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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Unstill Life: The Emergence and Evolution of Time-Lapse Photography

  • Author(s): Boman, James Stephan
  • Advisor(s): Walker, Janet
  • et al.

In seeking to identify cinema’s unique powers, film theorists have frequently drawn attention to instances of temporal modulation. Whether slowing down the motion of a passing bullet or accentuating the bustle of urban traffic, the cinematograph’s flexible framerate seems to reveal aspects of the phenomenal world to which we are otherwise blind. In more contemporary examples, this ability to vary film speeds can be subsumed into a broader range of visualization practices, and may prove especially pertinent to efforts to model, demonstrate, and mobilize responses to incremental climate change and other cases of what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.” In short, we find ourselves compelled, now, to engage innovatively with nonhuman temporalities—but now is also a good time to think historically about the roles different media have played in producing and organizing our relation to different timescales.

This dissertation considers the early history of time-lapse photography—a set of distinctively cinematic techniques which reduce framerates in order to condense slow-moving phenomena into vivid motion pictures. From the start, time-lapse techniques have been associated with the revelation of natural phenomena: the growth of flowers, the division of cells, the decay of fruit. These techniques have also long been associated with the middle ground between science and aesthetics—embraced by biologists and botanists for the sake of recording important data, but also seized by film artists who wished to dazzle their audiences with uncanny spectacles of writhing life. In Unstill Life, I attend to both of these traditions, with special attention to how these techniques were used in the life sciences around the turn of the twentieth century, and how the emotional force of this imagery both entailed and problematized questions of medium specificity. Embracing a wide understanding of time-lapse photography’s iconographic roots, technical conditions, and epistemological analogs, I track this form of moving image through a variegated genealogy. These case studies include the tendentious history of “march of progress” illustrations, and other approaches to “animating” the fossil record; the metaphoric value of time-lapse tropes to the arguments of classical film theorists; the medial intersections of botany and photography; and how early cinematographers modulated framerates to explore their urban environs. Across these diverse cases, time-lapse techniques (along with their antecedents and analogs) were poised between an obligation to inscribe nature faithfully—an ideal of objectivity that was in some ways structured by the mechanical agency of photography itself—and a dream of picturing nature’s secret machinations in previously unknown ways. In short, the power and point of time-lapse images involved both indexical fidelity and the wondrous appeal of a magical illusion—a visual sensibility that I characterize as an unstilling of natural phenomena. The central virtue of this modality of unstilling, I argue, lies in its potential to model, enact, or stimulate an altered relation between the viewer and her environment—to realize new ways of seeing our familiar-yet-unfamiliar world, ways of seeing that might prove consonant with the vital principles this simple technique disclosed.

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