Representing time: exploring long exposure landscape photography

We live in a society that is obsessed with ‘immediacy’, which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the quality of bringing one into direct and instant involvement with something, giving rise to a sense of urgency or excitement”. Technology has evolved exponentially during the past few decades and has become an integral part of our daily lives. Although we have gained productivity and convenience, technology has seemingly collapsed space and time. With this obsession comes an ‘awareness’ that time is moving more briskly, life is ‘speeding up’ and we seem to have lost our ‘free time’.

In terms of photography, technology allows photographers to capture slices of time in milliseconds. The extremely high resolution files are then written to a memory card at speeds that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago and we are able to instantly preview our photographs on a screen displaying detailed information about the image. Although as photographers we face very few technical limitations, we need to explore the limitations of what we are able to represent in single frame still photography. According to Whitmire (2017) the earliest known surviving photograph made with a camera was taken by Joseph Nicèphore Nièpce in 1827. The image depicts the view from a window at Nièpce’s estate, Le Gras, in France and the image was exposed for approximately eight hours. Subsequent development of photographic processes such as Daguerreotypes and Calotypes reduced exposure times to less than an hour, still extremely long by modern standards.

There seems to be a revival in photographic artists seeking methods and techniques such as long exposure photography to shift the sense and perception of time within their photographs. British photographer Michael Kenna relates his work to the famous phrase by Henri Cartier-Bresson “the decisive moment” by labelling his images “the decisive twelve hours”. Hungarian photographer Adam Magyar built a custom camera incorporating line-scanning technology commonly found in household printers to capture his subjects within the flow of time, essentially expanding time through his

medium. In his series “In Praise of Shadows”, Hiroshi Sugimoto explores memory and time. Using the inherent characteristic of long exposure photography, Sugimoto provides insight into how the medium can both disguise and change reality. In the presence of faster and increasingly sophisticated camera technology these photographers are attempting to return, although in digital context, to the heritage of where photography started.

Fig. 1 In Praise of Shadows (Source: Hiroshi Sugimoto)

Fig. 2 Urban Flow (Source: Adam Magyar)

Fig. 2 Urban Flow (Source: Adam Magyar)

The examples from Adam Magyar and Hiroshi Sugimoto illustrate that instead of the camera simply measuring time, subjects are being visualised within the relentless flow of time. Time is being used to explore memory, create an intimacy between photographer and subject, disguise and change reality and recreate the sense of the aura in subjects. There seems to be less interest in the visually specific, favouring the vague and veiled, what is unseen but rather suggested.

I would like to introduce the distinction between depiction and representation with the following example. In the photograph below we see a young girl on a pure white background. We may comment that the girl has blonde hair, she is wearing a pink dress and green shirt with brown boots, and she is surrounded by balloons and looks away from the camera. These comments are what the photograph depicts. We may also comment that the girl looks shy or innocent and that she is happy, this is what the photograph represents.

Fig. 3 Girl on white background (Source: Etienne du Preez)

Benovsky (2010:196) continues that what he refers to as temporal extension (duration) in photography can only be illustrated by change, typically movement, and maintains that a step can be taken in the direction of the Aristotelian claim that time itself infers change by stating that, devoid of witnessing changes, there is neither perception nor measure of the progress of time or even the relationist, Leibnizian notion that time is
change. It seems as though, technically, photographical development is approaching the boundaries of physics. Camera sensors are delivering clean images no matter what sensitivity the camera is operating at, lenses and specialized equipment enable photographers to capture images in even the most niche genres.
In his discussion of interdisciplinarity and the limits of conceptualization of photography, Jan Baetens (2006:53) focuses briefly on what he considers to be the main limit of photography: time. Digital media may help to overcome the antagonism of static and dynamic images (Grabbe et al. 2017:11). This interdisciplinary view should concentrate on the precise conditions of the spatiality and temporality of image depiction.
Typically, time can be represented in single frame still photography by depicting movement through the use of long exposures. Tjintjelaar (2015) maintains that although there does not seem to be a firm definition of what long exposure photography is, for this project exposure times of no less than one minute will be used. Using such long exposures allows static elements in the scene to be captured sharply while any moving elements such as clouds and trees and grass rustling in the wind are blurred. Generally long exposures are easiest to achieve in low light conditions, however this limits the available opportunity for capturing images.
To achieve long exposure times during the middle of the day Neutral Density (ND) filters of between 10 and 26 stops will be used as well as specific post production techniques in Adobe Photoshop. In photography, a “stop” is a measurement of an exposure. If exposure were to be increased by one stop, the exposure would be doubled. By using a combination of ND filters it is theoretically possible to achieve exposure times of hours in bright daylight, this will form part of the experimentation.
A consequence of long exposure digital photography is heat generated by the camera. This is further intensified by ambient temperatures when photographing in the middle of the day. The visual effect of the heat is observed as noise or grain in the photograph. While most modern cameras offer a noise reduction function, a very effective method for minimizing noise is described by Luca Libralato (Libralato, 2017). A number of images that were exposed for a relatively shorter period of time are combined as a Smart Object in Adobe Photoshop. The individual images in the Smart Object are then
weighted via a Mean mode. A series of six images exposed for 120 seconds each will therefore render a final image of 12 minutes.
The same result can be achieved in any software allowing the use of layers by manually adjusting opacity of the layers according to its position in the stack. The mathematical formula is as follows:
Layers should have opacity equal to 1 divided by its position in the stack.
• First layer at the bottom 100%
• Second layer 50% (12)
• Third layer 33% (13)
• Fourth layer 25% (14)
• Fifth layer 20% (15)
• Sixth layer 17% (16)

• N’th layer (1𝑁)

Fixed Pattern Noise

Random Noise

Banding Noise

Fig 4 Types of noise (Source: Anon)

An additional consequence of long exposures in digital photography, particularly when using ND filters, is magenta colour casts on the final image. Accurate colour correction during post production is therefore required and will be achieved through Curves adjustment layers in Adobe Photoshop.
The images resulted in time being depicted fairly well but were too static and failed to represent time. Plotagraph software was used to animate the sky and clouds in the images.

Fig 5 Plotagraph software user interface (Source: Etienne du Preez)

The software allows the user to create animation points within the still image, creating movement in an infinite blending loop that results in a dynamic image that represents the passing of time in an enhanced way. The final product is exported as a Graphic Interchange Format (GIF) file that supports both static and animated images.

Fig 6 Plotagraph software animation points and mesh (Source: Etienne du Preez)

The experience of time was identified as an essentiality to the experience of landscape. A clear distinction between photographic depiction and representation was identified and the use of additional equipment and digital media techniques was explored and applied to depict the passing of time. Further digital media techniques were investigated to allow for the representation of time photographically. This resulted in the application of animation software to still images. Animation was restricted to certain areas of the still images to generate an amalgamation of still and dynamic elements in a single image, this allowed a sense of timelessness and the passing of time within space in the image.
A few screenshots from the final animated GIF files from the series:

Fig 7 Durban (Source: Etienne du Preez)

Fig 8 Port Elizabeth (Source: Etienne du Preez)

Fig 9 George (Source: Etienne du Preez)

Fig 10 Tzaneen (Source: Etienne du Preez)


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