Photography and Time

Photography and time are inextricably related in many ways.

Most immediately, a photograph is created in a finite, measurable period or exposure time. Its effect will greatly influence the appearance of the photograph. Whether a moving subject will appear sharp or blurred are examples of this. Exposure time is a corner stone of every photograph.

One second time exposure, East Beach, South Dartmouth, Massachusetts

The passage of time after a picture is made is another factor that affects the meaning. Photographs are often referred to as a moment frozen in time. As time passes and the distance grows between the frozen moment of the past and the present, circumstances change, and with them meaning. This is why family pictures are so treasured. Take your ordinary snap shot. When you make it, it shows a family member as they are now. Put it in a drawer and forget it for a few years. Pull it out and use it to compare how a person has grown in the ensuing years. Put it back in the drawer and forget it until the subject has died. Dig it back out and the photograph has an entirely new significance. Years later it will be your decedents looking at the photograph from yet another perspective.

Ask any one, “If you were fleeing from your burning house and could take one armload of possessions, what would you take?” Photo album would be on that list. Photographs can have very high value.

And then a funny thing happens. After several generations there is a disconnect. When the subject is beyond living memory and not an exceptional individual in the eyes of history the interest and value leaves the photograph. They are often stored away in the basement, attic, or trash – some are donated to photographic archives.

kid at Christmas with tree and model train, circa 1935

Unidentified child at Christmas, ca. 1935, Negative was found in the dump

My perspective came in several forms.

For the recognizable views, streetscapes and such I was always comparing what was to what was left – and then doing the figuring as to what had caused the change. In a few instances I made contemporary views of earlier recorded scenes. This is a guaranteed formula to make photographs of interest. It is a common practice. In one example a group of photographers retraced and rephotographer the 19th century western explorer photographers. It was called the Rephotographic Survey.

In my tenure as curator of photography at the New Bedford Whaling Museum I presided over thousand of 19th century portraits. Value was there to be extracted, but for reasons that had nothing to do with why they were originally made. With family connections severed interest turned to styles of dress, occupation, station in the community and the historic process by which the photograph was made. At that time I had only experienced the passing of less than three decades. I spent my days with tens of thousands of images of 19th century New Bedford, but it was a different place ten decades later. Up the street at the Standard Times – the local newspaper – their name for their archive was the morgue. Which is accurate. The people in the photographs are dead after all. But I never though of our collection in those terms. I see in photographs eternal life.

Tirrell & Martin, JSM 4053 ca 1922

Intersection of Union and Purchase Streets, New Bedford, Massachusetts, ca 1922 Joseph Martin photographer, Star Store, right, is now UMass Dartmouth Art Building Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Another way I saw this collection was through the eyes of my fellow photographers. Sure they were long gone, but with enough of a photographers’ work at hand you can tell a whole lot – plenty of which the photographer conveys unintentionally. But learning about a workers’ methods you can understand the choices they made and their creative process. At the heart of any photographers’ work is their vision, or seeing. This is a uniquely personal act. Through their seeing you can know the individual. I believe this is as close to immortality as one can come. I think it is a principal motivation to make art. Artists continue to be heard across the ages long after their contemporaries are forgotten.

James Allen (detail), Fairhaven, Massachusetts, ca. 1888 Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum


To really understand why a photograph looks as it does go out and make a simular view. That isn’t what I was thinking at the time – but Martin and I both made these shop view with 8×10 view cameras.

Tirrell & Martin M-304, Pierce & Kilborne, Fairhaven 1920

Whaleboat Construction at Pierce and Kilborne, Fairhaven, Massachusetts, 1920, Joseph Martin photographer

Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

NW Beetle, Leo steaming a plank, 10_79

Beetle Cat boat shop, Leo Telesmanick steaming a plank, October 1979


I left as guardian of that stable of photographers to concentrate on being a photographer. I enjoyed their company and know them intimately. I have many relationships with other photographers and artists, living and dead.

John Rudiak, Taos NM 9-25-96

Perhaps the strangest but obviously inevitable thing to happen was to have friend and fellow photographer, John Rudiak die. Since I know this body of work better than anyone I have assisted with organizing it. Where we once worked together in the field, in the lab, and in critique, he has stopped and I am still moving ahead, ahead and away. He lives in his work. More distilled and certainly less fun, but the ideas are there. I can and go to the work when I wish to visit.

As the decades have passed my perspective has changed. I now find myself curator of my own archive. This site has been an impetus to organize and evaluate what I’ve done. Photographs are made one at a time. You can’t fully understand what you are doing while you are doing it. A dispassionate review well after the shutter has clicked is much more objective. The work is evaluated in large part by comparing it to other photographs one has made. In editing, ideas, patterns and concepts are revealed. With the passage of time comes a revised perspective. It might be the best part of aging.

Time weaves its way through photographs in many changing ways.