Thursday, July 23, 2009
Over the years I have worked sporadically on a book to be entitled On Time Lapse Photography.
This has resulted in two publications:
* “’No more unexplored countries’: The Early Promise and Disappointing Career of Time-Lapse Photography.” Film Studies (special issue on “Film and Time” ed. Sarah Cardwell). Issue 9, Winter 2006: 1-8.
* “Poetry as Time-Lapse Photography.” Essays in the Arts and Sciences 17 (1988): 1-27.
But since there is still much more that has never seen its way into print, I thought I would make it available here in Blog form--in a medium which will allow me to illustrate the text with still images and embedded video.
When I am done, On Time-Lapse Photography will include:
--Prologue: Phusis, Poesis, and the Prehistory of Time-Lapse
--Chapter 1: Evolution, Relativity, and the Momentous
--Chapter 2: “’No more unexplored countries’: The Early Promise and Disappointing Career of Time-Lapse Photography”
--Chapter 3: Fear of Time-Lapse--Chapter 4: Poetry and Time-Lapse Photography
--Chapter 5: Time-Lapse in Koyaanisqatsi
--Chapter 6: The Man Who Saw Through Time: Loren Eiseley's Time-Lapse Imagination
--Conclusion: The New Phusis
I hope you find it of interest. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Below are some illustrative examples of time-lapse (all from YouTube):
Niagara Falls in Motion from Matthew Wartman on Vimeo.
Time-Lapse Favs from Chad Richard on Vimeo.
The White Mountain from charles on Vimeo.
Get up and go from Stefan Werc on Vimeo.
Iceland, Eyjafjallajökull - May 1st and 2nd, 2010 from Sean Stiegemeier on Vimeo.
You've Got to Love London from Alex Silver on Vimeo.
Rainbow Timelapse - Napoli, Italia from Vincent Laforet on Vimeo.
ANTS in my scanner > a five years time-lapse! from françois vautier on Vimeo.
Sung Lapse from Ezaram Vambe on Vimeo.
inter // states from Samuel Cockedey on Vimeo.
New York City - Timelapse from stimul on Vimeo.
Aurora Borealis timelapse HD - Tromsø 2010 from Tor Even Mathisen on Vimeo.
December 2010 Blizzard Timelapse from Michael Black on Vimeo.
NYC - Mindrelic Timelapse from Mindrelic on Vimeo.
Northern Lights from Christian Mülhauser on Vimeo.
The Aurora from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.
The Mountain from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.
Tip of the hat to Ryan Brosche.
Midnight Sun | Iceland from SCIENTIFANTASTIC on Vimeo.
android dreams from Samuel Cockedey on Vimeo.
A Year in the Garden from Brad Hiebert on Vimeo.
Macro Timelapse from Daniel Csobot on Vimeo. --------------
Timelapse of freaky clouds from Gothamist on Vimeo.
Substance, Nietzsche argues in The Gay Science, has not always existed. Once mankind lived in the midst of a substanceless "absolute flow of becoming": "In order that the concept of substance could originate--which is indispensable for logic although in the strictest sense nothing real corresponds to it--it was necessary that for a long time we did not see nor perceive the changes in things" (171). Perhaps, Nietzsche speculated, we are not momentous enough beings to perceive change in its purest form:
We are not subtle enough to perceive that probably absolute flow of becoming; the permanent exists only thanks to our coarse organs which reduce and lead things to shared premises of vulgarity, whereas nothing exists in this form. A tree is a new thing at every instant; we affirm the form because we do not seize the subtlety of an absolute moment. (Quoted in Barthes 61)
A kind of epistemological natural selection, Nietzsche theorized, thus governed the rise of substance--the evolution of a common-sensical, material, stable, vulgar world--and the elimination of a perceptual awareness of perpetual metamorphosis.
The beings that did not see so precisely had an advantage over those that saw everything "in flux." At bottom, every high degree of caution in making inferences and every skeptical tendency constitutes a great danger for life. No living beings would have survived if the opposite tendency--to affirm rather than suspend judgment, to err and make up things rather than wait, to assent rather than negate, to pass judgment rather than be just--had not been bred to the point where it became extraordinarily strong. (171-72)
Bergson meant much the same when he argued, in Creative Evolution, that "A man is so much more a 'man of action' as he can embrace in a glance a greater number of events: he who perceives successive events one by one will allow himself to be led by them; he who grasps them as a whole will dominate them” (327-28).
But the human mind has not always turned its back on becoming, despite the adaptive, evolutionary pressure to do so. Phusis has had its 20th century reincarnations.
It was Owen Barfield's contention, central to his whole understanding of "the evolution of consciousness," that Greek thinking--indeed Greek consciousness--"was in a certain sense alive" (Romanticism 51). Because the Greeks were more "at home . . . in the coming-into-being, or becoming" than we, whose thought is "built . . . on the secure but rigid framework of logic . . . and can only deal with the 'become,' the finished product . . . ," their thinking reminds us today of "a blossoming flower that is still moist, alive, in movement, becoming." Heraclitus witnessed the "universal flux"; we can only perceive and think the "is." The turning point, according to Barfield, came when "Anaxagoras set over against the for-ever-changing world of growing and decaying substance . . . the other principle of Onus or Mind" and "antithesis (hitherto unapprehended) between Spirit and Matter" became common sense, logic triumphing over logos and judgment over justice.
Still immersed within the experience of becoming, "conscious in it," the "Greek mind could not at first be conscious of it as such." Thus, Barfield argues, those "laws" of nature which we now conceive abstractly were to the Greeks "still apprehended as living Beings." That aspect of nature perceptible by the senses "was itself the sum of the accomplished deeds of another invisible part--that of the 'Forms' as we will call them. Indeed the Greeks tended to lose interest in the Nature which had become. . . ." It was natura naturans which captured their imaginations, not natura naturata.
But we, in our static thought, have made such evolution-in-progress, such becoming, into a mere theory. We now have, Barfield insists (alluding to the thought of Bergson), no experience of evolution: "Now it is one of our four fundamental 'Laws of Thought' that a thing cannot both be and not be, and so obvious does this appear to us that when we hear Heraclitus maintaining the opposite, we are inclined to stigmatize him as a verbal quibbler. This is because we can only think 'is'; we cannot really think 'becomes' except as a kind of cinematic succession of 'is's'."
The very word "evolution," Barfield has observed, once had a very different meaning than the one infused into it by the 19th century mind as it changed the meaning of the older word (which still carried vestiges of the Greek awareness of becoming) to denote the cosmos it was then in the process of engineering, and this change reflects the modern loss of the experience of evolution. For once the word had suggested an "unfolding, a gradual and uninterrupted process of change from one form into another, towards which it has tended from the start--from one form into another through a whole series of intermediate forms, the one imperceptibly merging into the other." Once "evolution" called to mind transformation (onto-genesis) not mere substitution (a succession of "is's," or phylogenesis) as it did for Darwin--a transformation in which could be witnessed "a change from potential form into actual and spatial form, the typical instance being a seed or an embryo evolving by growth into an independent plant or animal."
Like Barfield, Martin Heidegger found the pre-Socratic Greek mind attuned to the emergence and establishment of the "real" with a consciousness quite different from our own. In characteristic Heidegger fashion, he illustrates this difference through what might be called phenomenological etymology (a method which he shares with his British contemporary). The Greek word for our "nature," Heidegger shows in his Introduction to Metaphysics, encapsulates this change of consciousness which the western mind has undergone.
For phusis really meant to the Greeks, if we translate it properly (avoiding the "logomorphic" imposition of our rational mind-set upon what was in reality a pre-rational logos), nothing like the given, known, "natural" world suggested by "nature" (a Latinate word which, in typically Roman fashion, became routinized, obliterating the sense of wonder implicit in the Greek equivalent).
Phusis was, rather, nothing less than "self-blossoming emergence (e.g. the blossoming of a rose), opening up, unfolding, that which manifests itself in such unfolding and preserves and endures in it" (Metaphysics 11-12; my italics).All truth--to the pre-Socratics aletheia, the unconcealed--was, Heidegger explains, the result of the "gathering in" (the root meaning of logos) of the fruits of this unfolding in a process they knew as poiesis, of which techne was understood to be only a sub-set, a lesser activity. George Steiner has explained this difficult aspect of Heidegger's philosophy of being with admirable clarity.
Once, says Heidegger, nature was phusis, the archaic designation of natural reality which he reads as containing within itself the Greek sense for "coming into radiant being" (as is still faintly discernible in our word "phenomenon"). Phusis proclaimed the same process of creation that generates a work of art. It was, in the best sense, poiesis--a making, a bringing forth. The blossom breaking from the bud and unfolding into its proper being (en eauto) is at once the realization of phusis and poiesis, or organic drive--Dylan Thomas's "green fuse"--and of the formal creative --conservative dynamism we experience in art. (137)
The Greek awareness of phusis, in which a tree might be recognized in fact as "a new thing at every instant," could not long be endured, however. phusis became natura merely; becoming became become; what Heidegger calls the "ought" was imposed upon the world of perception, and truth became almost exclusively a matter of correctness, not revelation (Mehta 138, 147-51). And whether we accept as explanation Nietzsche's Darwinistic historical epistemology, or Barfield's theory of the evolution of consciousness, or Heidegger's history of Being,
Yet throughout the history of the West, it seems, certain individuals, despite the pressure to forget becoming and concentrate on the objective "is," have retained an atavistic awareness of phusis, have kept alive an "openness to the mystery" even in a time which Heidegger has characterized as the "oblivion of Being." (All great genius, Nietzsche had speculated, may after all be atavistic.) For a distinct sub-species of the race, such a consciousness might even be called "species-specific." After all, as Steiner observes, phusis and poiesis have always been united--and the "blossom breaking from the bud and unfolding into its proper being" always an ever-present reality of perception and imagination--for the artist. Artists, being the antennae of the race, have never forgotten their allegiance to the "self-blossoming emergence" of things; artists have kept alive for the species an authentic awareness of becoming.
And would not the whole of history be contained in a very short time for a consciousness at a higher degree of tension than our own, which would watch the development of humanity while contracting it, so to speak, into the great phases of its evolution? In short, then, to perceive consists in condensing enormous periods of an infinitely diluted existence into a few more differentiated moments of an intensive life, and in the summing up of a very long history.
Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory
Ordinarily, human experience of events is, like that of every creature, limited by what ethologists have deemed our "moment": by, that is, the innate biological pace at which we, like all creatures, are capable of perceiving the world. Since our species' moment is approximately 1/24th of a second, any event which in its "presentational immediacy" (Whitehead) is more rapid cannot be consciously detected by us.
A series of taps administered to the skin at a very rapid rate of speed will thus be perceived by us as one continuous tap. Or, to use a better known example, if motion picture film is projected onto a screen at a rate of twenty four frames a second, each image remaining on the screen for approximately 1/24th of a second, the image will appear to the human mind as continuous, thanks to "persistence of vision." Every movie is, in reality, a very rapid slide show, but the innate limits of our moment keep us from seeing it as such. Our inability to see any faster than we do "animates" the individual photographs and transforms them into a moving picture. Similarly, extremely slow events--for example, the blossoming of a flower--are below our moment and likewise imperceptible. Thus every creature's moment locks it into the world at a particular frequency, allowing experience of only a limited range of tempos, though worlds upon worlds--dimensions which I will called, taken collectively, the "momentous"--continue to exist beyond its ken.
Fascinated with the nature of the phenomenal or self-world surrounding every living creature, including human beings, pioneer German ethologist Baron Jacob von Uexkull (18xx-19xx), author of such works as A Stroll Through the Garden of Animals and Men and Theoretical Biology, suggested that every sentient being is governed by what he called an "Umwelt." A creature's Umwelt, Uexkull thought, is a biologically determined adaptation to a particular environment, the long term result of a lengthy period of evolutionary development and the immediate effect, in part, of a creature's very metabolism, of its moment.
An Umwelt, Uexkull imagined, is like a soap-bubble surrounding the individual being, filtering all that it sees and feels, and yet it is almost impossible to grasp and to witness, so close does it lie to the intrinsic, tacit nature of the creature, so much does it constitute the substance of its accustomed orientation.
As the spider spins its threads, every subject spins his relations to certain characteristics of the things around him, and weaves them in a firm web which carves his existence.In Heidegger's ontological terms, the Umwelt is a "world" which cannot be easily observed because it is that "with which" we see, rather than "what" we see. (This tradition of thought has its origin, of course, in Kant's conception of the "categories of human understanding, a tradition to which Uexkull consciously attempts to add a biological and semiotic grounding.)
The Umwelten of some creatures, Uexkull informs us, are rich, while those of others are exceedingly poor. For a cattle tick Uexkull describes, up to eighteen years may pass without a single accented sensation! (Bleibtreu 17). But for every creature the situation is, in one sense, the same:
All psychic processes, feelings, and thoughts are invariably bound to a definite moment and proceed contemporaneously with objective sensations. . . . . Time envelops both the subjective and objective worlds in the same way, and, unlike space, makes no distinction between them. (Theoretical Biology 15)But human beings, of course, can escape the moment. We alone among the species on this plant can come to know something of the "Momentous" itself. What other creature shows such concern, both scientific and artistic, with the inscapes of other living creatures? What other creature can transcend its own moment to investigate the duration of the cosmos itself? What other creature could realize the Theory of Relativity or propose the idea of the Big Bang?
As the Dutch phenomenological psychologist J. H. van den Berg has shown, we have in the modern age nevertheless become increasingly oblivious to the "tempo" of the world. Building on a Cartesian, quality-denying philosophical foundation, committed ideological to the equalizing of all dimensions, epistemological as well as social, increasingly obsessed with domination, through speed and power, of a landscape for which we have little respect, convinced that time itself represents imperfection, and aided mightily the omnipresence of mechanical clocks designed to "restrain the changing of things, to camouflage this changing as much as possible" (113), we constructed from 1740 through 1900 an homogenized world almost devoid of tempo.
"Time exists," van den Berg observes, "only when one takes the time"--a contemporary rarity. When he himself "takes the time" in Things: Four Metabletic Reflections, he discovers that "each place has its own time," its own tempo: clouds, trees, plants, the whole of the surrounding landscape are filled with different times:
In between the flowers a different time prevails than on the lawn. Times goes a little faster there. Above me, among the feather clouds, time goes even faster. . . . The sea has a different time than the land. A lake in a forest is a realm of a different time. Sometimes a single tree or bush can draw attention because of the distinctive time prevailing around it. There are flowers which disclose new times at certain moments of the day. When the thorn-apple opens up in the evening, a new and faster time governs this flower. And the real reason isn't that the flower moves at that time, but just the opposite. Because a different time governs that flower in the evening, the flower opens quickly in that particular way and invites the hawk-moth, which is endowed with fast time and flies precisely in that particular way. For what is speed if it isn't born by speedy, "time-consuming" things, plants, or animals?Human beings, van den Berg reminds, are likewise governed by their own, often idiosyncratic, tempos: "Even people have a time of their own; each one, I suspect, has one for himself. The botanist is marked by a different time than the geologist. The zoologist who specializes in diptera is by virtue of his time, his tempo and duration, a different man than his colleague who prefers to limit himself to bumble bees" (123).
Compared with the toad, the frog is fast, even when it doesn't stir and, on the basis of its particular speed, the frog leaps, while the toad crawls by virtue of the time that is its own.
All these tempos, van den Berg discovers, co-exist, moments of the Momentous, in a marvelous ecology:
An effortless unity governs what I see, a unity in time, strange as it may seem. For just now when I observed for the first time that in different places times move at a different speed, I thought that I therefore ought to conclude that the places of such different times couldn't possibly remain synchronous. One place would lag behind the others and be stuck with a surplus of time at the end of the day, while other places would run short. But I see my mistake: I was fooled by the idea of an absolute. Uniform, uniformly progressing time possessing only one speed. I must abandon that idea. (122)
That very idea, however, has fooled, and continues to fool, most of us: "There is hardly anybody who still thinks that things change in reality" (114).
Writing in the 1920s, Paul Valéry insisted that "we--who cannot even perceive our own growth--are unable to visualize a movement so slow that a perceptible result springs from an imperceptible change." The human mind, Valéry wrote, "can imagine the living process only by lending it a rhythm which is specifically ours . . ." ("Man and the Sea Shell" xxx).
Thinking of the radical nature of modern knowledge--in cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology, physics--Teilhard de Chardin observes in The Phenomenon of Man that in this century our species seems to be acquiring new senses, the latest additions to a "whole series of 'senses' . . . whose gradual acquisition . . . covers and punctuates the whole history of the struggles of the mind." One of these new senses he describes will be one Valéry denies us: a "sense of movement, capable of perceiving the irresistible developments hidden in extreme slowness--extreme agitation concealed beneath a veil of immobility--the entirely new insinuating itself into the heart of the monotonous repetition of the same things" (34).
Time-lapse photography, as we shall see, may prove instrumental to the perfection of this sense, but the sense itself is not in essence instrumental but part of human potential inasmuch as we realize ourselves to be momentous, poetic beings. It would appear that ability to see "the irresistible developments hidden in extreme slowness" may have long been with us.
"The sages," said the Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu, "contemplate ten thousand years and count them as a pure complete oneness" (Chang 73). The final effect of the acquisition of an evolutionary sense, from cosmology through biology, might be to make men into such sages.
"He saw the face of a fish, of a carp, with tremendous, painfully opened mouth, a dying fish with dimmed eyes. He saw the face of a newly born child, red and full of wrinkles, ready to cry. . . . He saw corpses stretched out, still, cold, empty. . . . He saw all these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to each other, all helping each other, loving, hating and destroying each other and becoming newly born. Each one was mortal, a passionate, painful example of all that is transitory. Yet none of them died, they only changed, were always reborn, continually had a new face: only time stood between one face and another. And all these forms and faces rested, flowed, reproduced, swam past and merged into each other." (Hesse 121-22)
"Chan-jen (an eighth century thinker of the T'ien-t'ai school" of Chinese Buddhism) suggests that we have no real way of knowing what is sentient and what is not. So in the "common sense" of society we use--although quite arbitrarily--various degrees of mobility for judging and putting things into our categories." It is true that some are "barely in motion" while others "make haste" but, as Chan-jan saw it, the sentient/insentient distinction had no ultimate validity. He relativized it: animals move faster than plants move faster than soil moves faster than mountains. But all move! Later Zen masters were to pick up the point, writing cryptically of mountains moving through many kalpas of time and, even, of giving birth." (Lafluer 254)
In Woman Warrior, in the chapter entitled "White Tigers," Maxine Hong Kingston, enthralled by her mother's "talkstory" versions of ancient Chinese myths, imagines herself as Fa Mu Lan, a fabled woman who apprenticed herself to an elderly man and woman in a mountain sanctuary in order to become a woman of power. As part of her archetypal training as a warrior, she learns from her mentors the distinctly Taoist aptitude for seeing "the Dragon," always, in ancient Taoist lore, a figure for the living Earth and its ways.
"After I returned from my survival test," Kingston recalls, "the two old people trained me in dragon ways, which took another eight years. . . .
You have to infer the whole dragon from the parts you can see and touch," the old people would say. . . . dragons are so immense, I would never see one in its entirety. But I could explore the mountains, which are the top of its head. "These mountains are also like the tops of other dragons' heads," the old people would tell me. When climbing the slopes, I could understand that I was a bug riding on a dragon's forehead as it roams through space, its speed so different from my speed that I feel the dragon solid and immobile.But she expands her moment to encompass that of the dragon.
In quarries I could see its strata, the dragon's veins and muscles; the minerals, its teeth and bone. I could touch the stones the old woman wore--its bone marrow. I had worked the soil, which is its flesh, and harvested the plants and climbed the trees, which are its hairs. I could listen to its voice in the thunder and feel its breathing in the winds, see its breathing in the clouds. Its tongue is the lightning. And the red that the lightning gives to the world is strong and lucky--in blood, poppies, roses, rubies, the red feathers of birds, the red carp, the cherry tree, the peony, the line alongside the turtle's eyes and the mallard's. In the spring when the dragon awakes, I watched its turnings in the rivers."The closest I came to seeing a dragon whole," Kingston notes in passing, "was when the old people cut away a small strip of bark on a pine that was over three thousand years old. The resin underneath flows in the swirling shapes of dragons."
So far advanced, in fact, is our current awareness of the "the entirely new insinuating itself into the heart of the monotonous repetition of the same things," so close have we come to contemplating nature and time as a "pure complete oneness," that at least one contemporary physicist has argued that we can no longer even be certain that "rocks, and even mountain ranges, do not react as living organisms with a reaction time so slow that to catch it with time-lapse photography would require millennia between exposures . . . " (Zukav 46-47).
Einstein himself, the father of such relativistic thinking, was fascinated with the prospect offered man by the potential acquisition of new senses like Teilhard described. In his conversation with Alexander Moszykowski he speculated about the biological implications of his own theory of relativity and their effect on our perception. Since every creature's internal clock--its moment--gives it only a relative, subjective perception and orientation toward the multiplicity of tempos in the world, a drastic change in man's clock, Einstein hypothesized, would presumably alter our very measure of relativity; for as Moszykowski explains (paraphrasing Einstein):
\Only when compared with our own measure of time does an organic individual, say, a plant, appear as something permanent in size and shape, at least within a short interval. For we may look at it a hundred times and more in a minute, and yet notice no external change in it. Now, if we suppose the pulse-beat, the rate of perception, the external course of life, and the mental process of Man, very considerably accelerated or retarded, the state of affairs becomes greatly changed, and phenomena then occur which we, fettered by our physiological structure, should have to reject as being fantastic and supernatural, although on the supposition of a new structure they would be quite logical and necessary. (163-64)These breathtaking flights of Einstein's imagination--are they not, in a sense, the very accelerations and retardations of the human moment the "real" existence of which he took to be merely hypothetical, a "thought experiment"? For is not the human imagination the means by which man escapes, through the gate of the imagination, the biologically given boundaries of his own moment in order to explore and to understand, and even to empathize with, all possible moments--those of other creatures, for example, and the realm of time-in-the-abstract which contains them all, what we might call "the momentous"--thereby discovering such momentous new perspectives on the world (new senses, Teilhard would call them) as the theory of relativity, or the idea of evolution?
If, for example, our pulse beat were a thousand times faster, Einstein predicted, we would be able to see a bullet at each point of its flight as easily as we now follow the course of a butterfly's movement. Or, if our pulse were increased by a thousand times again, a flower would appear as rigid and immutable to us as the earth's crust now seems; and the motions of animals would be too slow to be witnessed and would have to be inferred, as the motions of stars are now. At an even greater acceleration, Einstein speculated, light would become audible.
But if the human moment were, conversely, slowed 1000 times--if we acquired a time-lapse vision of things--a year at present would become a third of a day: growth would spring up so rapidly that it would be scarcely perceptible; the sun would flash rapidly across the sky. Another slowing by a thousand times would result in the total elimination of the difference between day and night, and all changes of form would melt into a "wild stream of happening engulfed in its onward rush. ("In reality," Henri Bergson writes in Matter and Memory, "there is no one rhythm of duration; it is possible to imagine many different rhythms which, slower or faster, measure the degree of tension or relaxation of different kinds of consciousness, and thereby fix their places in the scale of being . . ." [xxx].)
In this century, "the age of Einstein" and of relativity, in a time in which van den Berg detects "the mutability of things again [gaining] the upper-hand" (117), when "we even hear of a discovery of time . . . held to be the essential mark of modern thought," when time has even come to be "recognized as the foundation of all existence," and "to renounce temporality is not to renounce imperfection but rather to renounce true being" (Zuckenkandl xxxx), art's faithful remembrance of phusis/poiesis has been aided by the advent of a new art form: the movies, the art of the 20th century and an art seemingly well suited to reminding us that things do change in reality. The "prison-world" of the known, Walter Benjamin wrote in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936), was "locked-up." But "then came the film and burst the prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second."
And along with the invention of this new technology of artistic seeing came the perfection of a specialized kind of "dynamite," a photographic technique which, it might be said, seemed virtually a modern reincarnation, a second coming, of the ancient consciousness of metamorphosis: time-lapse photography.
Chapter 2: No More Undiscovered Countries: The Early Promise and Disappointing Career of Time-Lapse Photography
When we were children, and were taught natural history, we were told about bees and how they lived. We looked at the motionless images in our books but all of that was very distant for us, a land open only to the imagination. With cinema, no more unexplored countries. No more barriers between us and things! No more barrier between our spirit and truth in its subtlety! Moreover, scientifically, cinema casts upon everything it records a clear light which banishes errors and distortions.
The cinema is an eye wide open on life, an eye more powerful than our own and which sees things we cannot see.
The year is 1920, Paris, France. The writer Colette records (in an essay called ‘The Cinema’) a recent movie-going experience. In a memorable passage, she describes her fascination with slow-motion photography:
Last Thursday at the Musee Galliera, there were two moments when all the young hands clapped, when the mouths exhaled and then immediately cut short their ‘Ahs’ of respectful ecstasy. In the first one, a ‘slow motion’ shot rose from the ground, immobilized itself in the air, then held on a sea gull suspended in the breeze. The undulation and the flexing of the wings, the mechanism of guiding and direction in the tail, the whole secret of flight, the whole simple mystery of aviation, revealed in an instant, dazzled everyone's eyes.
But it was time-lapse photography, shown on the same program, which most captivated her poetic imagination.
A bit later, a ‘fast motion’ documentary documented the germination of a bean . . . . At the revelation of the intentional and intelligent movement of the plant, I saw children get up, imitate the extraordinary ascent of a plant climbing in a spiral, avoiding an obstacle, groping over its trellis: ‘It's looking for something! It's looking for something’! cried a little boy, profoundly affected. He dreamed of a plant that night, and so did I. These spectacles are never forgotten and give us the thirst for further knowledge.
Time-lapse photography was the product of what intellectual historian Stephen Kern has called "the culture of space and time." "From around 1880 to the outbreak of World War I," Kern shows,
a series of sweeping changes in technology and culture created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing time and space. Technological innovations including the telephone, wireless telegraph, x-ray, cinema, bicycle, automobile, and airplane established the material foundation for reorientation; independent cultural developments such as the stream-of-consciousness novel, psychoanalysis, Cubism, and theory of relativity shaped consciousness directly. The result was a transformation of the dimensions of life and thought. (2)
As a prime agent of that culture, motion pictures demonstrate that, as Kern observes, ‘Any moment could be pried open and expanded at will, giving the audience seemingly at once a vision of the motives for an actions, its appearance from any number of perspectives, and a multitude of responses. A man is shot in an instant, but moviegoers saw the event prolonged and analyzed like a detailed case history. The present was thus thickened by directors who spliced time as they cut their film’. Time-lapse photography thickened becoming, made it visible.
The year is 2006 and I am crossing the Atlantic on United Airlines. Before the in-flight entertainment begins on the tiny TV screen on the back of the seat before me, before I immerse myself in The Corpse Bride and The Brothers Grimm and Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the United logo is accompanied by a tiny time-lapse image of tulips coming into bloom. This revisiting of time-lapse’s primal scene--intended, I surmise, to introduce the organic beauty of becoming into the heart of the several-mile-high technological--probably went unnoticed by most of my fellow bored and cramped. No ancestors of Colette’s young Parisiennes were jumping out of their seats, propelled by wonder. Time-lapse, co-opted for use by modern advertising, had become mundane, commonplace.
According to the influential German economist and sociologist Max Weber, the ideas that drive institutions like organized religions originate in the ‘charisma’ of visionary leaders but become, over time, ‘routinized’ into the ideas governing organizations. The exoteric becomes the esoteric. A comparable process may well have governed the history of time-lapse photography.
In time-lapse photography a process or action, however slow in reality, is captured at a rate more retarded than it will later be projected, resulting in a revelation of motion ordinarily imperceptible to unenhanced human sight. According to film aesthetician Herbert Zittl, time-lapse as a photographic technique has several distinctive features. Time-lapse has ‘relatively few “at” positions’. ‘Much like strobe photography’, Zittl explains, ‘film photography involves taking a great number of snapshots of a moving object. Each of the snapshots, or frames, shows the object at rest, so that when you hold and enlarge a single film frame, you cannot tell whether the object was in motion when the picture was taken or was stationary’. Every frame of a film—each showing an object seemingly at rest—captures ‘an “at" position of the time continuum, a snapshot of part of the motion’.
As ‘at-at’ positions increase in number, the faster the movement we perceive as viewers. The less ‘position change’, the slower the movement. The frame density of slow motion is high, but in all forms of accelerated motion, including time-lapse, frame density is low. Movement revealed by time-lapse is thus more erratic and ‘jumpy’. The objects it shows, Zittl observes, ‘sometimes seem to be self-propelled, shooting unpredictably through the low-density atmosphere that offers little, if any, resistance to their movement’.
‘The majority of its pioneers’, film historian David Parkinson observes, ‘always envisaged the moving picture as primarily a scientific aid’, so it should not surprise us that time-lapse photography was first envisioned theoretically by physicist Ernst Mach in 1888, though it was not implemented until a decade later. A century of real world use of time-lapse photography would begin with German botanist Wilhelm Pfeffer’s documentation of the eleven day growth of beans in 1898 (no doubt the film that dumbfounded Colette). In 1902 the Biograph studios captured the demolition of the old Star Theater ‘as if it were melting into the ground’ by exposing a single frame of film every thirty minutes. In a mere thirty seconds, the audience watched amazed as the building disintegrated before their very eyes. In 1904, Pizon used a form of time-lapse he deemed ‘biotachygrapy’ to record the growth and development of a colony of bacteria.
In the years since glaciers, blood corpuscles, blossoming flowers (hundreds and hundreds of flowers in bloom), cell division, sea creatures, cloudscapes, celestial mechanics, construction projects, rotting fruit, the sun rising and setting, puddings baking, storm fronts, traffic patterns—these and a thousand other subjects have posed for time-lapse portraits.
In the hands of pioneers like the Russian-American biologist Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) and the American inventor John Ott (1910-2000), time-lapse would be used in a variety of practical and scientific ways, simultaneously ‘reveal[ing] beauty while serving as a tool for the scientist’.
A BBC film unit, for example, recorded London to Brighton in Four Minutes, a 760 mile-an-hour trip that helped designers reconfigure carriage lay out and seat design. In a time-lapse astronomical photograph (48 exposures on a single frame of film) which won several major awards and has been reproduced world-wide over ten million times, Dennis de Cicco captured the figure eight—commonly known as an ‘analemma’—traced by the sun in the sky over the course of a single year: February 1978 to February 1979. And, in one of time-lapse’s masterpieces, Sean Morris of Oxford Scientific Films captured blowfly maggots devouring, in a one minute film at once revolting and astounding, the corpse of a field mouse. (Morris’s time-lapse aspirations were not limited to small rodents: ‘We ought to do a shot one day of maggots devouring an elephant’s carcass’. ) [The film below is not Morris' but a a similar record of maggots consuming a small bird.)
Contemplating (in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) a 17th century thought experiment in which a mirror shot into space, traveling at the speed of light, would allow us to ‘watch all of the earth's previous history unfolding as on a movie screen’, Annie Dillard thinks of time-lapse photography.
Those people who shoot endless time-lapse films of unfurling roses and tulips have the wrong idea. They should train their cameras instead on the melting of pack ice, the green filling of ponds, the tidal swing of the Severn Bore. They film the glaciers of Greenland, some of which creak along at such a fast clip that even the dogs bark at them. They should film the invasion of the southernmost Canadian tundra by the northernmost spruce-fir-forest, which is happening right now at the rate of a mile every ten years. When the last ice sheet receded from the North American continent, the earth rebounded ten feet. Wouldn't that have been a sight to see?
Time-lapse’s scientific practitioners have not yet completed all of Dillard's ambitious agenda, but they have hardly limited themselves to roses and tulips. If the cinema has been from the outset ‘a laboratory for the twentieth-century imagination,’ time-lapse has been a tool at the disposal of experimenters. Even non-scientific imaginations found ways to make use of it.
Throughout the first century of the movies, time-lapse has played a cameo role in theatrical and experimental films. Méliès’ short Carrefour de l'opéra (1898) is purported to be the first theatrical film to use time-lapse. In Pan-American Exposition by Night (1901), Edwin S. Porter, best known, of course, for his The Great Train Robbery two years later, altered his camera in order to expose one frame per ten seconds in order ‘to create a circular panorama of the illuminated fairgrounds’ (Cook 18). The blooming flowers of Renoir's La Petite marchande d'allumettes (The Little Match Girl, 1928), the time-lapse clouds, obeying the commands of a wizard, in Epstein’s Le Tempestaire (1947), the contrasted gestating flowers and dancers in motion in Swedish documentarist’s Arne Sucksdorff’s The Open Road (1948), the rich time-lapse shots of natural phenomena in Georges Rouquier’s Farrebique (1948) kept time-lapse in the public eye, while hardly engendering stardom for the technique.
Time-lapse has continued to put in an appearance in mainstream fare. George Pal's science fiction film The Time Machine (1960) employed time-lapse as a special effect in its depiction of a journey into the future. As the Time Traveler leaves his London home on the eve of the 20th Century on his way to the year 802,701, we witness the rapid passage of clouds overhead and the accelerated transformation of day into night among the signs of the progress of time. The opening credit sequence of On a Clear Day You Can Say Forever (Vincente Minnellii, 1970) is comprised of stunning time-lapse shots of blossoming flowers, created especially for the film by none other than the time-lapse pioneer Ott. At the end of John Badham's Saturday Night Fever (1977), a time-lapse shot of clouds moving rapidly over the New York City skyline is used at the movie's close to counterpoint Tony Manero's (John Travolta) dark night of the soul after the accidental death of his friend. Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) implements time-lapse with menacing effect—again in the credit sequence—to show spores from outer space gestating into parasitic flowers essential to the invaders' plot to conquer the earth. In Steven Spielberg's E.T., in its day the top grossing film of all time, a dead flower is brought back to vibrant life in time-lapse by an extra-terrestrial's magical powers. More recently Brian De Palma's box office disaster Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) exhibited a Robert Greenberg-designed time-lapse, morning to night, panorama of New York, with the Chrysler building's famous gargoyles screen center, as its credit sequence/establishing shot. Time-lapse has even found a place in television narrative. The high concept CBS series Early Edition (1996-2000), for example, makes ample use of time-lapse in a story about a man who receives the next day’s newspaper 24 hours in advance.
Less mainstream filmmakers have likewise found time-lapse functional. Avant-garde filmmakers, not surprisingly, have sometimes implemented time-lapse techniques. Andy Warhol's Empire (1964), for example, telescopes the passing of day into night in an eight hour filmic record of the Empire State Building shot from a single, stationary camera. And Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967), a forty five minute long, excruciatingly gradual zoom journey across a studio loft, utilizes time-lapse to reveal the passage of time in a film designed to demonstrate that ‘motion is the only phenomenon that allows perception of time’. Using time-lapse, photographer Ted Spagna completed ten years worth of ‘sleep portraits’: scientifically valuable records of the sleep behavior of men and women—individuals, couples, parents with babies—and zoo animals—gorillas, flamingos, bears. (His future plans, he claims, include portraits of schizophrenics, sleepwalkers, whales, and astronauts.) In the late 1980s, Spagna's work, exhibited in galleries, even came to attract the attention of the art world as well.
Fred G. Sullivan's whimsical, independently produced autobiography, The Beer Drinker's Guide to Fitness and Filmmaking (1989) employs a time-lapse camera with humorous intent to capture twenty four hours--"One Day in the Magical Years"--of the director's family's hectic life, its frenetic to-ings and fro-ings, from a stationary position across the street from their Saranac Lake, New York bungalow.
Ron Fricke’s mind-boggling time-lapse photography (of storms, the passage of night and day, the circulatory system of a big city) is central to the method of Godfrey Reggio’s indictment of the unsustainable insanity of modern American life in the cult documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1983). (For more on this film go here.)
Time-lapse plays a central role in the unconventional British director Peter Greenaway’s peculiar 1985 film A Zed & Two Noughts. in which Oswald Deuce, a zoologist whose wife has been killed in a bizarre automobile accident (on Swan’s Way) involving a swan, conducts grief-inspired research on decay. An apple, two fish, a crocodile, a Dalmatian, a zebra—all come before his camera, where their accelerated putrefication is captured by the researcher’s time-lapse camera. Snippets of Deuce’s films punctuate Zed’s bizarre narrative, a typically Greenwayian confounding tale of separated-at-birth twin brothers both pursuing the now-one-legged (soon to be legless) driver of the car in which their wives jointly died.
The enthusiasm of modernist artists and film theorists, just as rabid if not more so than writers like Colette or scientists like Morris, far outdistanced that of mainstream and experimental filmmakers. The genetic tendency of film discourse ‘to over-endow the cinema with utopian possibilities’ informs almost all early conjecture about time-lapse photography.
Remarking on the ability of the cinema to ‘extend . . . certain of our means of perception and . . . throw out bridges beyond the impassable zones of our senses and our skills’, the seminal modernist architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) singled out scientific documentary's ‘miraculous films on the growth of seeds and plants’ as proof that ‘nature and human consciousness are . . . two terms of the [same] equation’.
Writing in 1925, Bauhaus designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), while praising cinema's aptitude for scientific research into the metamorphosis of ‘zoological, botanical and mineral form’ and condemning its lazy utilization for dramatic purposes, spoke most eloquently of time-lapse as a wonderful vehicle for the revelation of character. Imagining a time-lapse film of ‘a man daily from birth to his death in old age’, he describes the probable effects of such a film: ‘It would be most unnerving even to be able to watch only his face with the slowly changing expression of a long life and his growing beard, etc., all in five minutes; or the statesman, the musician, the poet in conversation and in action; . . . Even with a proper understanding of the material, speed and breath of thought do not suffice to predict all the obvious potentialities.’ For film theorists, the promise of time-lapse was even more inviting.
With I. G. Farben's Miracle of the Flowers—a film he judged to be ‘certainly the most fantastic, thrilling, and beautiful ever made’—as his test case, Rudolf Arnheim (1904- ), writing in his seminal study The Film as Art (1933), would wax poetic about time-lapse, providing a definitive phenomenology of the viewer's experience of the technique:
The swaying rhythmic breathing motions of the leaves, the excited dance of the leaves around the blossom, the almost voluptuous abandon with which the flower opens—the plants all at once come alive and show that they use expressive gestures like those to which we are accustomed in men and animals. Watching a climbing plant anxiously groping, uncertainly seeking a hold, as its tendrils twine around a trellis, or a fading cactus bloom bowing its head and collapsing almost with a sigh, was an uncanny discovery of a new living world in a sphere in which one had of course always admitted life existed but had never been able to see it in action. Plants were suddenly and visibly enrolled in the ranks of living beings. One saw that the same principles applied to everything, the same code of behavior, the same difficulties, the same desires.
For Arnheim, ever committed to ‘refut[ing] the assertion that film is nothing but the feeble mechanical reproduction of real life’, time-lapse provided irrefutable evidence of film’s meta-mimetic tendencies.
Convinced that ‘the modifications of spatial and temporal experience provided by slow, accelerated, or reverse motion will provide fresh access to the true, concealed nature of the phenomenal world’, Jean Epstein (1897-1953), French pioneer of the avant-garde, would praise time-lapse as one means of preserving the medium's early, phenomenal sense of wonder against the stultifying development of narrative cinema. But a technique like time-lapse was for him as well the tool for scientific revelation. ‘The revisions of perception and judgment impelled by that access’, Epstein was convinced, ‘would confirm scientific discovery and redirect epistemological inquiry’. Despite ‘its startling physics and strange mechanics’, time-lapse, Epstein hastened to remind, should be understood as ‘but a portrait—seen in a certain perspective—of the world in which we live’.
In her essay on ‘Visual and Anti-Visual Films’, Germaine Dulac (1882-1942) contemplating the ability of film to ‘decompose’ movement, thought of time-lapse as a quintessential example.
A grain of wheat sprouts; it is synthetically, again, that we judge its growth. Cinema, by decomposing movement, makes us see, analytically, the beauty of the leap in a series of minor rhythms which accomplish the major rhythm, and, if we look at the sprouting grain, thanks to film, we will no longer have only the synthesis of the moment of growth, but the psychology of this movement. We feel, visually, the painful effort a stalk expends in coming out of the ground and blooming. The cinema makes us spectators of its bursts toward light and air, by capturing its unconscious, instinctive and mechanical movements.
And in ‘The Essence of the Cinema: The Visual Idea’, Dulac again returned to time-lapse in a consideration of the ‘educational and instructive power’ of film as a ‘sort of microscope’.
In a documentary, in a scientific film, life appears before us in its infinite detail, its evolution, all that the eye is normally unable to follow.
Among others, there is a slow-motion study of the blooming of flowers. Flowers, whose stage of life appear to us brutal and defined, birth, blooming, death, and whose infinitesimal development, whose movements equivalent to suffering and joy are unknown to us, appear before us in cinema in the fullness of their existence.
Even two decades later, in Theory of Film: Growth and Character of a New Art (1952), the Hungarian cineaste Bela Balazs (1884-1949) would still find time-lapse fascinating, noting that while ‘only pictures of nature without men bear the convincing stamp of unquestionable, authentic reality’, such films ‘often appear fantastic’. And ‘nothing could be more like fairy tales’, writes Balazs, with time-lapse photography in mind, than ‘the scientific films which show the growth of crystals or the wars of infusoria living in a drop of water’. He even goes on to briefly develop a theoretical explanation of the uncanny nature of such cinematography.
the farther away the existence presented . . . is from the possibility of human interference, the less it the possibility of its being artificial, faked, stage-managed. . . . For although what we see is a natural phenomenon, the fact that we can see it at all strikes us as unnatural. . . . In watching such things we feel as if we had entered a territory closed to man.
When a technique like time-lapse photography shows us ‘something that human beings cannot see in normal circumstances’, Balazs concludes, suggestively, ‘then, as we nevertheless see it, we have the feeling of being invisible ourselves. . . .’
Siegfried Kracauer, in his Theory of Film (1960), likewise praises the technique as contributing to what he saw as the project of film: "the redemption of physical reality." "Pictures of stalks piercing the soil in the process of growing up open up imaginary areas" for the human mind, Kracauer argues, and he includes time-lapse as a cinematic approach which "lead[s] straight into 'reality of another dimension'" (52-53).
And Stephenson and Debrix, in The Art of the Cinema (1965), note that time-lapse photography seems especially well suited to this age of Einstein, for it "demonstrates in the most forceful way the relativity of time": "a speeded up documentary on plant growth may introduce us to a universe whose rate of movement is fifty thousand times faster than the one we know, a temporal universe as incommensurable with solar time as ultra-microscopic worlds are incommensurable with visible space" (92-93).
For the French film theorist Edgar Morin (1921- ) ‘scientific’ techniques like time-lapse lie at the heart of all contemporary controversies about how we are to ‘read’ movies. In Le Cinema ou l'homme imaginaire (1958) Morin shows how, in the words of Dudley Andrew (on whose account of Morin's book I have relied heavily),
the cinema began as an instrument of popular science, as a perceptual machine he calls the ‘cinematographe’, whose function was to provide views of things formerly unseen or unseeable. Hence the fascination with slow and fast motion, with extreme close-ups and unlimited repetitions giving our eyes access to the world of nature.
But almost simultaneously the movies became an entertainment industry ‘catering to a voracious public appetite for “curiosities”,‘ and, in the hands of filmmakers like Georges Méliès, the semiosis of the movies was rapidly transformed: ‘the cinematographe quickly became that phantasmagoric language we know as the cinema’. The ‘tension between perception and signification’ which still lies at the heart of our experience of film began. But in the process, the cinematographe's capacities for revelation have been largely forgotten.
In the imaginal science of Leo Lionni's delightful Parallel Botany, we learn of a type of plant which ‘grow[s] in the rhythm of our subjective time and eventually take[s] the form of a long and intricate conceptual process’. Having long ago lost their existentiality, these plants can now be perceived, Lionni explains, only by ‘the principles and methods of phenomenology’. The revelations of time-lapse photography are, of course, quite real, technologically enhanced visions of temporal realities, and yet for the viewer, at least, it would be easy to believe they share a family resemblance to the chimeras Lionni describes.
The world of the movies, Gilberto Perez reminds us, is filled with ‘material ghosts’. ‘The images on the screen carry in them something of the world itself, something material, and yet something transposed, transformed into another world. . . . Hence both the peculiar closeness to reality and the no less peculiar suspension from reality, the juncture of world and otherworldliness distinctive of the film image’. In the course of its history, time-lapse photography, once thought of as a window on the momentousness of nature, once poetic, has lost its ‘otherworldiness’—become prosaic. With the countries all discovered, or so our now jaded film consciousness now assumes, the sense of wonder that aroused time-lapse’s early promise may now be gone.
As their talent develops guide your pupils toward Nature--into Nature. Make them experience how a bud is born, how a tree grows, how a butterfly unfolds so that they may become just as resourceful, flexible, and determined as great Nature. Seeing is believing--is insight into the workshop of God. There, in Nature's womb, lies the secret of creation.
For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gestures which small flowers make when they open in the morning.
Rainer Maria Rilke
"Every great writer," Borges has noted enigmatically in an essay on Franz Kafka, "creates his precursors" (108). But does not every new art as well? If it can be shown that time-lapse photography has contributed to poetic inspiration in our time, expanding and deepening the consciousness of poets, enriching the possibilities of metaphor, it likewise might be argued that the particular "door of perception" known as time-lapse photography may have opened long before this century and that the writers I have discussed are in fact the second generation of time-lapse poets. For the Romantics likewise seem to have possessed time-lapse consciousness, a vision which was instrumental to formulation of that organic poetics which has been their greatest legacy to modern thought. Any complete "psychic archaeology" (the phrase is Theodore Roszak's, in Where the Wasteland Ends) of time-lapse should really include them as well (though space permits here only a brief, preliminary survey).
I. The Romantics
When William Blake, in Jerusalem, imagines the emanation of the cosmos (as if foreseeing the Big Bang of Twentieth Century cosmologists), he describes it in time-lapse fashion:
The Vegetative Universe opens like a flower from the Earth's center
In which is Eternity. It expands in Stars to the Mundane Shell.
And there it meets Eternity again, both within and without. . . . (633; Plate 13, ll. 34-36)
And in Milton does not Blake suggest that all poetry is in fact the product of a new orientation in time, the transcendence of normal biological rhythms and an ordinary metabolism, made possible through poetic imagination's time-lapse photography?
Every time less than the pulsation of the artery
Is equal in its period and value to Six Thousand Years.
For in this Period the Poet's Work is done. (Keynes, p. 516; Plates 28 [ll. 62-63] and 29 [l. 1]
The work, that is, of cleansing the "doors of perception" so man can see every thing "as it is, infinite."
In the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge--both his poetry and poetics and his natural philosophy--we find a vivid second example. The theory of creative imagination, for which Coleridge was a major progenitor, held (according to James Engell's authoritative study) that "it is not simply that the imagination perceives the development of nature; it generates a similar process in the self." It was grounded in the faith that the "imagination contains within itself a potential which, uniting with external influences of nature, leads the mind to a new stage of growth" (Engell 347). (Nature, as Goethe put it succinctly, is "a model of everything artistic" [quoted in Verdi 225].) And Coleridge's conception of the origin of such imagination in the individual suggest a knowledge of metamorphosis of form which (as Owen Barfield has argued in his interpretation of Romanticism's place in the evolution of consciousness) harkens back to the Greek awareness of phusis, and ahead (as I would like to suggest) to becoming as revealed in time-lapse photography.
In Biographia Literaria, for example, Coleridge writes:
They and only they can acquire the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition, who within themselves can interpret and understand the symbol, that the wings of the air-sylph are forming within the skin of the caterpillar; those only, who feel in their own spirits the same instinct, which impels the chrysalis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennae yet to come. They know and feel, that potential works in them, even as the actual works on them! (Chapter XII)
In time-lapse photography's latter-day organicism, the potential and the actual--natura naturans and natura naturata (in Coleridge's terminology) are revealed intertwined: what to Coleridge are poles in man's organic relation to nature become--in a marriage enacted via technology--a living unity.
Both Wordsworth and Shelley also seem to have possessed time-lapse vision. The many "spots of time" passages in The Prelude, for example, suggest a momentous sense of the world's becoming, a becoming which seems about to engulf the poet's growing sensibility. The famous account of crossing the Alps in Book VI, with its mystical revelation of the natural world as manifesting the "workings of one mind, the features/Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree;/Characters of the great Apocalypse,/The types and symbols of Eternity,/Of first and last, and midst, and without end," is a particularly striking example (269).
Is not Shelley's "Mont Blanc," in its similar depiction of a mind which "renders and receives fast influencings,/Holding an unremitting interchange/ With the clear universe of things around," a poetic precursor of time-lapse? It is, after all, a poem--redolent with images of a nature seemingly still and yet eternally active, of a world "Where waterfalls around it leap forever,/Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river/Over its rocks ceaselessly burns and raves"--which presents us with a perfect scenario for a time-lapse film. In a time-lapse medium, the essentially geological imagination of Shelley's great poem would no longer need tax the limits of language.
Shelley's "The Sensitive Plant" likewise seems a fit subject for time-lapse, though on a smaller scale. The pathetic fallacy to which the poem so often succumbs as Shelley describes the life of a garden the "lovely mind,/ Which dilating, had molded her mien and motion/Like a sea-flower unfold beneath the ocean . . ." of the lady who tends it would not seem quite so precious if we understood it to be the result of poetic diction's attempt to capture in progress an essentially invisible world of transformation. All the "sweet shapes and odours" of the garden, as Shelley tells us in the poem's closing stanza, never really pass away; for there the potential and the actual ebb and flow. And "For love, and beauty, and delight,/There is not death nor change." But men forget this fact, Shelley explains, because "their might/Exceeds our organs, which endure/No light, being themselves obscure." Time-lapse vision, poetic or photographic, lessens the obscurity and brings illumination through the imaginative enhancement of merely biological organs.
And was not Goethe's obsession--pursued in both his poetry and science--with the "metamorphosis of plants," his discovery, by means of the "exact concrete imagination" he sought to perfect, of the "Urpflanze" (the archetypal plant), a longing for and an imagining of a kind of time-lapse vision? When, in his legendary 1794 encounter with Schiller, Goethe was told by his fellow poet that the Urpflanze was not a product of experience at all (as its discoverer claimed), but only an idea, he had replied, "Well, so much the better; it means that I have ideas without knowing it, and can even see them with my eyes" (quoted by Heller, The Disinherited Mind 7). For Goethe, that "Greek born in the North" (as Schiller himself called him), phusis was evidently still a reality.
"Nature has neither core/Nor outer rind," Goethe was convinced, "Being all things at once" (from "Allerdings: Dem Physiker" ["True Enough: To the Physicist"], Selected Poems 237). This conviction lead to an awareness of metamorphosis in nature (as Erich Heller has observed) "far nearer to Aristotle's entelechy than to modern genetics." It inspired a method of approach toward the study of natural phenomena which (in his own words) did not "tackle Nature by merely dissecting and particularizing, but shows her at work and alive, manifesting herself in her wholeness in every single part of her being" (Heller 6). Unlike his contemporary Kant, who denied that the phenomenal provided access to the noumenal, Goethe (like Coleridge) found the two forever mated, and he thus never lost faith that through "our contemplation of incessantly creative nature" we might "become worthy of some intellectual participation in her creativeness" (Heller 29). Thus he could counsel, in a poem which distills the theory of organic imagination into four lines,
If it is the greatest, the highest you seek, the plant can direct you.
Strive to become through your will what, without will, it is. (The Eternal Feminine 129)
Goethe, of course, had derided the effect of microscopes and telescopes on human vision, preferring the "true illusion" of our actual, subjective experience of nature, unaided by any enhancement--save that provided by "exact, concrete imagination." But surely he would have embraced the techne of time-lapse photography as a means, at once scientific and poetic, of publicizing the Urphanomena; as a singular revelation--both idea and experience--of that "holy secret, clear as day" (from "Epirrhema,” Selected Poems 159) which his own great work had discovered and celebrated.
II. Twentieth Century Poetry
Understandably, given the ancient, primordial rapport of phusis and poiesis, it has been 20th century poetry which, it would seem, has taken time-lapse's vision of becoming most to heart, incorporating its methods and revelations into its form and substance as if the technique's enhanced revelation of phusis were "almost a remembrance."
When the French poet Cendrars first witnessed time-lapse photography in a Parisian theatre, he was moved to exclaim, flabbergasted by the experience, that "accelerated, the life of flowers is Shakespearean" (quoted by Munier, 93). In the new cinematic technique Cendrars had evidently recognized a sister art. So, too, have other Twentieth Century poets.
Like many of his contemporaries, Cendrars was inspired by what Monique Chefdor has called "the general craze" for the cinema. "The fragments of L'A B C du cinema (1926) which [Cendrars] published in various reviews in 1919," Chefdor observes, "testify to his enthusiasm for the seventh art, which he eulogized at times, to delirious heights. In his typical blending of scholarly erudition and fantasy he proclaimed with prophetic intensity that the cinematographic arts were to become the language of a race of new human beings, the Gospel of tomorrow, the fourth revolution after the three previous ones of the importation of the Phoenician alphabet by Cadmus to Greece, the discovery of printing and the invention of the radio . . ." (68).
Cendrars' enthusiasm for time-lapse was pronounced. In a side excursion into the cinema in his autobiographical A Night in the Forest, for example, time-lapse figures prominently in his theorizing and in his metaphors. Considering the manner in which film reveals the mysteries of human character, he insists that "There's no reason today why we cannot unravel the complex skeins of a human character on the screen, in the way slow motion [sic] shows us the germination, burgeoning, budding, blooming, and death of plants." And though, he admits, we may not recognize at first the portrait of man which would thus emerge, we will come to accept our cinematic likeness as "second nature," as phylogeny and ontogeny, phusis and nature, poiesis and techne.
This thick blood, this suspended flower, this diamond ballet, this smile full of stops and starts like the traffic in a big city, this new shadow in the light, this kernel, this black eye, this dark streak, this crack in the microscopic analysis, this bean--it's you--it's you. Don't hesitate; move! You are dead; move! You are curled in a spiral; unwind! You are born into the reality of the cinema; move! Jump! and watch out for the matrix! . . .
You, yourself, you, anonymous as you are to yourself, alive, dead, living dead, wild rose, angelica, hermaphrodite, human, too human, beast, mineral vegetable, chemistry, rare butterfly, the residue in a crucible, the root of the voltaic arc, a plummet to abysmal depths, two fins, an air hole, mechanical and spiritual, full of gears and prayers, aerobic, thermogenic, winged foot, ion, god, automaton, embryo, seal with peyote in his eyes.
It is you in instaneity.
It is you in eternity.
In full becoming,
You in the flow of time.
The "future role of the cinema," Cendrars would thus prophecy, "will be to rediscover man, ourselves, to show us up, to make us accept ourselves without resentment and without disgust, such as we are, with the lives of our ancestors and our children within us, with no humbug, beyond all conventions, in all fatality, in all atavism, in full becoming, like animals, whether drunken or good or reasonable or wicked."
At about the same time in the century that time-lapse photography was being developed as a tool in the study of organic life processes, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke had come to understand the poet's true task to be as witness to all acts of blossoming. In his "Gesang der Frauen an den Dichter," for example, a group of women beseech the poet, pleading with him to understand and describe their growth correctly and alluding to the burgeoning natural world of which they are inextricably a part, "Sieh, wie sich alles, aufut: so sind wir" ("Look how everything unfolds; we are like that") (quoted in Hartman 74).
Rilke's whole poetic achievement, it might be argued, was the attainment of a means for capturing such unfoldings in progress--in time-lapse, if you will. The anemone he describes in Die Sonnette an Orpheus, II, 5 (1923), a flower fully, synchronously open in tropism to "das polyphone/Licht der lauten Himmel" ("the polyphonic light of the loud skies") in a way Rilke thought man himself should be to earthly experience, was, after all, a central symbol for Rilke of true poetic consciousness.
what he wanted to learn to be a poet
allude to epigraph
Rilke's conception of time-lapse even took on evolutionary dimensions. "Alongside of the most rapid movements," he wrote in "The Young Workman's Letter,"
there will always be slow ones, such, indeed as are of so extreme a leisureliness that we shall not live to see the course they take. But that is what humanity is for, is it not, to await the realization of that which exceeds a single life-span?--From its point of view the slowest process is often the quickest, that is to say, we find that we called it slow simply because it could not be measured. (Where Silence Reigns 74-75)
We find the Irish poet and mystic AE (George Russell) thinking of his relationship to time and memory, and consequently his source of poetic inspirations, in terms of time-lapse photography. In Song and Its Fountains (1932), a book which is as much spiritual autobiography as a theory of poetry, he tells of a form of meditation he began to practice as an aid to creation, in search of the wellsprings of poetry.
I began to practice a meditation the ancient sages spoke of. In this meditation we start from where we are and go backwards through the day; and later, as we become quicker in the retracing of our way, through weeks, through years, what we are now passing into what we did or thought: and so we recall a linked medley of action, passion, imagination or thought. It is most difficult at first to retrace our way, to remember what we thought or did even an hour before. But if we persist the past surrenders to us and we can race back fleetly over days or months. The sages enjoined this meditation with the intent that we might, where we had been weak, conquer in imagination, kill the dragons which overcame us and undo what evil we might have done.
Able to see his life whole, to understand that all its seemingly disparate events are of a piece, he can thus see it as a becoming, an unfolding in time:
I found, when I had made this desire for retrospect dominant in meditation, that an impulse had been communicated to everything in my nature to go back to origins. IT BECAME OF MYSELF AS IF ONE OF THOSE MOVING PICTURES WE SEE IN THE THEATRES, WHERE IN A FEW MOMENTS A PLANT BURSTS FORTH INTO BUD, LEAF, AND BLOSSOM DWINDLING INTO THE BUD. MY MOODS BEGAN TO HURRY BACK TO THEIR FIRST FOUNTAINS. (xxx; my italics)
Could AE have conceived of his life, imagined the unity of it, in this way without time-lapse photography as the vehicle of his metaphor?
Valéry, "Man and the Sea Shell"
In Hart Crane's "Repose of Rivers" (1926), an account of the poet as he stand enraptured before the Mississippi delta--"That seething steady, leveling of the marshes"--time-lapse is again the controlling metaphor. Remembering back to an earlier time when his present visionary state--a kind of time-lapse view of geological and biological processes working their effects over great expanses of time, yet seen in the imagination as instantaneous--was an everyday occurrence for him, the poet recalls how his mystical vision of cypress trees as they "shared the noon's/Tyranny" once had the power to fascinate his innocent attention so totally that it drew him "into Hades almost." He summons up again that earlier consciousness in which he looked on possessed as "mammoth turtles climbing sulphur dreams/Yielded, while sun-silt rippled them/ Asunder." This difficult, surreal, drunken imagery is, of course, quintessential Crane, but "Repose of Rivers" is not merely the dregs of Crane's now legendary drinking bouts in search of inspiration. At the heart of the poem's dreamlike, vatic vision lies a time-lapse consciousness of nature, as the poem's closing lines make apparent. Lost in that "memory all things nurse," Crane equates his former vision with his present one--like AE finding his end in his beginning--and, reclaiming his lost powers as a seer, realizes that then as now he is able, in a kind of time-lapse hearing, to listen to "wind flaking sapphire. . . ./ And willows could not hold more steady sound" (xxx).
Or consider Richard Eberhardt's often anthologized "The Groundhog" (1930). If it had not been written over forty years earlier, the poem might be misjudged as a poetic plagiarism of Sean Morris' time-lapse record of a mouse's consummation. For like that film, Eberhardt's poem telescopes time (three years) to present a vivid moving picture of a small mammal's corpse eaten by maggots. But the poem is no mere recording; it is not a disinterested, scientifically valid account. It is a poet's subjective eye, not an objective, time-lapse camera, which captures the unfolding scene.
It is the poet who in mid-summer, "Half with loathing, half with a strange love . . .", bears witness to "nature ferocious in him [the groundhog]"; who detects "his maggots' might/And seething cauldron of his being . . ."; who experimentally pokes him "with an angry stick," only to see the "fever" of the maggots' meal become "a flame." It is the poet who falls to his knees, "Praying for joy in the sight of decay," his faith in the meaning of things momentarily shaken by the "senseless change" he confronts, reminded of his own mortality by this time-lapse momento mori.
It is the poet who returns in autumn to discover, in a year which has "lost its meaning," "The sap gone out of the groundhog" and only the "bony sodden hulk remaining"; who comes back to the scene, like a war veteran compulsively attracted to the spot where he lost a limb, finding only a "little hair left,/And bone bleaching in the sunlight/Beautiful as architecture."
And it is the poet who comes back once more, three years later, unable then to detect even a trace of the drama to which all along he has been the only witness.
Eberhardt's subjective, poetic, time-lapse record of the groundhog's recycling makes vivid for the reader the conjoined feelings of awe and revulsion provoked by viewing the Morris film. For Eberhardt cannot achieve the aesthetic distance necessary to find the scene beautiful, nor can the viewer of the film detach himself sufficiently to appreciate objectively the richly patterned transformation, perhaps beautiful in and of itself. Poetic time-lapse, it seems, is the product of a consciousness which is itself still within time, still embodied, still sympathetically linked in imagination with all that it perceives, still the eye and the voice of the natural world's coming-into-being, its "blooming, buzzing, confusion."
The poetry of Dylan Thomas, whose synaesthetic, hallucinatory imagery has often been called surrealistic, has a distinctly time-lapse quality. No poet of our time has been more attuned to the ongoing flow of time and its effects. In "Death Shall Have No Dominion," for example, he records a vision of the transmigration of souls which equates it with the water cycle, culminating in the return of those souls to nature, described in a powerful image:
Heads of characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down.
And death shall have no dominion. (77)
And it is a time-lapse sensibility, is it not, which allows him to see that, in the midst of the world's becoming, creation and destruction are one: "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/Is my destroyer" (10).
In Theodore Roethke's "Transplanting (1948)," the poet's vivid description of a gardener's act becomes, in Roethke's imagination, a time-lapse vision of the plant's whole burgeoning. The poem's first stanza is a careful record of a greenhouse transplanting. as careful hands make the plants "Ready for the long days under the sloped glass." But the second stanza is witnessed by no physical eye.
In yet another poetic return to time-lapse's primal scene, Roethke grows the plant, sampling moments from its "long days" in its bed:
The sun warming the fine loam,
The young horns winding and unwinding.
Creaking their thin spines,
The underleaves, the smallest buds
Breaking into nakedness,
The blossoms extending
Out into the sweet air,
The whole flower extending outward,
Stretching and reaching.
Later in the century, time-lapse poetry continued to be written. For example, when William Carlos Williams, in "Asphodel that Greeny Flower" (1955), looks back over his life, his marriage, and his career as a poet from the vantage point of his seventies and grasps for the first time their essential reciprocity, it is as if he were watching a time-lapse film of his own individuation:
As I think of it now
after a lifetime
it is as if
a sweet-scented flower
and for me did open. (182)
Underpinning W. S. Merwin's "Unchopping a Tree" (1970) is a time-lapse vision of natural growth. A prose poem, written in the form of an instruction manual intended to assist in the reassembly of a felled tree, Merwin's ironic lines explores the complexity of living systems and man's inadequacy in the face of the natural. The poem's voice is that of a Swiftian, cold-hearted expert, who speaks matter-of-factly of an infinitely complex, step-by-step process: the reattachment of each leaf and branch, the replacement of nuts (he instructs the reader to place those already opened back into their shells), the labyrinthine reconstitution of each spider web. There will, he admits, be some difficulties of course: "With spider webs, you must simply do the best you can. We do not have the spider's weaving equipment." Nor, lacking "any substitute for the leaf's living bond with its point of attachment and nourishment," will the foliage be easily put back.
As Merwin's expert goes on to describe the rest of the tree's "resurrection"--the replacement of the bark, the gluing in of innumerable splinters, the erection of the trunk--it becomes clear that this process, which the speaker proudly calls "men's work," is in fact beyond human means. The work, we are told in understatement, may cause us to wonder "to what extent it should be described as natural, to what extent man-made."
Indeed, rechopping a tree "will lead . . . to speculations about the parentage of beauty itself, to which you will return." And at the poem's end, we learn, the process is not yet finished.
Others are waiting.
Everything is going to have to be put back.
In effect a reverse-motion time-lapse prose poem, "Unchopping a Tree" is time-lapse in an ironic mode.
Or think of May Swenson's "July 4th" (1972), a vivid description of holiday fireworks and of the reactions they provoke in an Independence Day audience, but a poem for which time-lapse photography is again clearly the vehicle. Swenson's source of inspiration is apparent in the poem's first lines:
Gradual bud and bloom and seedfall speeded up are
these mute explosions in slow motion.
From vertical shoots above the sea, the fire
flowers open, shedding their petals. (xxx)
The poem goes on to develop this analogy between the organic growth of a flower in bloom and the "fire flowers" opening-out above her.
For A. R. Ammons, a time-lapse aesthetic is central to his very concept of his art of appearance and reality, nature and culture, as is apparent in his "Poetics," one of several attempts by Ammons at an "ars poetica." "I look for the way/things will turn/out spiraling from a center," Ammons explains. Hoping to give them unselfish poetic expression, "being available/to any shape that may be/summoning itself through me/from the self not mine but ours," he seeks, without interference, for the forms
things want to come as
from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will unfold. . . . (61)
Like "The Groundhog," Robert Hayden's "The Night Blooming Cereus" (1972) seems almost a conscious imitation of a time-lapse film. For the poem is, like Swenson's, an account of a flower coming into bloom--a staple of the time-lapse repertoire, part of its Tudor Code. But like "Groundhog," "Cereus" is no mere record but a subjective account of a natural process as experienced by a particular human consciousness.
The poet tells, in a first person narrative, of how "for nights/we [the speaker and a companion] waited, hoping to see/the heavy bud [of the Cereus, a cactus] break into flower." We see that bud's "neck-like tube/hooking down from the edge/of the leaf-branch/nearly to the floor . . ." and take notice of how the Cereus, "packed/tight with its miracle swayed stiffly on breaths/ of air, moved/as though impelled by stirrings within itself"--all-in--all as accurate a picture of the Cereus as any time-lapse camera could capture, given the limits of specificity always inherent in language.
But the speaker confesses--as if about to succumb to those still-alive pressures of natural selection which teach men not to see so precisely--that, face-to-face with such becoming, he feels "repelled as much as . . . fascinated." As if before his very eyes the Cereus' shape mutates, metaphorically, into something else, and the speaker sees in the plant "snake,/eyeless bird head,/beak that would gape/with grotesque life squawk." His companion, however, more impressed than the poet with "the imminence of bloom," and ready to celebrate the "archaic mysteries" they are about to behold, redirects his attention to the "rigorous design" of the unfolding the hold of that vision of the natural grotesque which nearly possesses him.
The poet recalls recent experiments which have recorded the "secret life of plants"--a "philodendron's fear," for example, as registered on a polygraph --and realizes that he too confronts "tribal sentience/In the cactus, focused/ energy of will." But he needs no polygraph, or time-lapse camera, to capture it. For thanks to the marvelous technique of a poet's imagination, he has access to a process no technology could touch: "That belling of/tropic perfume --that signaling/not meant for us;/the darkness cloyed with summoning/ fragrance."
Waiting patiently for the precise moment (for a Cereus' bloom lasts only a very short time), the time-lapse watcher "marveling/ beheld at the last the achieved/flower." And even then, in poetry's faithful commitment to becoming, the blooming does not stop, is not terminated in freeze-frame last words; for in the poem's closing lines we learn "Its moonlight/petals were/still unfold-/ing, the spike fringe of the outer/perianth recessing/as we watched" (24-26). I can think of no better demonstration of Archibald MacLeish's contention that poetry "gives knowledge of the chaos and confusion of the world by imposing order upon it which leaves it still the chaos and confusion which it really is."
Jorie Graham's "How Morning Glories Could Bloom at Dusk" (1980) will serve as a final example of 20th century time-lapse poetry. A meditation on the reasons of the heart, Graham's poem takes the circadian rhythm of blossoming vegetation as its controlling metaphor. "Left to itself," the poem begins,
the heart continues, as the tamarind
folds it leaves every night and the mimosa,
even in perpetual darkness, opens and shuts
with the sun.
The heart, Graham explains, is patient, in sympathy with natural process, well aware (as Rilke knew) that "everything unfolds," including the self.
It is moved by such delays:
cat's eyes open at six, african marigolds, lilies
at seven, at eight the passionflower.
For Graham, the "correspondences" of heart and nature are precise; the heart's growth, the coming into bloom of the natural world are homologies, sharing a common bestiary, transpiring in a shared geography. The heart's "light awaits the souls of the living"; its "birds" long "for the branches to unfold in song";
the end of its year awaits each noon the opening
of the chicory of the meadow, and its meadows
imagine other sleepless flower beds.
Seen in time-lapse, taken to heart, the blossoming, the metamorphosis which dominant the scene satisfy her need for the miraculous, replace the need for the supernatural.
If there is another world, then this is it:
the real, the virtual, the butterfly
over the evening primrose.
In a June 13, 1871 journal entry, Hopkins would note
The Horned Violet is a pretty thing, gracefully lashed. Even in withering the flower ran through beautiful inscapes by the strewing up of the petals into straight little barrels or tubes. It is not that inscape does not govern the behavior of things in slack and decay as one can see even in the pining of the skin of the old and even in a skeleton but that horror possesses the mind, but in this case there was nothing in itself to show whether the flower were shutting or opening.