Theorizing about Michael Wesely's Time Photography photo series
The essay was produced during one of the courses in Concordia University's department of Fine Arts, Montreal, Quebec
This essay will discuss the revolutionary photographic technique developed by Michael Wesely, and describe its importance for the development of Photography as art medium. The essay will focus on visual elements that were made possible thanks to Wesely’s photographic technique and their relation to objective reality, find the ideological basis that might have influenced conception of the technique and more importantly made possible the public acceptance of Wesely's work as art. The technique also allows us to draw parallels between Wesely's photography and duration based arts, specifically avant-garde performance.
Wesely's work - five photographs from Time Photography series, was presented in Montreal this year in 2013, during the Le Mois de la Photo 2013 international biennial on contemporary photography. Michael Wesely, Germany based artist, has developed photographic techniques allowing a single long exposure lasting for up to two years. This is unprecedented for the whole history of development of photography. The details of this method are kept in secret, but its revolutionary nature can be understood without knowing the technique.
In order to take a photograph, you need a camera, and something inside it that will record a light. It can be any light sensitive object, such as film, or sensitized plate, or, in case of digital cameras, an image sensor. The light is coming through photographic lens into the camera. The shutter and the diaphragm are controlling how much light will be thrown on a light sensitive object. This is also called long/short exposure and slow/fast shutter speed. The wider the diaphragm or the longer the shutter is open, the more light will be recorded. There is a time limit, within which the exposure can be carried out, because when too much light comes in, the picture can become all white, without any details – the light will “burn” the image. Using most advanced cameras photographers can make long exposures up to a couple of hours, but in this case other external factors might affect the picture quality and result in loss of details. The existence of so called pin-hole cameras made longer exposures possible. However, the longest exposure that was achieved using these cameras is 6 months (Trigg Web).
Taking into consideration all the factors discussed above, it is certain that Wesely’s photographic technique that allows a single exposure lasting two years and more and making possible photographs fascinating by their image quality, detail and aesthetic value is revolutionary. Some of the visual elements and artistic effects resulted from this technique can be associated with certain philosophical questions.
The five photographs that were presented in Darling Foundry this year were taken in Germany, four in Berlin, one in Munich. The works present a changing urban environment of Potsdamer Platz and a quiet Munich street. In these photographs, big construction sites became transparent ghostly structures, with many layers one upon another, captivating with complete absence of human beings. There are no people in the photos. This transparency and absence of people is a result of unusually long exposure. During any long exposure, changes occurring in front of the camera during the process of photographing are recorded on the photograph as transparent layers one upon another. In other words, for a photo-camera set on a long exposure every change in time contains in itself the visual presence of all the past changes. Firm physical masses turn into transparent and liquid ghosts and quick movement is not seen by camera at all.
Questioning the objective existence of our reality has long occupied thoughts of philosophers and artists. Wesely’s work is posing questions on the possibility of the objective view on the surrounding. This argument is made by a man-made tool – camera, on a man-made environment – construction site. Through Wesely's photographs we see how camera can see the world, aka objective reality.
The two main visual elements of the photos – transparency of solid urban environment and absence of human beings, are contributing to the presentation of an alternative point of view on the physical reality. Of course, reading of visual elements and their possible meanings in the fine arts sphere can be practically endless. Below are a simply couple of suggestions.
Transparent buildings metaphorically show the always changing and therefore unstable modern urban environment. When our surrounding, usually perceived as solid, non-transparent is suddenly shown in the form transparent layers by a tool, which is known for its quality of depicting reality as it is, we start wondering if our surrounding is real or if it exists in the form we are used to. The chronology of recorded events is also affected because of this visual transparency. If we do not read the title, telling that this is a construction site, we might as well assume that this is a deconstruction of the urban environment. Because of destruction of the chronology of the events, photo camera would record and transfer these two opposing processes in a same transparent-layered way. So, at least two of our perceptions are shaken by the transparency: chronology of change and material quality of the surrounding.
The next visual element to be discussed is absence of people in the photos resulted by the technical reasons described above. However, even without being physically recorded, people are omnipresent in these photos, because urban environment and its rapid change would not have been possible without people – it is a result of human activity. Our surrounding is an extension of our body. All the inventions of the humanity were caused by a desire to become capable of an action which would not be possible if we limit ourselves just to the use of our body. Our bodies are extended, we are embodied in the surrounding we construct. Ironically, one of our extensions/inventions – camera, is just not capable of seeing us when it is set on such a long exposure, we are too quick, so we are just not in the picture. What is in the picture, however, is the world we created and the changes we made to it. I can suggest, that the absence of human beings in these photos could be a visual metaphor of a fact that life of an individual is much shorter, than of his extension, aka man-made world.
The two visual elements discussed above create a depiction of the world from the point of view of a photographic camera, which was granted the opportunity to record the surrounding for an unusually long period of time. They are questioning our usual perception of the reality on several levels: material quality of solid surfaces, chronology of the events and our physical presence in our environment.
Acceptance of Wesely's Time Photography as a work of art is possible in our times thanks to, or others might say because of, the modernist approach to art formed in the early 20th century and brought forward by the technological progress. One of the main propagandists of the ideology of modernism is Clement Greenberg. There is a strong connection between Wesely's works and ideas on art expressed by Greenberg. In his essay Towards a Newer Laocoon, Greenberg argues that limitations specific to any artistic medium should not be concealed in favor of subject matter. "Purity in art consists in the acceptance, willing acceptance, of the limitations of the medium of the specific art." (Greenberg 32) Greenberg argues that artists must accept and expose these limitations in their artistic practice, incorporating them into their art. The acceptance of limitations is proclaimed as the only way of salvation from confusion of arts, i.e. from dominance of one medium over another and as a basic precondition for further true development of any artistic medium.
Wesely's artistic practice is based on limitations of photographic medium, connected with time limit of the exposure and impossibility for photo-camera to visually record subsequent chronologically arranged actions or changes in one photograph. Even when it is set on the longest exposure ever. A photo-camera can capture only a fraction of the visible world as it is limited by frame and only a fraction of time, being limited by shutter speed. These technical features have been already touched upon above.
Wesely's artistic approach not only accepts the mentioned limitations of photography, but turns them into the advantage specific only to the medium of photography. He was able to work out photographic techniques, that allowed him setting a single exposure lasting for two years. With this, for the first time, the fact that photo-camera cannot express changes in their clear chronological order in one photo, was brought forward as an advantage of photography as a medium. Photo-camera is the only technical tool that is capable of visually representing changes in the surrounding not subsequently, but all at the same time, when it is set on long exposure. Although ideas articulated by Greenberg, or any other art theorist for that matter, are not indisputable, stunning Time Photography is a clear and successful example of art, made by an artist who recognizes the limitations of his medium, and brings them forward as advantages.
Ideas brought into the arena of art with development of modernism play a huge role in formation of Wesely's artistic practice and are central for its acknowledgement as a true work of art. Without modernist approach to art, Wesely's input would have been viewed as a technical wonder but not art.
Working with the limitations of Photography as an art medium, and turning these limitations into advantages is not the only thing that is achieved by Wesely through his groundbreaking photographic technique. The change in duration of a single photographic action took photography from the context of being a cut in space and time and brought it into a context of duration based art, such as performance. As there is no literary plot in Wesely's work, it cannot be compared to classic performance. However, the epoch of modernity caused changes on perception of nature of art not only in the sphere of Visual Arts, but also in the sphere of performance.
Michael Kirby who wrote a number of books on nature of avant-garde performance, argues that among the features characterizing new theater are alogical structure and use of chance methodology. These features are also present in Wesely's Time Photography.
Alogical structure of the represented information is explained by Kirby as a system, elements of which are not complementing one another, they each have their own separate intellectual value. As an example, Kirby mentions the performance pieces by avant-garde composer, writer and artist John Cage which was a combination of music, dance, poetry recital, prose readings and motion pictures. "The elements remained intellectually discrete. Each was a separate compartment. The structure was alogical." (Kirby 81)
Alogical structure and use of chance methodology became characterising elements of Time Photography possible due to photographic technique developed by Wesely.
Each stage of change recorded by Wesely's camera stands as an element independent from other stages. This gestures at the alogical structure described by Kirby in The Art of Time, Essays on the Avant-Garde, "There is no information structure: the acts do not add meaning to one another, and one can be fully "understood" without any of the others." (Kirby 84) He argues that in the new theatre the represented information does not have a structure, because the acts can be understood separately, they do not complement each other, or add meaning to each other. In Michael Wesely's photographs changes occurred in time are all presented simultaneously, abolishing the chronology of events. In this case, there is no interdependence of each moment with the previous one and the one that will come after. Each stage of change, depicted in Wesely's photos as transparent layers, stands for itself, and does not require the previous or next stage of change for its understanding. Wesely's photographic technique transformed the structure of time recorded by camera from being logical (or in some cases illogical) into allogical.
Chance methodology is presented by Kirby as one of the methods of insuring alogical structure in the work (Kirnby 88) and is inseparable from Wesely's photographic process. He fixes key elements of the process, such as: his photographic technique, start time and end time, place and leaves the rest to to be determined by chance. "Chance methodology might say that at a given moment any one of a given number of alternatives is as good as any other." (Kirby 102) Any of the changes that could have happened in front of the camera during two years when the shutter was open would have been just as good as any other changes. An author of a performance fixes some of the moments in the performance, leaving the rest to a chance, Michael Wesely does the same, but in photography.
The photographic technique developed by Michael Wesely will open new horizons in front of Photography, if the technique is ever revealed to the public. At the moment, only one person is able to provide us with such fascinating results – Michael Wesely. Developing a single long exposure lasting two years and more, Wesely pushed the material limits of photographic medium and turned them into an advantage specific only to photography. The fact that once set on a long exposure, photo-camera is recording and visually presenting changes in the surrounding as if they had occurred all at the same time is brought forward as an advantage of the medium. Time Photography series captivate with their ghostly transparent look and make us reflect on nature of our surrounding, on structure of time, on the effect that our presence has on the environment. Photography, which is usually perceived to be a cut in time and space, has changed this aspect of its nature. Michael Wesely has put photography in the context of duration based art, underlining structural similarities between photography and avant-garde performance. Who knows how far will photography progress and transform, if other people with different perception of reality and art use it in their artistic practices. We can only hope that this technique will not be kept in secret forever.
Trigg, Tarja Solargraphy Gallery Aalto University School of Art and Design Department of Art Hämeentie 135 C 00560 Helsinki Finland, 2006. Web. 10 November 2013
Greenberg, Clement "Towards a Newer Laocoon" . The Collected Essays and Criticism. Ed. O'Brian, John. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986. 22-38. FFAR 250_Contemporary Issues: Visual &Performing Arts in the Canadian Context. Ed. MJ Thompson. Montreal, Concordia University 2013
Kirby, Michael "The New Theatre". The Art of Time: Essays on the Avant-Garde. New York, EP Dutton and Co., 1969, 75-102. FFAR 250_Contemporary Issues: Visual &Performing Arts in the Canadian Context. Ed. MJ Thompson. Montreal, Concordia University 2013