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.


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