Art, as a discipline, is dominated by the notion that nature serves as sensory material for representation of human subjects. By contrast, what science seeks in nature’s image is meaning outside the human system. Because photography serves both processes, they have been dependent on a shared history of engineering innovations in optics, sensors, processing, and display. The methodological dichotomy is partially a pretense, which has reinforced a gap in the epistemological terrain between the cartesian mind and the baconian world.
The natural perceptual abilities of the individual artist are constrained by our evolutionary past. Bergson describes these confines well:
Matter or mind, reality has appeared to us as a perpetual becoming. It makes itself or it unmakes itself, but it is never something made. Such is the intuition the we have of mind when we draw aside the veil which is interposed between our consciousness and ourselves. This, also, is what our intellect and senses themselves would show us of matter, if they could obtain a direct and disinterested idea of it. But, preoccupied before everything with the necessities of action, the intellect, like the senses, is limited to taking, at intervals, views that are instantaneous and by that very fact immobile of the becoming matter…Of becoming we perceive only states, of duration only instants.1
By its embrace of technology, science develops knowledge outside these structures, recording information at any time scale or resolution, and processing large swaths of information into an abstraction. However, the rigorous externalization of sensing alienates individual psyche (and therefore the artist) from the process. For science, this creates a desired effect, removing individual bias in the pursuit of “objectivity”.
In his studies of particle motion, Jean Perrin experimented with chronophotography, an early technique of interval compositing developed by Etienne-Jules Marey:
..the application of cinematographic technique to the study of Brownian motion put a new twist on the study of motion though its decomposition. While Marey's technique aimed at decomposing continuous movements into discontinuous snapshots, in the study of Brownian motion, the camera's inherent discontinuity of perception corresponded to the discontinuity of Brownian motion-or rather, to Einstein's way of measuring it...In order to measure displacement, it was necessary to measure the position of a given particle at regular intervals of time, ignoring all the intervening motions. For measuring displacements, the camera's "stroboscoping" powers, as one of Perrin's colleagues put it, were perfectly suited.2
Although Perrin’s method resembles Bergson’s description of human limitation, there is an essential difference. The technique is not simply time-lapse or slow-motion, modulations of the rate of passive natural sensory capture, but rather an attempt to capture a highly specified and imperceptible view of the subject.
Perrin’s motion research, which came to prove on Einstein’s models of Brownian motion and transitively the presence of atoms, was also concurrent with the development of relativity theory. The ideas that no perspective of the universe is superior, and the nature of light is fixed, force artists to challenge natural perception of time, through manipulations of scale, granularity, regularity, linearity, or distortion.
Plein air painting involves a hidden process of compression, wherein observation long outlasts Bergson’s perceptual instant. Monet’s “impressions” are registered at intervals onto the canvas, spanning dramatic changes in light and atmosphere. His canvases are remarkable in their ability to represent this state of "becoming”, however the result is still strictly guided by the protocols of human perception that Bergson defines.
Early landscape photography was limited by technology. For Atget, long exposure times were required to register an image in the low light of dawn, forcing the idea that photography “sees” differently than a human observer. Uncanny, eidolic artifacts indicate his trespass onto the uncharted fabric of spacetime. Yet the long-exposure, which emphasizes continuous and consistent light capture, is restricted to a narrow course.
Cinema is built on the process of recording images at intervals, and postmodern experiments with moving image (e.g. Martin Arnold’s Pièce Touchée(1989)), while they deconstruct the natural flow of vision, their presentation is still built on it.
In the technique applied by Perrin, distinct images are recorded at intervals and processed into a singular abstraction that is instantaneously perceptible. This system plays a powerful role in contemporary scientific enquiry across its disciplines, expanding its sensory potential. With the intention of expanding vision itself, I have adopted the approach: pushing photographic technique outside the traditions of natural perception while embracing the influence of the self.
I began experimenting with similar techniques on the Baltic Sea coast, using a camera to record images of weather at fixed intervals, and then developing scripts to register anomalies in the individual frames. I engage myself as an observer during the process of capture, developing aesthetic questions about the subject, then seek out the desired aesthetic knowledge from the dataset. The first study focused on negative deviations in brightness over the course of an hour, creating an aggregated image of cloud density in time.
As for Monet and Atget, water embodies the condition of “perpetual becoming”, an ideal subject for challenges to Bergson’s constraints.
- Gabriel Winer