"The decisive moment." Perhaps this is most resonant and compelling phrase in all photography. Back in the 1950s, in the golden age of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson used it to define his approach to picture-making. Being French, he'd borrowed the idea from a philosopher priest of the seventeenth century, Cardinal de Retz, who said: "There is nothing in the world that does not have a decisive moment."
Of course, at the time of the cardinal's original statement the camera (obscura) was a visual aid for contemplative painters, like Vermeer, who used it to create a mood of perpetual stillness. Eternal time.
Cartier-Bresson used his camera to the very opposite effect: "To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression."
Revealingly, the French title of the memoir that he called in English "The Decisive Moment" was "Images la Sauvette", which has quite a different resonance, and none of the cardinal's grandeur. Some people translate the phrase as "Images on the Run", others more sardonically as "Images on the Sly". Stolen time.
To this day, photographers who seek to catch life on the wing still have the grand master's words in English ringing in their minds, or even deeper in their psyche. And quite a few who still try to grab a living from photojournalism carry the thought, if not the actual French phrase, deep in their sub-conscious.
We know that, from its very beginnings as a recording device, the art of the camera had a much more complex relationship to time than simply that of the journalist on assignment. After all, there was nothing decisive about the first captured images. In these, time is coagulated, often generating languorous, sumptuous images. And the traditions of painting were hard to shake off; so many nineteenth-century photographers played with historical time, imagined time, invented time.
Writing as an artist myself, whose main tool is the digital camera, I notice just how much camerawork today slips and slides through time - how it reflects the complex and paradoxical and even troubled relationship we have developed with the fourth dimension. For many of us now, marching decisively and progressively into a new, improved future seems an altogether more uncertain business than it appeared to be half-a-century ago, when Cartier-Bresson was in his prime.
Some our wisest forebears have always questioned just how straight and true is the aim of the arrow of time. One of the founding fathers of modernity itself, Albert Einstein, declared: "The separation between past, present and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one." And that most mischievous of modernists, Vladimir Nabokov, went even further: "I confess I do not believe in time".
When FAB2014 invited ideas for exhibitions I put forward TIMESLIP as a proposal, and was delighted when they accepted it. I was even more delighted when the organisers of the festival proved to be so open-minded and supportive. My intention is to show as many different approaches to the theme of time as is practical in the festival setting of varied mixed shows. I hope that the work stimulates thoughts about the elusive subject itself as well as offering up a rich variety of images and ideas.
I have drawn artists together through a combination of open submission and direct approach. I have loosely organised the work around themes of my own choosing, but I am confident that the all the work in this exhibition is rich enough to burst out of any straightjacket of mine.
TAKING TIME features photographic prints that are far away from the notion of the decisive moment . Three artists create images over a long stretch of time. These exposures of minutes and hours, rather than seconds, present a view of reality that is no less convincing than the one we have become used to.
Bill Jackson looks out to sea after dark, and reveals a world just beyond our perception - beautiful, richly coloured, with a presence that evokes the meditative paintings of Mark Rothko.
Bill says of his Dark Light series: "Standing on a beach, staring into total darkness, if you stare long enough you will see the edge of the world. It's this world that I wanted to visualise. It is not the light of spring and summer but the light of autumn and winter, when the world is 'dying'..."
Dominic Pote moves his camera through space as he creates an image. He abandons the shutter that is so essential to create the shards of time of most photography. He explains: "The short exposure enables us to capture ‘reality’ -or as I might call it, a ‘slice of reality- in detail. But I feel it also removes a dimension of reality - the dimension of time. Time does not stop in our experienced reality and we are not able to stop a fraction of a second in our minds as the camera does. Time by its very nature is continuous."
Alexander Hamilton abandons the camera altogether, and adopts a technology introduced in the 1850s - the cyanotype, the original blueprint. It was devised to reproduce documents, maps and engineering drawings. The object is placed directly onto the print paper, which is exposed to sunlight and then washed with water. In Alexander's case the objects are invariably plants, their essence captured with subtlety and delicacy.
He tells us: "I am drawn to this technique because of its capacity to create unique images, each made by the plant’s natural materials. The flower petals leave a trace, a unique deposit, on the paper. The final result contains the essence of each plant, displayed in rich tones of blue, creating a contemplative work of art."
In TELLING TIME six artists observe the process of time unfolding.
Annabel Crocker-Mellor also focuses on plants, subtly-coloured flowers, caught at the point where the bud will soon open or when the petals are starting to lose their vitality. These emotionally-charged images evoke the remind us of the vanitas paintings of the seventeenth century.
Annabel explains: "I'm fascinated by the process of transformation, the drying, curling and arching, fading and crisping. The colours and forms express feelings of fragility, life, loss, beauty, decay - I see something of the portrait in them, a sense of movement and conversation."
Benjamin Else meditates on the passing of time in his multiple image of a family clock that becomes a mute memorial for a deceased relative.
Tick-tock…..doesn't go the clock.....
That has stopped.....frozen in time at 5.23
Am or pm?....unknown
His primary function?.....ceased
But still he stands.....he lives on.....
Julie Cassels is "fascinated by the relationship between the still image, the photographic sequence and the moving image. The Full Circle Series looks at breaking time down into captured moments and putting them together again.
" The images show moments in time, capturing the flow of the fabric, offering the opportunity to consider movement and its activation of surfaces."
Timothy Shepard also revisits Edward Muybridge's dissection of movement in what he calls an "autopoetic composition" that is based on close observation of natural elements, such as rivers and clouds.
He describes his method: " Observation works consider the idea of whole system thinking. 16 or 8mm cine frames are taken manually at regular intervals of a fixed point on a system over a measured period of time. The processed film is scanned and each frame is laid out in sequential order left to right in a grid, and in the order in which they were shot. "
Geoff Dunlop is fascinated by the fact that so much of what we see reveals layers of time, like the strata in rock. In his images he tracks processes that started billions of years ago and which can see in continuing action today - on a Somerset coastline that crumbles before forces mightier than rock - in the ancient column and dust-layered door in Palermo - in the remnants of an industrial landscape that romantically rots in a world that has no further use for it.
He comments: "Like most of my current work, these images grow out of a deep fascination with the phenomenon of FLOW, one of the fundamental processes of existence. Flow is also a guiding principle to the way we might choose to live ... or perhaps. in this time of rising crisis, it is the way we need to live."
Melanie King presents soap bubbles as metaphors for the brevity of life. She says: "Cosmologists believe that the universe is just a quantum fluctuation from nothingness, much like a soap bubble disappears almost as soon as it is blown into existence.
"We are part of an expanding universe, and from outside of our relative time perhaps we are akin to that soap bubble to an outside observer, popping in and out of existence just as quickly as we emerged."
DREAMTIME is a category which seems to be growing exponentially, perhaps in response to the new freedoms offered by digital technology or perhaps because the photographic image has sated us with the real. This is the time zone of the imagination, the unconscious, a time out of time, you could say.
Emili Bermudez, from Tenerife, creates a world we can recognise even though it does not exist in "reality", a place where memory meets emotion. Emili often juxtaposes fragments her own poetry to resonate with the poetry of the image.
From her Celeste website: "By her photographs, we go into the paths of light in gloom, through its presence or the shades of its absence. Shocking the retina, transforming us into chiaroscuro voyeurs, making us feel that shadows, without touching us, can caress us better than anybody."
Alexandre Woelffel, from France, creates a more disturbing territory, where anxiety and tension fill the air - but it too is private world that can only be seen through these fragments that appear to have escaped from the artist's mind.
He writes: "I think of my work not as a product but as a birth. Birth of polymorphic beings, sometimes misshapen, that instil compassion, fear, disgust - or all three at the same time. Characters who are close to me and have been with me from my beginning."
TEMPS PERDU is the lost time of the novelist Marcel Proust. Fragments of the familiar, even the trivial, are woven into a narrative of meaning and feeling. The four artists in this category imply these narratives. It is for the viewer of their images to join up the dots - if they so choose.
Nancy Mitchell works on the intimate scale of the letter. Her modest sheets of A4 are handmade paper that she has crafted herself, deepening the sense of intimacy still further. She writes: "Neither letter, message, nor picture, my work aims to occupy these liminal spaces; ambiguous and layered in meaning.
" The distinctions between our ‘self’ and our objects become blurred as people express themselves through their possessions. Objects, both inherited and second-hand, have the potential to weave powerful stories, real and imagined."
Susan Boyle scatters her smallscale images across the gallery space, as if defying the potential for the narrative to cohere. She is exploring chance and change: "I am interested in the conditions that sometimes start a whole chain of events that can disrupt our planned course of action and ultimately alter both ourselves and our lives in unexpected ways.
" The images in my photographic work often signify occurrences or incidents we may encounter that can often imperceptibly affect us but could also be significant elements of change in our own lives and those around us."
Laura Frances Doggett offers the smallest, quietist, most directly personal image in an exhibition that is filled with scale and colour and bold effect. But its very modesty has an impact no less significant than the most decisive of statements in the show:
" We sat together after the funeral, and he showed me photos and he told me stories. Stories of their life together, stories that came before and stories that came after. And in that moment she was still here and he was young and he was old, and I was with them."
Chris Robinson's mirrored installation is inspired by the transgressive writer William Burroughs, whose centenary falls this year. Burroughs believed that, by taking photographs, you could travel through time. Chris borrows some of Burrough's techniques as a tribute to a fellow time traveller.
MOVING THROUGH TIME is a set of video projections on a continuous loop, and one performance piece.
Joseph Ismail's clock in a soap dish presents a wry commentary on the way time dissolves in our hands ... and provokes a host of other thoughts on futility, and the remorselessness of the passing moment.
Andrew Payne observes the unremarkable passing through time, with a concentration that reignites the strangeness of the familiar.
Claire Manning is fascinated by " the shifting nature of the gaze; in the difference between what’s looked at and what’s actually seen that calls into question the very self-understanding of the one who observes."
Caroline Wilkins collaborates with two other artists, Rees Archibald and Oded Ben-Tal, to make a piece in which " traces become evidence of a passing sketch, aesthetic remnants, chance events that are transitory, irregular: moments of fluxus or change that occur within the perpetual 'now' of time. The title of our work, Mitslalim (Sonorities of Shadows) refers to sonic echoes and the juxtaposition of multiple, moving shadows in slow motion
Geoff Dunlop has produced an ambient work, intended to be glimpsed and occasionally gazed at, in the way that we most usually observe the world around us -in passing. It is a single screen reworking of an immersive video that observes the ceaseless choreography that is created by the Wind.
In Susan Brinkhurst's performance piece, Domestic Bliss, she presents the mundane, the familiar in a way that invites fresh thought. During the performance she makes " true to scale images of everyday objects as rubbings on to cloth. Using the method of frottage they are a search for the identity of objects, revealing the trace elements and rituals of the domestic life. It is these objects and how we use them that define our lives, giving them shape."
For more information feel free to contact the curator of TIMESLIP and co-curator of TIMEZONE, Geoff Dunlop' at the above email address or on +44 777 555 7726
In TIMEZONE, the companion exhibition to TIMESLIP, we intend to animate the spaces between the images on display with performance and discussion, in which ideas and feelings about time can be further explored. For more details please see the TIMEZONE blog on this website.
I confess, I do not believe in time. VLADIMIR NABAKOV
We must face up to the fact that, at least in the case of humans, the subject experiencing subjective time is not a perfect, structureless observer, but a complex, multilayered, multifaceted psyche. Different levels of our consciousness may experience time in quite different ways.
PAUL DAVIES About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution