Time Warped: Photography, History, Temporality

Belden-Adams, Kris

Within a decade of photography’s unveiling, the passenger train (1830), computer (1833), and trans-Atlantic telegraph (1844) were introduced, followed by the invention of the telephone (1876), automobile and x-ray (1890s), cinema (1894), radio (1900-1910), airplane (1903), television (1939), internet (1969), the first personal computer (1976), and the cell phone (1982). Photography and this flurry of technological advances have accelerated, and even “annihilated,” the material foundations of the time/space nexus dramatically, forever redefining our already-malleable perceptions of space and time. As a consequence, time itself has been the subject of insistent theorization, speculation, and anxiety.

This essay explores the relationship of photography to time, and its connection to the technological forces and temporal discourses of modernity/postmodernity, which reconditioned patterns of perception. Roland Barthes, for example, wrote that the photograph has a peculiar capacity to transport the past into the present, and thus, to imply the passing of time in general. As a consequence, Barthes argued, all photographs speak of the anxious inevitability of our own death in the future. His analysis poses a challenge to all commentators on photography – what exactly is photography’s relationship to time, and to a shifting, increasingly complex temporal perception?

My project addresses that question by chronologically analyzing representative samples of vernacular and fine-art photography from throughout the medium’s history, while relating them to their technological, scientific, industrial and cognitive contexts.

This study examines the motivations for photography’s insistent struggle to reorganize time’s passage, to capture or halt it, and to express time’s fluctuating conditions. It argues that this struggle is both symptomatic of the unique concerns of modernity/postmodernity, and is a manifestation of the photographic medium’s conditional relationship to reality – a relationship that arguably has been complicated by digitalization. These trends are shaped by the medium’s status as one among many technologies that redefined time and space.

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