When 60 seconds of present are freezing in one frame

I’d like to introduce you to a free project I’ve been working on for about a year now.
It’s an open series of pictures that show well known places of the Berlin cityscape. They are dense places with high traffic frequency, places where there’s lots of flux and motion. Each of the photos was exposed by day for a period of 60 seconds.

At some point I remembered a story I had been intrigued with when I was a child. It is called “Paul is alone in the world“. Paul, a little boy, suddenly becomes aware of the fact, that all other people have disappeared.

First he is very much enjoying the situation and starts doing things that usually are forbidden. After a while, however, he becomes horribly bored because there is nobody around he can share his pleasure with.

I think, there is a certain element of distraction clinging to this gedanken experiment that I am still fascinated by. How would man-made space appear if its essence was taken out of it – man himself?

The idea of “60-second slices of present” is to study that. If I expose a frame for one minute static objects remain sharp while everything in motion either blurs or even disappears depending on its speed.

To produce these pictures I do as follows: I mount my medium format camera to a tripod and compose the frame. After that I mount a pair of strongly light-reducing neutral density filters onto the lens. Then I open the shutter using a cable release and fix it for 60 seconds. I measure this period using a stop watch.

I always use a 80mm lens, as normal lenses do not distort perspective and render a scene in a similar way as the human eye would perceive it. Thus, I avoid falsifying or even dramatizing the pictures of places, urban space and buildings. Honesty is the base for my experiment with time.

I am stopping down the aperture to the smallest value possible. At f/22 the image bears a high depth of field and the depicted scene is rendered crisp sharp. Using very slow black and white film material with a sensitivity of only 25 ASA helps to depict sharpness in detail without showing any significant grain. This way the only possible blur in the images is caused by objects in motion.

By doing this series I reduce myself to always using the same means and tools to provide similar aesthetics to the photos. Each frame should be speaking the same language as the others.

Looking at the results, I like the aspect of time in them. Flowing water transforms into a matte surface with an argentine glow to it, people seem to vanish.

These photos evoke the question of what time actually is and how we perceive it. With “60-second-slices of present”, however, I am not necessarily looking for answers. That is not important to me.

It is rather that each picture is an approach that is based on an idea and the imagination how motion could be rendered on a still image medium. It is impossible to anticipate or even calculate what would happen.

If I am lucky, chance might be my propitious assistant. If I am not lucky, well, then I just keep on doing the experiment.

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3 Responses to “When 60 seconds of present are freezing in one frame”
  1. Jan says:

    Robert, I’ve always been intrigued by the use of slow film to obtain the effect of blurred people. I have old photographs taken in the late 1800′s of market scenes in Toronto to similar effect to your work. I really enjoy this concept. I also saw one other recent photographer’s experiment with this concept however he used such a high ND filter that all his images were void of vehicles and people! It was surreal.

    Excellent series!

    • Robert says:

      Hey Jan, thank you for your comment. The blurring or disappearing of moving objects truely is an intriguing effect.
      As you are talking about images being void of anything moving the old pictures of Atget’s Paris come into mind. He was forced to expose for a couple of minutes to get enough light onto his plates because apertures were tight and sensitivity slow at that time. I think it’s funny that nowadays we need to built up restrictions by using ND filters to obtain the same effect.
      Thanks again so much for enjoying.

  2. Jan says:

    Robert, I’m still enjoying these. IIRC I put you onto a friend in Mannheim who had done a bit of this. He called his “LAMES”. Now summer is here I may experiment here in Toronto. If I do I’ll let you know! Jan

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