It’s reality, Jim, but not as we know it!
My camera is a space-time art machine.
I’ve been thinking about what cameras are for and what they can do, and how I feel about my own photography and writing. I’ve decided that I’m an artist who works in the media of photography and words. It’s the ‘artist’ part that’s most important to me because it means that I have more freedom in my work than a documentary maker or journalist. I was inspired to think about these things because of some conversations I’ve had with people who feel that a camera is a way to record snapshots of reality. Yes, they can do that, and it’s very handy if you want to demonstrate the existence of a cat or document a current event. Cameras, though, can do a lot more than just capture a moment. They are machines that let you make art from space-time! I don’t use exclamation marks lightly, but I think that’s a statement worthy of one.
We’ve all seen lightning, but with a camera we can see a sky filled with strikes that happened over many minutes. The camera allows us to interpret reality in creative ways and to see it anew.
In this edition of Homescreen I’ll explore the idea of a camera as a space-time art machine, but don’t worry, I’m not going to go all angsty artist on you. The status of the discussion is #notthatcomplicated and hopefully #quiteinteresting and it will be studded with lovely photographs. I’ll also explore what makes graphic art different from the art of photography and share some of my own recent graphic work.
Why do I think that my camera is a space-time art machine, you ask? Well, a camera allows us to gather up time and light and to blend them into an image. We can use this ability to interpret reality in creative ways and to see it anew, which is arguably a workable definition of art itself. In other words, cameras are machines that lets us use space-time to make art.
The Cathedral of St Michael and St George, Makhanda, with light trails from passing cars. The camera gathered up all the light in the minute or so that the shutter was open and let me create an image that contrasts the solid permanence of the magnificent Cathedral with the fleeting motion of the hundreds of cars that pass it daily.
The ability a camera gives us to see the world in new ways is the main reason I love photography. I particularly like to use long exposures to do this. I’ll keep the shutter open for anything from half a second to two minutes depending on what I’m trying to achieve in the photograph. For the time that the shutter is open the camera gathers up all the light from the region of space-time in the frame and synthesises it into an image. A long exposure photograph lets us see simultaneously everything that happened in that particular area of space-time while the shutter was open. It’s reality, Jim, but not as we know it! I think of these photographs as expanded moments and as I create them with the camera I create art with space-time. No other device I can think of is able to do this.
A camera is a machine for turning space-time into art. It lets us gather up all the light from the region of space-time in the frame for as long as the shutter is open. The camera synthesises the light into something new, which I think of as an expanded moment. This photo of the 1820 Settlers National Monument at the heart of the 2022 National Arts Festtival is made from 2 minutes of space-time. It’s reality, Jim, but not as we know it.
Using a camera to explore the world like this gives me a sense of connection with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything, and a feeling that the meaning and purpose of it all may not be as alien and inaccessible as it so often seems. I hope that as I share with you some of the expanded moments that I’ve made with my space-time art machine you’ll feel some of these feelings too.
Making photographs gives me a sense of peace and a feeling that the meaning and purpose of life may not be as incomprehensible as it so often seems.
Light-trail photographs are a great illustration of the way that a camera gathers up all the light from the region of space-time that is in the frame for however long the shutter is open and synthesises it into a single image. The light trails from car headlights represent the cumulative motion of vehicles through the frame for the duration of the exposure.
Looking back towards Makhanda from Stones Hill. Can you see the light trail coming down the hill from the Toposcope? I was happy that whoever was up there chose this moment to come down the hill. Thanks! Also thanks to the universe for the pretty sunset.
The Makhanda City Hall with the ‘200 years’ neon sign that was installed in 2019 to commemorate the founding of the city in 1819, and which through some sort of miracle still works. The sign, not the city.
Photography has been an artform since 1827 when a French person by the name of Nicéphore Niépce captured light for the first time (see the photo here). Luckily, ‘Niépcegraph’ didn’t take. I use many tools and techniques to make photos that I feel to be beautiful and meaningful and that interpret reality in creative ways. After the camera and lenses, software such as Photoshop is the most powerful tool available in the art of digital photography. Software is as necessary to the digital photographer as the darkroom is to the film photographer. Image processing software can and has been used to deceive, but that doesn’t mean that every image developed with software is somehow fake, which seems to be how some people feel. This misunderstands the process of developing digital photographs and makes assumptions about photography that are not true across all the genres of the medium. Photography is not purely documentary, it’s equally an artform.
The artistic potential of the camera is why photography is not only a documentary medium. I used a number of techniques to develop these photos. The process of applying these techniques in photoshop is analogous to the process of applying development techniques in the dark room.
Just as there is a process to developing photos shot on film there is a process to developing digital photographs from the raw image captured by a camera. Those raw images are actually called .raw files, which to me signifies that they are the start of a creative process. Raw files gather as much data as possible in order to provide the photographer with the greatest potential to develop their images. After the shoot, software replaces the dark room. Many of the techniques available in software are actually electronic versions of techniques that were invented in the darkroom. ‘Dodge’ and ‘burn’ for instance are darkroom techniques that were developed by such iconic photographers as Ansel Adams to lighten (dodge) or darken (burn) areas of their images, and are also an important feature in Photoshop. Just as the dark room is a place of creativity, so is the digital developing environment.
Its ability to show us reality in new ways is why there is wonder in photography. This image blends a short exposure, which captured the flames from HEAT Chef Morne Terblanche’s pan, with a long exposure that captured the light trails from cars in the street behind. A flaming instant meets an expanded moment in an image that lets us see reality in a way that we could not without the space-time art machine, the camera. Another way of thinking about this photo is that it juxtaposes photography as a documentary medium with photography as art. On one level it shows Chef Morne cheffing away and at another level it places him in a reality that we cannot see without the artistic techniques that the camera offers.
A long exposure image shows everything that takes place in the frame over the seconds that the shutter is open. People walking become a sweep of colour through the image. The composition is not rendered sequentially as it is in a video. Instead, instants are stacked on top of one another so that they are all visible cumulatively and simultaneously.
Different sets of ethics apply to different genres of photography. A documentary photographer or a photojournalist has an obligation to reproduce the scene as it exists in the instant in which they witness it because their intention is to show their audience what actually happened. They share factual information about important events, newsworthy events, and they are ethically obligated to reproduce a moment as it happened. As a landscape photographer I try to make images that express what I feel when I’m immersed in a beautiful sunrise scene at a beach, for instance, or up on Mountain Drive at sunset with the wind and the chirping frogs, or images that contrast the solidity of a significant building with the fleeting movements that happen around it. Such acts of interpretation enjoy the freedom of art and are not bound by the ethics of journalism.
As a landscape photographer I try to make images that express what I feel when I’m immersed in a beautiful sunrise scene. I don’t always use long exposures to make my photographs. Sometimes there is enough magic in the moment.
The art of digital photography has similarities to that of electronic music production. As a photographer develops a photograph in software they create ‘layers’. In each layer the artist refines the photograph in some way, for instance adjusting shadows or the saturation of colours, or blending together parts of two images, or removing something that they don’t want to be in the photograph like a plastic bag or a politician. Electronic music producers use tracks. Each track adds a new element to the music, be it drums, synthesiser sounds or vocal samples. The musician blends the tracks together to create the piece of musical art that is the song in the same way that the photographer blends the layers together to create the piece of visual art that is the photograph. Only the digital photographer faces accusations of deception, though, perhaps because the raw material of photography is the light of space-time itself and people can get upset if they feel you’re messing with reality.
To blend or ‘stack’ images is a powerful artistic technique that I use frequently. In this photo of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk in Makhanda I stacked 6 images, one exposure for the church and the sky and five or the light trails that express the church’s position at the centre of a community’s activities.
I typically compose my scene and shoot a sequence of images over minutes or even hours. The light changes constantly and certain parts of the scene are well lit at different moments. I take some shots for the sky and some for the land because the sky is brighter than the land and they need different exposures. If I’m shooting light trails then I take a number of shots as vehicles pass through the same composition. Then, I use software to review my images and to develop and blend the ones I select to create a single image that I feel best expresses the beauty and interest of the scene. This is an artistic, creative process.
In this view of Makhanda I wanted to capture how the light changes as the sun sets. I blended six images that I took from the start of sunset to full dark. The foreground with the pond is lit with the beautiful low-angle light of early sunset, while the shadows of night creep over the 1820 Settlers National Monument. The city beyond is in full dark.
The next question is, at what point does the art of digital photography become digital art or graphic design? That line is blurry, and where it lies is a matter of personal opinion and taste. I think the line is drawn by the creator’s intention. My intention is usually to make photographs in which the places are recognisable and to use artistic techniques to create an image that hopefully enables people to pause and reflect. For me, graphic art has a less place-specific approach. In fact it need not have any connection to place at all, and is a much more general interpretation of reality. ‘Souvenirs of Progress’ is a graphic artwork I made using Creative Commons images and graphic design software, CorelDraw, instead of photo developing software. All the other images I’ve shared with you so far are photographs, but these are not. They are graphic art. Their connection to reality is entirely conceptual. While my photographs may have conceptual elements they remain intimately connected to actual places. The ‘Souvenirs’ images are entirely imaginary, which for me is the point at which the art of digital photography stops and digital art starts.
'Souvenirs' Triptych. The connection between graphic art and reality is entirely conceptual. ‘Souvenirs’ evokes changes over time in the relationship between people and technology.
The book covers I’ve designed for my novels are examples of graphic design. I like to think they’re artistic but they’re primarily intended as an expression of the kind of story you can expect to read. They’re also an expression of the worldview in the book, though, and the book itself shares the camera’s ability to interpret reality in creative ways and to let us see it anew. The covers are a visual microcosm of the book and they add to its artistry.
The Eden Deception is a trilogy of supernatural adventures. The myths of north and south are a single complex web in which the characters are caught, and the covers reflect that in their design.
Midnight’s Chicken is a satirical comedy set in a book shop. The red nose on the cover features in the book and it looks kind of threatening because of what it represents in the story. What’s that, you ask? Well now, that would be a spoiler and I wouldn’t want to ruin the book for you.
My heart will always beat at a slow shutter speed but I love graphic art as well. The fact that I think of these as ‘pieces’ seems meaningful. Graphic art feels more like art for its own sake, thought-provoking but without the immediate visual connection to the real world that photography has. Photographs are certainly art, but they have a character that comes from an interaction with the environment, an immersion in the real world that is the foundation of their making.
Deep Sea. I've always been fascinated by the creatures that live in the deep sea, with their strange bodies and their glowing lights. I think this could be one. I was listening to ‘It’s Organik’ by Organik Soul when I made this.
Nostalgia. Graphic art can be about feelings and ideas in ways that are different to those of photography. It offers a more abstract approach, and one that can perhaps generate reflection in the maker and hopefully also in a person who feels drawn to it in some way.
The most important thing about my space-time art machine is that it makes it possible to create a photograph that reconnects people with a place. A photograph can reveal new beauty in places that have become mundane or even unpleasant to the people who live in them, and in doing so, it can make those people feel happier. One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a photographer is for people to say to me, ‘You made me feel a new connection to the city I’ve lived in my whole life.’ Photography is not always about recording a moment. In a world that is threatened by our lack of feeling for it, photography can change how we see the world and help to connect us to it in new ways. This is the beauty of the space-time art machine.
The next edition of Homescreen is going to be about writing. Never fear, there will also be plenty of photographs.Follow @tomjefferyhomescreen.
About Tom Jeffery | Homescreen
I am a writer and photographer. ‘Homescreen’ is my blog where my writing and photography come together in articles about interesting things. I hope you’re enjoying it, but either way, get in touch and share your thoughts.
I write humorous fiction as well as supernatural adventures. I try to write things that will make people laugh and think about the world in which we live, and feel excitement at the wonder and mystery of it all. Also maybe to scare people a little, because I’ve always loved a little horror. Not like ‘Saw’ or anything though, that’s just wrong.
I make photographs of where I live, the city of Makhanda in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, and the surrounding areas. I hope that through my photography I help people feel connected to the place in which we live. This connection is sometimes hard to maintain when we’re dealing with the frustrations of life and work in a city in which the infrastructure has failed through mismanagement, incompetence and an absence of political responsibility and accountability. Beauty remains despite these frustrations, and in beauty we can perhaps find a sense of peace. I find peace through making photographs, and I hope my work can help others find peace even if just for a moment.
You can browse galleries of my photos on my website here and order prints by getting in touch with me at email@example.com. You can find my books on my website here and on Amazon, and previous editions of ‘Homescreen’ on my website here. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram: @tomjefferyhomescreen.