Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Longest Photographic Exposures in History

I've always been fascinated with the scale of human time as compared with geologic or cosmic scales. We generally forget that we as individuals are here for an eye-blink in comparison with family bloodlines, which are an eye-blink to cultures, and on out into the concentric circles of Earth, solar system, galaxy and universe.

When it comes to photography, we usually think in terms of "moments", and occasionally "time lapse" – a series of moments captured and displayed one after the other in series, forming a kind of Cliff's Notes of time.

But these beautiful, mesmerizing photographs, by German photographer Michael Wesely, are continuous exposures, created by leaving the shutter open and exposing a single negative for up to two years or more.

They are somewhat disorienting; it's hard at first to connect the changes to the three-dimensional matter with the flow of time through the frame.

Time-lapse is simpler for us to relate to. Capturing flashes of time, it shows us a series of easily-digestible bites. We enjoy playing them back at a pace at which movement is rapid, and sky scrapers are constructed in just a few seconds. It seems unreal. But there are people visible in the moments. Substantial humans, frozen a narrow slice of time. Their presence creates a temporal hand-hold.

In these long exposures, though, humans become less than ghostly, their bodies making no apparent mark on the film. In an exposure lasting more than a few minutes, people start to fade. And at this time scale, the things that humans work so hard to build have become fluid... some older parts having coalesced, others just a finger-painted smear across the ground.

But trees remain. And the perceived spiral of the sun remains, as we spin like a toddler, to the point of dizziness.

The volumes of time poured into these exposures, though, are still easy to grasp. We can picture a few years' worth of life in our heads. A couple of birthdays, a few holiday seasons, a handful of family trips. For the most part, things are the same when we return to an old haunt. A new store or a few new homes may have been added, and some humans may have been added or subtracted, but most landmarks – or, more accurately, most "humanmarks" – are still around. A little worse for wear, perhaps, but persistent in our eyes and minds. Still solid. Comfortable.

A year or two on film is something we can still wrap our heads around.

But what if we expand the scale? Wesely says he could theoretically create exposures of 40 years or more. Impressive... but still within memory span for most people. And still within the span of most lives.

What if we were to expose a negative to capture time on a scale that can only be "understood" by the objects that have survived it? Look at the longest exposures on this page, then close your eyes, and try to picture these:

• A 300-year exposure of Washington, D.C. – A few apparitional buildings and monuments, but mostly Potomac and trees.
• A 1,000-year exposure of a grove of giant redwoods – No tourists driving through holes in trunks, and no lumberjacks. Just monstrous stems and a thick cloud of leaves.
• A 200,000-year exposure of the Earth – No evidence of humankind. Just... the Earth.
• A 70 million-year exposure of the Grand Canyon – A very big, very blurry dent in the planet.
• A 4.5 billion-year exposure of the solar system – A bright disk, surrounded in the distance by the faintest, soft, orbital halos.
• A 13 billion-year exposure of the Milky Way – No spiral arms, just a fuzzy spot on the negative.
• A 15 billion-year exposure of the universe – I'll leave this one completely to your mind's eye.

Words like "solid" and "permanent" and even "ancient" tend to lose their sense of longevity once we start widening our gaze a bit.

And words like "ephemeral" and "fleeting" or phrases like "life is short" take on an entirely new perspective.

Just as the shutter is held open, these photographs hold open a window onto a larger sense of who and where and when we are. And they deserve to be explored for as much time as you can spare.
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Thanks to Stefan Klenke aka itchy i for posting the images, and for a great article.

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