Thursday, January 19, 2012

An Investment in Time

photo by Michael Chrisman

Everyone tends to think of photography in terms of moments caught in the blink of an eye. Philosophically, we get that from Henri Cartier-Bresson and his Decisive Moment approach to photography, but in practical terms, just look at the shutter speeds on our cameras; they are all in fractions of a second. When I began photographing, my Olympus OM-1n had a top shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second. Now it’s not uncommon to have 1/8000 of a second in higher-end cameras. 

But the fractions of a second are only part of the story of photography. Working in low light or night settings, or with slow ISO settings and high f-stops, and you will find your shutter settings extending past the fractions of a second and into full seconds and even minutes. In my Japanese Garden series, Visual Haiku, I once had an exposure of 30 minutes for one shot. It was just after sun-up on a cloudy, foggy day and there just wasn’t very much light to work with, though the end results were magical. 

Well, another photographer, Michael Chrisman, has taken the idea of long exposures to its extreme. Using a home-made pinhole camera, Chrisman made an image of the Toronto skyline that took one year to expose. That’s right, a one year exposure. Not a second or an hour or even several hours, but every day for a year the camera was exposing the paper inside the camera and building up an exposure of that city. I’ve never heard of a longer exposure than that. The light, diagonal streaks in the sky of the image are the traces of the sun as it traveled across the sky over the course of a year. The resulting image is more interesting for how it was made than for what it looks like, but it still has a subtle charm of its own. You can read the story about Michael Chrisman and his project here.