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The photographic time. Part 1 - What happens when we take a photograph?

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(για ελληνικά πατήστε εδώ)

For most people the meaning of photographic time is determined by the perception of stopping and freezing time, of capturing a single moment and making it eternal and immortal. This is partly true, but the role of time in photography is of course much more complicated, as the very notion of time is complicated and abstract. While we all experience time and we all witness the consequences of time – and mostly death as a proof of time’s latent existence - we find it hard to objectively define it. So, what is really happening when we take a photograph? How do we perceive time when we look at a picture? Let us discuss briefly certain points of view about photographic time as stated by some prominent artists, art critics and philosophers.

‘Just like a modern Medusa, camera has the power to turn into stone everything that it faces, everything that faces it…’

Practically speaking, the photographic time is determined by the selection of the moment we take a photograph and the duration of the shutter being open. In fact, a photograph never captures a single moment but a small parcel of time. According to Szarkowski (1966),

«there is no such a thing as an instantaneous photograph...».

So, all photographs are shorter or longer time exposures, whose duration is perceived as a single moment due to the human perception of time. Consequently, this photographic moment is being recorded and a sight is being recreated or reproduced. If we speak about the private use of photography we may argue that a photograph lives in an ongoing continuity as long as we are familiar with the photograph’s context. But if we speak about public photography, then, according to Berger, the photographic sight is

« detached from place and time in which it made its first appearance» (1972)

and the photograph

«is torn from its context and becomes a dead object» (1980).

Bazin (1960) put it in a similar way and argued that each time we take a photograph we grasp a moment from the course of time. The photographic image becomes an object itself and therefore is ‘freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it’. This violent and arbitrary abduction of space and time can be compared to a hunter that aims, shoots his prey and finally kills it. Stavridis (1997) expands on this analogy further and says:

“…what else is death if not the stopping of time? And if the word used for a successive shot is ‘capture’ time [‘immortalize’ in greek], which means to save the subject from death, it is probably to exorcise with an euphemism this lethal force of the photographic image. Thus, the photographic frame is a trap that captures the subject/prey. And since time cannot live in captivity, the trap is lethal. Just like a modern Medusa, camera has the power to turn into stone anything that it faces, anything that faces it…”

So, a photograph can be considered as a reminder of real time, ‘a pseudo-presence and a token of absence’ (Sontag, 1973), a death trap and not a way to immortalilty, ‘a mirror with a memory’ as Holmes says (1859). After all camera is

«...a devilish device designed to capture life but unable to convey it»

(Duve, 1978).

(continue reading: Part 2)


  • Bazin, A., & Gray, H. (1960). The Ontology of the Photographic Image. Film Quarterly, 13(4), 4–9.

  • Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corp.

  • Berger, J. (1980). About Looking. New York: Pantheon Books.

  • Duve, T. De. (1978). Time exposure and snapshot: The photograph as paradox. October, 5(Summer), 113 – 125.

  • Holmes, O. W. (1859). Stereoscope and Stereograph. Atlantic Monthly, 3(20), 733–748.

  • Sontag, S. (1973). On Photography. RosettaBooks LLC.

  • Szarkowski, J. (1966). The photographer’s eye. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

  • Stavridis, S. (1997) [originally in greek: Σταυρίδης, Σ. (1997). Φωτογραφία και χωροποίηση του χρόνου. ΟΥΤΟΠΙΑ Επιθεώρηση Θεωρίας Και Πολιτισμού, 27, 47–60.]


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