What remains: When photos capture fleeting nature of time

What remains: When photos capture fleeting nature of time

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.

A stationary horse-drawn cart sits on a street while people mill about beside it
Detail of Princess St.- Dunedin – Looking North, 1800s, Dunedin, by Burton Brothers studio. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (O.034106)

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.

A stillscene on a street in a town with people standing aroud
Detail of Town street, Geraldine, circa 1870, Canterbury, by William Ferrier. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (O.020707)

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.

People stand about on a street
Detail of Street scene, circa 1875, Wairarapa, by James Bragge. Te Papa (D.000167)

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.

Men stand about on a street and bridge looking towards the camera
Detail of Main street, Masterton looking south, circa 1875, Masterton, by James Bragge. Te Papa (D.000118)

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.

Two men face each other in the street and a blurry horse stands next to a building
Detail of Main street, Masterton looking south, circa 1875, Masterton, by James Bragge. Te Papa (D.000125)

Headless horses feature in this image too.

Men stand on a street with a horse-drawn cart parked by a building
Detail of Joseph Nathan and Company Building, 1880, Wellington, by James Bragge. Purchased 1955. Te Papa (D.000009)
Men stand outsie a hotel
Detail of Theatre Royal and Hotel, 1879, Wellington, by James Bragge. Purchased 1955. Te Papa (D.000005)

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.

Men stand on a road
Detail of Dee Street, Invercargill, 1880s, Dunedin, by Burton Brothers studio. Purchased 1943. Te Papa (C.014652)

2 Comments

  1. likewise see the area today and compare notes with these lovely old photographs… since I am near Masterton think a visit is needed up there shortly! Great to see what it was like years ago… thank you.

  2. I love finding these old photos then trying to find the exact spot to retake them today! Many thanks.

Leave a comment