Annihilating time and space:
Time, technology & the image.
It could be argued that cell phones, computers and the Internet are so prevalent in our world today that technology itself has come to resemble some kind of new religion. But that would underestimate the yearning for technology and innovation that humanity, it seems, has always strived for; a yearning no more evident than in the scientific and technological breakthroughs of the Victorian nineteenth century.
“The annihilation of time and space”, is a turn of phrase used to describe the effects of technology. It underpins the thematic concerns of this photographic project. According to writer Rebecca Solnit in her book River of Shadows, this was a nineteenth century term that was applied, over and over, to railroads and other new technologies (2003, p.11). The relatively new phenomenon of photography was of course, one of those new technologies, and, “if railroads and photography had one thing in common, it was that they brought the world closer for those who rode or looked. While the dull repetitive toil of the factories seemed like slavery, these technologies often seemed liberatory.” (Solnit, 2003, p.15)
In fact, through the eyes of Solnit, photography and the American transcontinental railroad seemed to have forever fused together. In 1872, photographer Eadweard Muybridge took up the infamous ‘scientific’ wager of Leland Stanford, the chief transcontinental railroad overseer. The intent was to prove, with photographic evidence, that a trotting horse lifted all four feet off the ground. Successful, Muybridge used twelve cameras in series, tripwires and a newly developed high-speed shutter, to gain the much-needed proof. Yet, while Muybridge, like no other photographer before him, had irrevocably arrested time and, in the process, developed the seeds for motion pictures, the rest of the world rapidly sped up around him.
In fact, Solnit details how during the 19th century, concepts of time literally expanded and contracted on multiple fronts. Through the invention of the railroad, and the subsequent completion of the American transcontinental, came an unprecedented shrinking of time and space, thus ending the tyranny of distance. Its other profound implication, was that it literally engineered a true break for humans from the constraints of natural time and people were no longer limited to wearisome travel on land, by foot or on horses.
As people travelled faster and further than before; crossing not just state-lines but an entire continent, new forms of standardized time were needed. Thus, principles of “standard time or railway time” came to
help with differentiated time zones. Imagine the first
long distance railroad passengers. With little knowledge of these different time zones, upon arrival at their destination, would find that their time-pieces needed adjusting; as if time or the sun hadn’t kept up.
The railroad would also proved fascinating for geologists, as it cut open hills and mountainsides; exposing new layers of terrain. When, in 1830, the first passenger train opened in Britain (coincidently the year of Muybridge’s birth), it was also a time of popularity for geologists, whose books “sometimes outsold popular novels” (2003, p.13). Thus, like giant environmental photographs these layers of rock provided visual histories of the earth that expanded time by epic proportions.
“Bible scholars asserted the earth was only about six thousand years old. Its rocks suggested a far greater age to those who studied them.” And, if the
“[r]ailroad, shrank space through the speed of its motion, geology expanded time through the slowness of its processes and the profundity of its changes.”
On seeing the layers of sediment that had been exposed on the Manchester to Liverpool line, popular actress, Fanny Kemble, wrote, “I felt as if no fairy tale was ever half so wonderful as what I saw,”
(Kemble in a letter to a friend, in Solnit, 2003, p.12).
In 1844, telegraphy would also earn its place as a transformer of time and annihilator of space. Putting an end to the messaging services of the pony express, the telegraph traveled, almost instantly, as electrical impulses over wires; “a technology that telephones and the Internet would only elaborate” (p.17). Traveling over the same lines as the railroad tracks, the telegraph also replaced the railroad as the fastest means of communication technology.
However, out of all the technological & scientific discoveries of the 19th century, Solnit remarks that “[p]hotography may have been one of its most paradoxical inventions: a technological break-through for holding onto the past, a technology always rushing forward, always looking backward.” (2003, p.14)
Thus, while the adage ‘change is the only constant’, devised by Greek philosopher Heraclitus (544 – 483 BC), can still be considered relevant today, he also postulated the notion that time flows like a river and once the water had passed, it would not be possible to stand in the same river twice. Yet, photography and moving images are able to do just that; they allow us to step into the river of time and offer up once-denied glimpses into our past.