One Minute for One Image (Varda) was launched in 1983, and used a collection of 170 images gathered from various public and personal archives. The photographs ranged from artists’ shots, to news images, to family snaps. The voice over for each photograph presented an anonymous speaker’s interaction with one photograph, and never immediately identified where the image was sourced.
Questions to consider for screening:
- How is your perception of the photograph affected by pace and voice over?
- Does the suspension of a still image make you more aware of your own gaze over time?
Varda’s work is an example of how techniques of the ‘still/moving’ can forge a sustained and conscious relationship between viewer and image over time.
The next example of this technique is in the work of another Left Bank filmmaker, Chris Marker. In 1962, he released La Jetée, a sci-fi story entirely made of still photographs. Rather than ruminating on the experiential process of looking at a photograph, Marker has incorporated a story into the script. And yet the use of a traditional narrative does not immerse the viewer in plot to the point where the material basis of the moving footage is denied – La Jetée continually reinforces its position as a film made of still frames. It asserts the durational process of engaging with each image, not only through aesthetics, but also in a voice over that evokes philosophical theories on the connection between imagery and temporal experience.
Questions to consider for screening:
- What does this film reveal about images that are still? About images that are moving?
- How does it position you in the time of the image, and in the time of your viewing? (Consider not only in form but also in the voice over).
Marker’s work asks us to sit with the unfolding of images, both as projections in the cinema, and as photographs created in the past intended for future viewing.
To draw attention to the presence of images in our viewing space is to de-familiarise habitual engagement with visual material in day-to-day living. Interaction with photographic material has become heightened with the rise of social media platforms: approximately 350 million photographs are uploaded on Facebook (Smith) every twenty-four hours, and roughly 70 million go onto its subsidiary Instagram (Systrom). Still and moving images are regularly consumed, with smartphone users turning to their screens from the moment of their morning alarm, through to when they return to bed at night.
Compare these casual visual interactions with the first audience response to cinema. It’s 1895, and the Lumiere brothers’ screen their first film, L’arrivée du Train en Gare de La Ciotat (Lumiére Brothers). The myth goes that the spectators fled to avoid being run over by the oncoming vehicle. True or not, the tale speaks to the ability of images to generate shock as unfamiliar visual experiences.
City dwellers quickly adjusted to regular consumption of images, and soon the moving projection of still images became a familiarity. Walter Benjamin wrote extensively on how modern images ceased to have a quality of shock. He studied the affects of the industrial era on experience, claiming that space and time in the modern city were perceived through overstimulation– an influx of images and information. The response to the visual onslaught was to create a stimulus shield against visual experiences, until images began to slide off the surface of perception. He called this form of light engagement, Erlebnis – a fleeting moment without resonance. (Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life; Benjamin, The Arcades Project)
Returning to the present, it would be possible view Instagram browsing as a form of Benjamin’s Erlebnis in the digital era; a flow of visual stimuli glides by without the viewer intuiting the image’s connection with death and life. But this may be an oversimplifying the matter. Are Instagram browsers blocking a sense of durational time?
As I kill time on the train to university, Instagram images aren’t simply static – they float by, with absent-minded pleasure, amusement, irritation; feelings I wouldn’t remember if I didn’t write them down. There’s a pig in a frock, followed by a fruit bowl, and a topless boy’s selfie. It’s similar to flicking through channels on TV without settling. I browse so as not to feel time melting, but the more I browse, the more time passes me by. My gaze has continual motion. Yet the images are still – as am I, almost motionless in my seat. The contradictions of stasis and motion are here, not only in the train journey, but in my way of looking.
There is some suppressed sense of duration here. The knowledge of time’s relentlessness is buried somewhere within me, and my intention is to outrun it. The more this fails, the more I feel time’s heaviness. It is as Bergson says, that the very effort to shorten duration, lengthens that duration by just so much. (Bergson, Matter and Memory) How do I respond? I try to escape time again by turning to more distraction; a self-perpetuating cycle.
For our last screening, we’re going to turn to the work of artist Adam Magyar, whose 2011 experimental series Stainless (Magyar) has captured something of the cyclical tension between resisting and feeling duration. Magyar created a hybrid device for this sequence: a high-quality industrial camera integrated with “line scan” technology used by factory assembly lines. The line scanning equipment uses a high-speed laser to catch details in fast-moving objects. This particular piece of footage was filmed from the inside of a train approaching Shinjuku station in Japan, and the frequency of the scanner allows small details in movement to emerge, without risk of distortion.
(Still from Stainless, 2013)
Questions to consider for screening:
- How does this clip reveal a tension between the time of our looking, and the time of the passengers who are browsing?
- What affect does this have on your viewing experience?
This is an example of hybrid stasis and motion that draws attention to the act of looking – as I view this film, my gaze is placed in contrast with those of the subjects browsing their smartphone screens. Their search for distraction is rendered visible, and yet, as I watch, I become internal to the time they seek to escape.
The ‘still/moving’ certainly has the ability to unravel a sense of the durational time that envelops both the image and the viewer – although from the perspective of the browsers, something different is unfolding. In the era of Instagram browsing, personal snapshots demonstrate many of the qualities of the ‘still/moving,’ but without drawing attention to the act of looking. The distracted look skims over things, without aiming to grasp that the images onscreen are in fact pointing to the durational nature of time.
Smartphone images speak to Bergson’s notion of duration in many ways – they show the live instant reflected across global space, and as such, reveal time as all encompassing, beyond any one individual’s experience. The moment is displayed on thousands of illuminated screens simultaneously, revealing the impossibility of isolating one point in time from others.
These photographs also speak to the fluidity of temporality, the ceaselessness of change. While personal shots are stored in the individual homepage, fixed in a form of storage, they are also part of the explore page, which is a kaleidoscope of live motion. Each day I take a screenshots of this live stream, knowing the unique formations of images will appear this way only once, before quickly shifting with the streaming of data.
So this is a mercurial, multiplicitous sphere that in many ways points to time as “pure change that is unimaginable except through the shadow it leaves or glimpses it affords when its existence is revealed.” (Sutton 60) That shadow is here, but as a browser, I am not looking at it; I am resisting it for the sake of distraction. In this way, a tension is created between the presence durational time, and the denial of it through a distracted look.
Today was the beginning of my search for a new way of presenting Instagram images for my thesis. By exploring how the ‘still/moving’ can function to accentuate the durational process of looking, I can begin to think of how to visually present a study on Instagram photographs. It would be interesting to draw attention to the ‘still/moving’ qualities of Instagram by drawing on the example screenings of today. This would de-familiarise the skipping-stone pace of browsing and the durational qualities haunting these photographic practices would be brought to the surface. Rather than try to outrun time’s grasp, the viewer would be asked to sit with duration; to endure the disquieting and ceaseless dance between disappearance and becoming.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981. Print.
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.
—. The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Harvard University Press, 2006. Print.
Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Cosimo, Inc., 2007. Print.
—. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Courier Corporation, 2012. Print.
Campany, David. Photography and Cinema. Reaktion Books, 2008. Print.
“Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update 2014–2019 White Paper.” Cisco. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 May 2015.
Lumiére Brothers. L’arivée D’un Train En Gare de La Ciotat. N.p., 1895. Film.
Magyar, Adam. Stainless. N.p., 2011. Print.
Smith, Cooper. “Facebook Users Are Uploading 350 Million New Photos Each Day.” Business Insider Australia. N.p., 18 Sept. 2013. Web. 4 Jan. 2015.
Sutton, Damian. Photography, Cinema, Memory: The Crystal Image of Time. U of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
Systrom, Kevin. “300 Million, Sharing Real Moments.” Instagram Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2014.
Taylor, Andrew. “Dead but Still/moving – the Slide Show and Documentary, a Space between Photography and Cinema.” TEXT Special Issue ASPERA: New Screens, New Producers, New Learning (2011): n. pag. Print.
—. First Person Kodachrome. ABC Television, 2015. Film.
Varda, Agnes. “Une Minute Pour Une Image.” French televison, 1983. Television.