How photography changed time?


Edweard Muybridge is known for the innovations he did on photography while studying motion in humans and other animals. The gif above shows his first and most famous work. It was commissioned by Leland Stanford “in the hope that they would solve a debate about wether a trotting horse ever has all four feet off the ground at a time,” as Rebecca Solnit wrote in River of Shadows, a biography of Muybridge.

The English photographer not only solved the debate (frame 2 and 3), but opened a new way of understanding reality through photography:

“He had captured aspects of motion whose speed had made them as invisible as the moons of Jupiter before the telescope, and he had found a way to set them back in motion. It was as though he had grasped time itself, made it stand still, and then made it run again, over and over,” wrote Solnit.

That quote made me think about the description of magicians, those who move fast and skillfully to fool the perception of the viewers and create an illusion in front of them. The inventions of Muybridge were like a reverse magic: he helped the naked eye to notice time at a new scale and speed.

The new possibilities brought new questions. What is not being showed in a motion picture? What happens between frames? Did the horse really exist during those fractions of second when it was not photographed? What’s the maximum number of frames per second you can use to register movement?

Let’s imagine a camera that can capture images using a shutter speed of c and an ISO of infinite. Let’s suppose that we get an image using it: It’s the fastest image you can get and we will call it “the absolute still.” Now, would you be able to create a motion picture using absolute stills and reducing to zero the time between frames? Theoretically no because there’s no way to take two consecutive photos from the same place or, in other words, it’s physically impossible to be on the same exact spot on two different moments. If there’s a change in time (a new frame), there’s necessarily a change in space. To recreate movement–even in the fastest cameras–you need those moments of darkness or absence of image between frames.

The logical consequences of that argument help to understand the magic of Muybridge’s work: Every frame in a motion picture creates its own and unique spectator, and the greatest illusion of cinema is to make us believe that the spectator is the same during each one of them.

After Muybridge the old metaphor of time as a continuous and unstoppable river was scientifically challenged: In order to mechanically reproduce movement –change– you need an imperceptible but permanent fight between light and darkness. As George Méliès or Segundo de Chomón taught us early in 20th century, you need to show and you need to hide, to show and to hide, show and hide…


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