Exercise 2: Notes on how photography and other art forms portray the passage of time

Does the ‘mechanical’ nature of photography make it a medium uniquely suited to portraying time and the passage of time?

I do think that the ‘mechanical’ nature of photography may indeed be the medium of choice for portraying time. Photography makes it possible to ‘freeze’ it, that is to say to show ‘what happened in front of the lens at a particular time in a specific place’ (Edwards, page 83) and so to fix a very thin slice of time as in the image Bullet and Apple by Harold Edgerton that I considered in the former exercise; or otherwise to show the passage of time in slow motion like it happens in other images from the same exercise which ‘marked’ the traces left by a moving object in space and time; or else to show the development and change of something through time, like in Multiflash tennis serve by Edgerton, or in the sequences of images by Eadweard Muybridge, or still to show change and development in time by combining images of someone taken in different life moments like for instance the series of poignant photographic self-portraits by Roman Opalka who for all his life recorded the progression of time and his own aging, some of which I have seen at an exhibition in the Macro Museum in Rome.


Roman Opalka, Details,  various dates 1968 onwards, photo by me at Macro Museum in Rome


As a matter of fact a great number of artists have been using photography to register or portray time and the passage of time in a lot of different ways or otherwise have been using photography to record the brief existence in time of ephemeral works of art like installations or performances. Photography and time do seem to me to have a very intimate and even necessary relationship, so much so that it does not look possible to separate photography from time: what I see in a photograph has really happened, was once there, its existence cannot be denied or undone. Because of this I think that photography as a medium cannot even exist if not in time, that as a medium it inevitably deals with time and that a photograph inevitably portrays time.

Time is directly implied also in other time-based media connected to photography which are based on moving images, as the different forms of visual art like videos and films, for example in the art videos of Bill Viola, now on show in Florence, at Palazzo Strozzi


Bill Viola, exhibition Rinascimento elettronico, Florence, palazzo Strozzi, video by terrejonich – magna grecia, published on 26/03/2017

At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNM5dRxv-5U (Accessed 15/05/2017)


Just another example, but many more could be done: William Kentridge  produced in 2012 a video installation having time as its main theme, of which here is an excerpt:


William Kentridge, The refusal of time  (2013),  Location Museo MAXXI, Rome At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ETGpUNSkkA (Accessed 04/09/16)


Can other creative art forms deal with the concept of time to the same extent?

If photography – and even more other connected media such as films and videos based on moving images which can show change in the making – seem to me by their very nature the media of choice for dealing with time in the most direct way, I think that also other creative art forms can evoke time by oblique or mediated ways, for instance through movement or change which imply time and its passage.

Sculptures can be kinetic, that is to say to be made up of actually moving parts, and I am thinking here of Alexander Calder’s mobiles, Jean Tinguely‘s machines,


Jean Tinguely, Le Cyclograveur, 1960, coll. Kunsthaus Zurich. Foto Gert Jan van Rooij

Jean Tinguely, Le Cyclograveur (1960), coll. Kunsthaus Zurich, photo of Gert Jan van Rooij

At: http://www.stedelijk.nl/en/exhibitions/jean-tinguely-machine-spectacle (Accessed 15/05/2017)

or of contemporary artists like the kinetic sculptor David Bowen


At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nESgdcBul0 (Accessed 15/05/2017)


or of the light sculptor Yasutoki Kariya

At: http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/kinetic-sculptures/ (Accessed 15/05/2017)


Also visual artist Rebecca Horn has variously experimented with different forms of kinetic sculptures throughout her career, as in this example:

Rebecca Horn Sculpture

Rebecca Horn, High Moon (1991) , photo of Dorothy Hunter

At: https://blog.sculpture.org/2015/11/25/what-we-call-love/ (Accessed 15/05/2017)


Other sculptural works can show implied movement without actually having moving parts as this Umberto Boccioni‘s figure:

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913, cast 1950)

At: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/485540 (Accessed 15/05/2017)

If in sculptural and installation art it is possible to cite many artists working with movement and time, also in painting  movement and hence time can be evoked, as shown by Bridget Riley‘s Op art works:


new prize to the art of bridget riley painter on view at tate gallery in london british college and museum of modern art 1964

Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares (1961, left) and Intake (1964, right)


At: http://www.ideelart.com/module/csblog/post/335-1-bridget-riley.html (Accessed 15/05/2017)

And of course all vanitas paintings are an indirect way to deal with time and its effects, as we have seen during Part One of Creative Arts Today:

Edward Collier, ‘Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’’ 1696

Edward Collier, Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’ (1696), Tate

At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/v/vanitas (Accessed 15/05/2017)

Also ephemeral works of art, like for example some land art, have an intimate relationship with time, as art that changes through time.


Andy Goldsworthy, sticks

(Accessed 15/05/2017)

It seems to me that every form of art can find its ways to evoke or deal with time and its passage.

In Part Three of Creative Arts Today, I mentioned the Bayeux Tapestry (XI century) as an example of frame-by-frame storytelling, where sequence after sequence a story is told as it develops, as in comic strips.

Enter a caption

At: http://www.mondes-normands.caen.fr/italie/cultures/gb_fr/5/pic5-1d.htm  (Accessed 27/02/2017)

But evocation of time is not restricted to visual arts: also creative writing as I have seen in Part Two of Creative Arts Today has its ‘time travel’ techniques, for example using flashbacks, or using to present tense to give new flesh to past events.

I am sure that I am forgetting many other options or ideas of expressing, evoking, portraying time and its passage in art. It even looks as if all art forms deal with time, even if photography and the moving image forms of art seem to have an undisputed advantage.



Edwards, S. (2006) Photography: A Very Short Introduction. [Kindle edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 17/03/2017)





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