Collections Data Technician Gareth Watkins finds a series of photographs from the 1800s where a combination of movement and long exposure has created unusual, ghostly scenes.
While reading photography curator Lissa Mitchell’s fascinating Halloween blog about accidentally spooky images, I was reminded of a series of images by Russian photographer Alexey Titarenko who used long camera exposures to create the very ethereal City of Shadows.
The series focused on street scenes during the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Titarenko left the camera shutter open for a long period. This captured the sharpness of inanimate objects – for example buildings, steps and footpaths while the mass of humanity moving in front of his camera turned into, as Titarenko put it, a “sort of human sea … like shadows from the underworld.”
I think Titarenko used long exposures to stunning effect. But jump back to the late 1800s and long exposures were, due to the technology of the time, an inherent part of everyday photography.
Here’s an example in Te Papa’s collections from that time, with some of the people on the pavement blurring into ghost-like figures while inanimate objects appear sharp and distinct.
Through my work with the Accelerated Collections Digitisation Programme I have come across a number of these type of images. Here’s an example of how motion is captured during a long exposure.
But more poignantly for me are the images that, due to the length of exposure, show semi-transparent people as they either move quickly in or out of the camera’s view. In this example, the outline of a young girl, a group of people talking in the background, and a man’s vanishing legs.
I find it fascinating to think about how things moving at different speeds may or may not be recorded and how documentary photography doesn’t necessarily capture the totality of a moment in time. In this example, a person on horseback disappears into the weatherboards of a building.
And here’s another example of both the man on the left and the horses in front of the carts being only partially recorded by the camera.
Headless horses feature in this image too.
And sometimes it’s only two pairs of feet that remain to tell us a hundred-plus years later of a person’s fleeting presence.