Most of my experience with photography hails from the days of film. Back then, the only way to inspect the time sequence of photos at a glance, was to look at a contact sheet. A contact sheet is a single sheet of paper that contains all the images from a roll of film.
This is quite different from the process of photography today. Photo editors probably still use a form of ‘contact sheet’ to select photos, but most people see their photos instantly, on their camera screens.
Photographers of 25-30 years ago had to rely on technical knowledge to be sure that they properly exposed the film. However they still had to wait for the film to be developed to see if they caught ‘the decisive moment’. The Decisive Moment is a landmark photography book by the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, a compendium of photographs taken at the perfect instant.
Experiment in time
Those who have been following me for a while might remember that one of my ongoing projects is digitization of hundreds of rolls of 35mm film that I took over the past 30 years. This process has given me a new perspective of time. It seems, I am deconstructing my contact sheets by taking strip after film strip and converting them to digital format. After uploading to my computer I can review the photos in sequence as full-screen images.
If I were to play a movie that had 36 frames, the same number of exposures in most of my rolls of film, it would take a little over a second to play. On the other hand, the times it has taken me to shoot 36 exposures of film has varied quite a bit: anywhere from an hour, when something interesting is happening, to an entire day.
I look at contact sheets not only in terms of its images but also in terms of its sequential slices of time. Movies we see in the theater are projected at about 24 frames every second in order for us to see motion. This means there is 1/24th of a second between each and every image.
Contact sheets are stills from what I call an ‘asynchronous movie’. Perhaps a better description would be, a movie with different times between each frame.
‘Brother Mike‘ Project Revisited
The idea of still photography as an asynchronous movie came to me as I was working on the 300 or so rolls of film I took while I was working on my Brother Mike project. Mike is autistic, low functioning and nonverbal and only once or twice in my life did I ever get the feeling that he knew who I was. I got permission to be with him and photograph him at his group home and his day program. My goal was to get a better idea who he was and how to communicate.
In reviewing the images in small sequences (those contained in each roll of film), I had a whole complex of reactions. I am still trying to figure them all out, but certainly one reaction was a re-experience of the aggregate of time I spent with Mike. There were a few ‘decisive moments’ that I treasure, but there was more thatI can only list now, as I haven’t fully processed them: 1) feelings of being present back at that time; 2) feelings of being helpless; 3) feelings of having missed something important, perhaps a moment that I didn’t capture; 4) the passage of time since the end of my project.
With this groundwork laid, I hope to get some painting done in the next few days, distilling my thoughts on this subject down to their essentials.