The following essay appears in But Still, It Turns, edited by Paul Graham and published by MACK earlier this month. The book accompanies an exhibition of the same name showing at International Center of Photography (ICP) until May 9.
Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography
I don’t know whose side you’re on,
But I am here for the people
Who work in grocery stores that glow in the morning
And close down for deep cleaning at night.
—Jericho Brown, “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry”
Now, wherever and whenever that is for you
Dark stars inked on the palm of a raised hand. A tiny blackbird alone in the gaping, giant world of a street curb. Someone crouching in asphalt-baked sun in a position of prayer or pain or ecstasy, or perhaps all of the above. A guy kneeling to cut open a watermelon as two mothers perch on the edge of a gas station parking lot, their children swarming close. The craggy shadow in the desert cast by a rock face; the man in a poncho crossing a thin creek over tall, shadowy grasses. The herculean act of pushing a massive tree down the middle of a rural Alabama street. A young boy fitting his small body in the space between tire rim and hub of a car, draped around the curve of the wheel. The frozen, shouting faces of a lineup of white cheerleaders some sixty years ago and, in an image from perhaps the same year, a white mother teaching her little girl to shoot a gun. A deer running down a highway embankment, between roads.
We know that a photograph lives in multiple eras at once: the time of its making, the time of its unveiling, the various eras of its subsequent rediscovery. Lazy language has us reaching for the trope of “capturing” “a moment.” Similarly it is ingrained in us to look at photographs as stilled time, as past. But even this is a relative condition. The perception of the past is split in the act of remembering: how a moment first appeared, how it is seen differently later and reseen again, taken out of isolation, reshaped by knowledge and context. How the singular is part of a larger sequence.
When the experience of the present is overwhelmingly and radically altered, the grammar of time is disrupted, too. Verbs no longer conjugate cleanly into their compartmentalized dimensions of past, present, and future; actions and thoughts loop back on one another. Linearity disappears. An analog clock, repetitive and circular, winding and ticking, is more relevant than the calendar. Strike twelve once again. Sometimes we inhabit all the tenses and eras at once.
As I lived with the images in But Still, It Turns over many months, as they became markedly more immediate, speaking with startling prescience to unfolding events that they preceded by years, that they had perhaps on some level intuited, I began to understand their shared subject as the nature of time itself: how we perceive it, how we exist in it, how it exists in us, how it connects us. Read More