All is Vanity: Photography and Time

For the next few months the National Gallery of Canada will be featuring a photographic exhibit, Clocks for Seeing: Photography, Time and Motion. The exhibit title references a passage of Roland Barthes Camera Lucida:

For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches — and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.[1]

Barthes’ conception of the connectedness between photography and time is explored in the exhibit through different photographic installations. The exhibit features two photographs from the photographer Eadweard (or Edward) Muybridge. These two photographs are from Muybridge’s later work studying motion. Rebecca Solnit in her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West examines Muybridge’s works. Interesting she also emphasizes the connectedness of Muybridge’s photographs and time, explaining (in a discussion of Muybridge’s early panoramas) that “to look at a panorama is to look at time.”[2] Solnit uses Muybridge’s panoramas of San Francisco to illustrate the ways in which the panoramas reflects (and arguably does not reflect) ongoing tensions in the city.


“Annie G. galloping” Eadweard Muybridge 1884

Solnit also roots Muybridge’s work to the development of film studies. This establishment of film as an extension of photography is illustrated in other installations in the Clocks for Seeing exhibit, including a piece (my favourite) done by Adad Hannah titled All is Vanity (Mirrorless Version.) The installation is a combination of theatre and video. The installation is a recreation of Charles Allan Gilbert’s 1892 piece All is Vanity. Gilbert is well known for creating illustrations that featured illusions or double images. In All is Vanity a young woman looks at herself in a mirror. The mirror, woman, and her reflection however form another image, one of a skull.

"All is Vanity" Charles Allan GIlbert 1892

“All is Vanity” Charles Allan GIlbert 1892

For his piece, Hannah recreated Gilbert’s illustration using a replica set and two identical twins. Hannah recorded this video, and it plays on a screen as the front of the instillation. Except for blinking and slight movement, the twins remain completely still. Behind the screen, observers can see the recreated set. This double image appears to be a nod to Gilbert’s original illustration in that it features images within an images. Additionally it also is reminiscent of a stereoscope, featuring multiple images that come together to present a three-dimensional image. Coincidentally Muybridge also produced stereoscopic images.

"All is Vanity" (Mirrorless Version) Adad Hannah 2009

“All is Vanity” (Mirrorless Version) production photo, Adad Hannah 2009

Additionally All is Vanity (Mirrorless Version) also draws attention to the reflective aspects of photography. Susan Smith in American Archvies discusses the reflection of self in photography. She relates how there was some social anxiety over the depiction of an authentic self in photography. Gilbert’s illustration speaks to this. The woman’s reflection depicts her true self, and her true character, vanity. Contrastingly, seeming to work against Gilbert’s desire to bring attention to the futility of vanity, the woman in the illustration obtains immortality through art.

In the text panel accompanying All is Vanity (Mirrorless Version) it is highlighted that like the woman in the illustration, the video strives but fails to achieve stasis. Similarly Muybridge’s “Annie G” galloping strives to portray movement, however instead captures and imprisons multiple moments. Contrastingly both obtain a position of semi-stasis or semi-movement. By being captured on film, they are immortal. However both continue to move in time, from gallery to gallery

Evidently, Clocks for Seeing is a compelling exhibit that promotes (or at least in me) deep thinking over the conception and recreation of time. If possible and feasible, I encourage you to visit!

[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), 15.

[2] Susan Solnit, Skinning the City,” in River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003), 155-160.


Photography Posts

Hello there!

Over the next few months I’ll be creating a series of blog posts that have to do with photography as a requirement for a course I’m taking. I will try and keep these posts accessible, while also connecting them back to in-class readings. It’s highly probably that due to my interests these posts will somehow come back around to performance, theatre, and film. The first post will be coming this week. If you hate them, tune back in April for your regularly scheduled programming!



1795 Boston Time Capsule sealed by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere Opened

Boston time capsule: Sealed box buried in 1795 by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere finally reveals its treasures

by Adam Withnall, Jan 7th 2015, for the Independent here.

Historians have opened up America’s oldest time capsule – buried more than 200 years ago by some of the US’s most iconic Revolutionary figures – and they had every right to be excited.

“This is the stuff of history,” said Boston museum director Michael Comeau as the contents of the box were painstakingly removed on Tuesday.

The capsule was placed in the cornerstone of the “New” Massachusetts Statehouse when its construction began in 1795.

According to a plaque, it was buried by renowned figures of American history including the early industrialist Paul Revere and the then-Massachusetts governor Samuel Adams.

Museum officials had believed that the contents were shifted to a copper box in 1855 before being replaced in the building foundations. On Tuesday, that box was discovered to in fact be brass.

Inside, conservators counted out five tightly-folded newspapers, a medal depicting George Washington, the elaborate silver plaque, the historic seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and 24 coins – including one dating to 1655, making it more ancient than the oldest building still standing in Boston.

The process of simply taking the items out of the box was “like brain surgery”, Boston Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers told CNN. “Could we actually go through the whole box, or would things prove too fragile to take out?”

Pam Hatchfield, the head of objects conservation at the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum and the woman tasked with removing the items with apparatus including her grandfathers’ dentists’ tools, said the papers in particular were in “amazingly good condition”.

Executive Director of the Massachusetts Archives, Michael Comeau, and MFA conservator Pam Hatchfield open up the time capsule Executive Director of the Massachusetts Archives, Michael Comeau, and MFA conservator Pam Hatchfield open up the time capsule While conservators didn’t try to unfold them, the newspapers were stored in such a way that the names were partially visible – one might have been a copy of the Boston Evening Traveller — a newspaper operation that was eventually absorbed into the current Boston Herald.

A portion of one of the papers that was visible showed a listing of the arrivals of whaling ships from various ports to Boston.

The oldest coin in the box was a 1652 “Pine Tree Schilling,” made at a time when the colony didn’t have royal authority to create its own currency. Pine trees were a valuable commodity at the time, generally used as ship masts.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (L) and Hatchfield look at artefacts removed from the capsule Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (L) and Hatchfield look at artefacts removed from the capsule Michael Comeau, executive director of the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum, said he has seen the coins offered for as much at $75,000, although given the context of this particular coin and the association with Paul Revere andSamuel Adams, the value would likely be much higher.

Massachusetts state Secretary William Galvin said he expects the items will be on display at the museum for a period of time, but that eventually they will again be returned to the foundation to be discovered by a future generation of Bay State residents.

Galvin said he didn’t know if modern items might be added to the foundation.