Varieties of Time

| March 28, 2016

… we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among ‘the children of this world,’ in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. ~Walter Pater

Minor White, known primarily for being a photographer, was also a prolific poet, and in the minds of many also a mystic. Mysticism at its simplest is the acknowledgment that there is more to reality than material existence. Independent of any meaning assigned to it by various myths and philosophies, non-material reality is readily proven by our best science, which creates an interesting dichotomy between materialist scientists who are reluctant to accept that some things are not just unknown but unknowable; and those promoting various superstitions who proclaim to actually know what is patently unknowable.

I consider among the most important things to happen in my lifetime discoveries such as the Higgs boson and the detection of gravitation waves, both indicating that material existence, and the very dimensions of space and time in which we exist do not comply with the limited perception of reality formed by our animal senses and our bounded, prejudiced and dissonance-prone intellect. It is a fact that we know much more about reality from mathematics than we could ever hope to learn from our senses; and that much of what we know to be true from mathematical models, we are incapable of understanding intellectually. It may be true that seeing is believing but as is often demonstrated by both science and superstition, believing can profoundly transcend the sphere of what we know to be true, let alone what we are able to see.

Returning to Minor White’s mysticism, among his cryptic sayings that I found worthy of contemplation is this: “As I become more in harmony with the world around, through, and in me, the varieties of time weave together.” Although some scientific models posit more than the three dimensions of space we are aware of, it is commonly accepted that we exist in only one dimension of time. I have never heard elsewhere of time having varieties. And yet it is true that our subjective perception of time is decidedly varied.

We are all time travelers, although for reasons we do not fully understand, and that are not mandated by any law of physics we know, we seem to only be able to move in one direction, which we arbitrarily refer to as “forward.” Astronomer Arthur Eddington, in 1927, dubbed the term “the arrow of time” to describe the one-way nature of our progression through time. Albert Einstein demonstrated that time, in fact, is a far more ambiguous concept than what our perception suggests; its rate of passage is not constant; and it can even be warped and bent, perhaps even short-cut by wormholes. Time is one of those areas where science offers philosophy and mysticism a view of reality that lends itself to profoundly existential interpretations (often to the chagrin of so many materialist scientists). Consider, for example, that if one was able to take a ride on a photon, moving at the speed of light, time would become meaningless; everything would seem to happen at the same time with no cause or effect, the beginning would be the end, even if an observer on Earth, or elsewhere, may perceive them as happening in sequence over prolonged periods. In that sense, we can characterize our perception of the passage of time as merely a side effect of moving slower than light, or as a byproduct of having mass.

Even when measured accurately from a consistent point of reference, our perception of time varies with our state of mind. Most readers, I’m sure, are familiar with the effect of being engaged in some tedious task and checking the time frequently, often with the realization, “has it really only been 10 minutes? feels like a lifetime.” Or, on the opposite end, when immersed in something enjoyable and satisfying, being surprised to learn that more time had passed since we last checked than we thought. I believe that these subjective perceptions are what White referred to as the varieties of time; which also explains why, when in harmony with the world, they seem to weave together. When in harmony, free of anxiety, discomfort and ruthless schedules, there is no reason for us to be consciously concerned with the passage of time, or what numeric designation happens to be assigned to any particular moment by a chronometer. As William Faulkner expressed poetically, “Clocks slay time. Time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”

In a roundabout way, this realization is of great importance in expressive photography—that is, photography aimed at expressing the thoughts and feelings of the photographer, rather than to just fix appearances. In particular, we refer to images that inspire harmony with the world as timeless—literally without the dimension of time, and possessing an effect that is not diminished with the passage of time, and that exists independent of any particular moment, including the moment in which the photograph was made. We like to believe that such images are expressive of the state of mind of the photographer at the scene; that he or she actually felt the things inspired in us by seeing the resulting image; and was, in Minor White’s words, in harmony with the world.

I am often confronted with the disconnect between what people believe a photograph expresses and the actual state of mind of the photographer. I recall a particular incident at a well-known viewpoint in a National Park, when two obnoxious gentlemen arrived on the scene just as a magnificent light show was peaking. Their loud exchange, laden with profanity, left little doubt as to their state of mind. After just a few minutes and several clicks of the shutter, one said to the other: “OK, got the shot; let’s go get some bleepin’ breakfast.” The images captured, I’m sure, were of sublime beauty owing to the beauty of the scene, rather than the photographer’s experience. Fortunately for him and his viewers the images likely expressed nothing of the actual thoughts and feelings of its maker.

So often I run into photographers in such places who are in a rush, engaged in smalltalk, anxiously checking their phones, or otherwise unengaged in the experience their viewers may be misled to believe they had. I have even seen it on occasions when photographer poses for a “hero shot” in some spectacular setting, attempting perhaps to emphasize that they are “having fun,” or that their experience is to be envied, when in fact they spent much of their time worrying about the production of that image, running back and forth between the camera and their desired pose, rather than appreciating the magic that was unfolding before their eyes.

Just like the varieties of time weave together for the photographer who is in a state of harmony with the world, I believe that we should also aim for such harmony between our inner impression at the scene and that of our audience when viewing our work; otherwise, what is the point of making the photograph in the first place? How sad it is when a viewer believes the photographer had a beautiful and meaningful experience, when in fact he or she did not, and the experience communicated is but a manufactured production. And how silly it is to favor someone else’s impression of our experience over actually having that experience.

Undoubtedly, our life and art are more rewarding when we arrive at a point where our subjective impressions of an experience—our “varieties of time”— weave together in harmony. And I believe also that we are better artists and members of society when our work helps our viewers transcend their own anxieties and discords, and accomplish the same. If we accomplish the latter but not the former, we risk the opposite effect. If we accomplish the former without the latter, then why bother making art at all? Are we not all significantly better off when we can do both?

A Time to Rest

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (4)

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  1. richard t. o'kell says:

    Good discussion.

  2. Steve says:

    What a wonderfully woven article. Time, philosophy, photography all brought together in one existential basket. With so much material you make it truly difficult to bring forth a salient comment.
    “Only when the clock stops does time come to life.” As photographers we are in the business of stopping time and in that stoppage we truly live. When we are “in harmony with the world” and the clock has stopped we are more alive and “time … become(s) meaningless”. It is significant that the stopping of “the arrow of time” creates the artifact that we call photography. It is also significant that the moment the clock stops, the moment of harmony, when we are truly alive, can and does exist even without photography. Which is something the “trophy hunters” cannot even conceive of. Now I’ve taken my share of trophies, ticked off the f stops, done the composition, previsuaized, but I’d rather just lose myself in the moment, camera or no camera. Then time means nothing and I have truly lived

  3. You can always get me talking about this topic! Einstein made time the equivalent of space in terms of the mathematics he was using, and as we know his math dovetailed as well as it ever does with reality. But math is the tool not the explanation. Neither he nor we in our commonsense perceptions of time ever go in reverse. Physicists haven’t got a good explanation, but the arrow of time appears to be inviolable. But that doesn’t mean it will always be, at least effectively, or that the past is particularly distant (it may be nanometers from our very noses). My goal is to capture in an image or in prose that feeling I’ve experienced, on just 3 or 4 occasions, where I can barely detect the past that took place in wherever I happen to be at that moment. I have to know a lot about that past is the thing. It doesn’t just appear as in a vision.

    I know what you mean. It seems like I’ve seen a lot of people recently who appear to be waiting to watch the sun rise or set, and they seem happy for a few minutes. But then I notice them leaving before the sun breaks the horizon. I’ve never ever thought of doing such a thing! To be that impatient and bored with the pace of a ‘timeless’ natural event? Strange.

  4. Misha says:

    Personally, I find photography most powerful in its lack of a time dimension. A photograph is omnipresent and exists, within the bounds of its frame, unchanging and everywhere at once. The joy in appreciating it is to be able to hold it fixed in your gaze, to take in the whole or to closely examine a detail, and to be able to do so at your own pace, again because the photograph exists independently from the passage of time.

    This can be compared to music, which to me is the quintessential time-dependent art form. The very nature of music is in the time relationships of beats and pitches to make rhythms and melodies. By its nature, you can only appreciate music in the moment, and when it’s over, it’s over (unless you listen to the piece again). Music can only be experienced directly and concomitantly with the passage of time, which is quite unlike a photograph.