Snapshots Smeared Across Space and Time

I have, of late, been trying to take less directly representational photographs. You’ve probably noticed that my old South Beach alley pictures are not really about documenting the alleys. At the time I was more interested in simply seeing how I can divide up the frame with shapes and colors in pleasing ways. And these are my oldest good pictures. But what (I think) I really want to do is work more on pure graphic compositions, without much to recognize and rob attention from the shapes. “Rob” may be too strong a word, but you get my drift.

Coincidentally, or perhaps unconsciously, within a few days of having this thought, on a whim I snapped a picture of the highway zipping past me in my car, ultimately leading to this series of pictures I posted on Flickr.

Perhaps I should explain how these pictures were taken now and we can get into the concept later. First, do not try this at home, kids.

For the day shots, I set my camera to shutter priority at a reasonably slow speed. The metadata says it was 1/10 second, apparently, though you should select a time that gets the look you want for the speed you’re going. Things generally look smoother and lines look straighter when you squeeze more distance into your picture (either with a longer shutter speed or faster car speed). Then I held my camera out the window, pointing straight perpendicular to the car’s motion (yes, I was barreling down the highway), while trying to keep the camera level front to back with respect to the car (left-right with respect to the camera). I was not looking through the viewfinder at this point. Not even the live view. I just clicked and (didn’t) see (until later) what happened.

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The night shots were similar, but I set my camera for aperture priority wide open. I had to adjust the ISO manually because the exposures were just way too long. I also put the lens in manual focus because it would try to focus, fail, and never let me take the picture. Plus the focusing light shining out my window was a little conspicuous. If you have an assistant, perhaps they can focus the lens for you. But even if not, the bokeh is really nice, as you can see.

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Post-processing of the images was minimal. I rotated them to line up better than I could have done by hand while driving. A little noise reduction, especially in the night shots, was in order. I applied some white balance, but in most cases I kept the color close to what the camera recorded because that’s what makes them interesting. Finally some normal exposure adjustments liven up the color and chiaroscuro.

OK, so let’s get back to the artsy doublespeak after which this post is named. A camera takes a picture of a region of space and a region of time. When the camera and its subject are moving with respect to each other, that fact becomes all the more apparent. In the photos in this set, it’s taken to the extreme so that all we have left are the smears that result when trying to fit too much time and space in a little two-dimensional frame.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I find it interesting that there are artifacts of not only three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional photograph, but also of the fourth dimension, time, in that same single image. Also notable is the fact that we instantly perceive those artifacts for what they are. When we see an image with motion blur, we know that motion occurred, and based on our intuitive understanding of the physical world, we have an idea of the amount of time captured in that image. Now, I wonder if that’s because photography is such a part of modern human culture, or if it is something more fundamental in our perceptions. For example, cartoonists will draw something akin to motion blur when they want to show movement. But again, are they simply copying photographic motion blur?

How’s that for arty bollocks.

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