'Timeless' Images

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by jon w., Dec 17, 2003.

  1. Often on PN, the word 'timeless' is used about images, invariably as a
    compliment. I'm puzzled by this. What do you mean when you describe an
    image as 'timeless'? Why is it a good thing?

    I should briefly indicate where I'm coming from: I'm a historian, so
    'timelessness' is the very last thing I want for any of my images.
    Indeed, I regard the whole concept as an insult to my profession. And
    I photograph mainly in Venice, a place especially prone to inspire
    seekers after 'timeless' shots. However, this post is specifically
    motivated by a comment someone left on an image by Maria Szulc, to the
    effect of: 'Nice portrait, but a pity the effect is spoiled by the
    tatty modern clothes'. Well, what a pity that Maria couldn't provide
    the subject with some 'traditional' fancy dress, or at least a nice,
    smart suit. Too often, timeless images are guilty of refusing to
    engage with the CHANGING world around, something photography is
    uniquely equipped to do.

    Or am I being unfair?
  2. Jonathan, you're right to challenge the use of the word 'timeless'. I think we too readily slip into cliches when we discuss pictures. It's an easy expression to fall back on. I suspect that it is used rather like the term 'classic'. Perhaps we use 'timeless' to express the idea of an picture which firstly cannot be related to any particular era, for example, a landscape with no content which fixes that photograph in time (such as electricity pylons or motor vehicles). Secondly, perhaps we imply, and hope, that the image will still be viewed centuries into the future and still have a relevance for the viewer. Walker Evans' photographs of America's industrial towns and cities clearly do not fall into the first category since they are manifestly of the industrial era, but I feel they will continue to be important to future historians as documents of that period. The photograph by its very nature is a ruthlessly objective record of a moment, and in that lies much of its importance. There is a sense in which the photograph, by fixing a moment, preserves it for ever unchanging, and without change there is no time. Every photograph is a memento mori, a reminder of death. Though that moment is fixed forever in silver, the world moves on relentlessly. There is a sense, as you say, in which the photographers who seek to achieve the 'timeless' photograph are denying photography's most important aspect, its power to record the 'now'.
  3. The photograph by its very nature is a ruthlessly objective record of a moment
    Chris: Surely it is ruthlessly subjective?
  4. To me, 'Timeless' usually means a scene that was shot recently but looks as if it could have been shot 100 years ago.

    There is a certain charm in seeing the past preserved; tradition, awareness of heritage, and so on. I like this kind of stuff myself, but I also like scenes contrasting modernity with tradition -- this is just another kind of cliche, of course, but not invalidated by that.

    Timelessness is not automatically good or bad.
  5. I think you would find that these "Timeless" images are pretty recordings of the most common, non-threatening reading of a scene, person, or object. There can be no threats to the most conservative impression of a scene.

    We are constantly subjected to Timeless music (muzak), timeless poetry (hallmark), timeless tv shows with timeless little children, timeless women, timeless garbage all of it. If you succeed in removing all of the guts and only show the soul-less shell, you have achieved timelessness. Spray-paint a woman with makeup and then remove the actual woman and you have achieved timelessness.

    It will never decay or rot because there is no flesh left.

    The next question is: what precipitated that ruthless attack on your image, Jon? Did you piss her off?
  6. To me, "timeless" would mean lacking visual cues that link the image to a particular time and place. In other words, fuzzy and general rather than hard and specific.

    Almost-timeless, in my book, is more interesting than timeless. I'm reminded of a world press photo winner from two years back that showed an Afghan guerrilla on a rearing horse. His traditional clothing gave the photo a timeless quality, but the Soviet tanker's helmet on his head gave the lie to it. The semi-timelessness of the picture said far more about Afghan history than a "timeless" photo would.

    I've been thinking about this sort of stuff recently, having sat through two funerals. I went through a photo album kept by one of the deceased, a 95-year-old woman. The albums formed a visual family history stretching back to 1913, and the most interesting pictures are decidedly not timeless. But then the role of photography as a documentary record interests me.

    At times like that (funerals, not 1913), one inevitably thinks about legacies, etc. So if your photos were your legacy, the means by which others would know you, would you really want them to be timeless?

    One of the things that popped into my head was the novelist Mordecai Richler's stated aim: to be an honest witness to his time and place. (Although as a satirist, his honesty was hardly objective.) I think that's as good a manifesto as any (and not as long-winded as most).

    Come to think of it, it's pretty hard to think of a work of literature that's timeless (in the sense used above). If this were story.net, people would be babbling about timeless themes, not timeless content. Why should photographs strive for timeless content?

    Personally, I think if more photographers concerned themselves with being honest witnesses, instead of to being original, spelling art with a capital "A" and endlessly arguing about the role of Art, we'd all be better off.
  7. Objective/subjective? A good point, John, and one which itself deserves further discussion. When I use the word 'objective' I mean that the photograph includes all that was present in the frame at that time, that is, there is no scope for editing and alteration such as enjoyed by the painter. However, there is of course the choice of what is to be included in the frame. The merest movement of the camera can include elements that can entirely alter the context of the picture. I suspect that C J Laughlin would also contest the notion of an 'objective' photograph.
  8. The camera itself is perfectly objective. It's the doofus behind it we have to worry about. Or, as Kertesz said, photographs cannot lie, but liars can take photographs.
  9. "Timeless" means that it will engender the same emotional effect to the viewer, regardless of when (what time period) it is viewed.
  10. Funny thing you picked that up, Jonathan. I would say that this comment was a 'timeless reaction' to something challenging one's stereotypes (my friend called it, ugh, racism). Anyway, when I think of the concept of timeless I think of Heraclitus -- river stays the same but 'other waters flow.'
  11. Bill, that's the definition of "timeless" that would normally be accepted in other contexts.

    "Timeless" in that sense is something of a lie, since there is always a problem of context. Photography hasn't been around long enough for that to be a real problem, but one might try medieval literature as an example. Lacking an understanding of the times and culture, you will not react in the same way as the original audience. So "timeless" in this sense is really an empty compliment.
  12. With respect Jonathan, English is not the dominant language in the world; nor is it on this forum (Ignorance is the first then, is it? :)

    Chris's classic view is sweet. My variation of that would be that viewers relate "timeless" inversely with "fatigue factor". If a viewer fatigues of an image, then it is not "timeless" and unlikely to last the duration on his wall-space. I wonder if the broader question - beyond one's own lifespan - is almost unthinkable for the general viewer: not for the art historian or the collector, who uses a specific lens to view "timelessness".

    But that is not what you wish to hear.

    The question would indicate to me, a sense of specificity: for a historian, the notion of time has a richness whose subtlety escapes others. Essentially for non-historians, there is the autobiographical (my history): recency (contemporary issues) and long-term memory. It is easier to shove history into a block of "the past". I had not thought of that - and now that I do, I am struck by the sense of fertility in the dialogue between photography and its history, or history and photography. Your insight would be particularly rewarding if it's reaches a sense of dialogue, such as that offered by Paul Ricoeur in "Temps et récit" (Time and Narrative), applied to the domain of photography.

    In answer to the request for a book on "timelessness" - with a caveat - timelessness has specificity: - "A la recherche du temps perdu" - Marcel Proust.

    On Chris's point about objectivity and photography - Moholy Nagy wrote many seminal essays in which he commented on the X-ray pictures (in reference to the Futurists) which captured exemplary representations of space-time on a static plane. Granted that his views may be a little too sophisticated for us to understand. And this leads me to why I feel we have all missed the gondola Jonathan: the fervent mantra of the Futurists "The world's splendour has been enriched by a new beauty - the beauty of speed.......of man at the steering wheel" is one transformation of "time" through movement. Timelessness therefore, is the anti-thesis, against which the futurists levered their movement. For me, this view has some overlap with "mutatio mutandis" and Maria's reference to Heraclitus - the comment on the nature of self and the nomenclature of a river ("can a man step in the same river twice, snore). If the self itself, is not static, and changes, then it's anxieties in a changing world will be to desperately grasp a hold of what is fixed and "immutable". A reference point. Or a signpost. Holding onto the earth of reified culture, and on to the acceptance of dogma. How desperate: does this make a person feel worried for humanity?

    In anycase, I wonder if this view illuminate "timelessness" any further. Opps. Out of time.

    Kind regards,

  13. There is a difference between a "Timeless Image" and a "Universal Image."
  14. Bill, instead of tossing off a cheap, unsupported one-liner, you might try differentiating timelessness and universality. Universality implies the ability to communicate across cultures. Your assertion that this is different from "timelessness" assumes that culture is static, which of course it is not. The problem remains the same, whether the gulf is between present-day cultures or between cultures separated by history.
  15. A schematic was originally hand-drawn - Flux Capacitance Time Travel Circuit (c) John Bajak 1990

    / |
    +-------o o----/\/\/\/---+------+-------+
    | S1 | | | |
    | G1 | | \
    + --- + | --- --/-> G2
    ----- B1 ----- XXX P1 \
    --- C1----- --- |
    ----- | | o
    | | | \ G3
    | | | o

    B1 27 volt source
    C1 1200 uF 50V electrolytic
    P1 piezoelectric transducer (value uncritical)
    S1 charging switch (SPST)
    G1 25-ohm rheostat (future control)
    G2,G3 switch (SPST) and 1M-ohm potentiometer for past control

    (Transcriber's note: I don't know whether G1 and G2 are really supposed to be a rheostat and a potentiometer, or both rheostats, or both pots. He refers to two rheostats elsewhere, and I was just going to call them pots until I remembered that rheostats would have some inductance.)
  16. Another category of possibly "timeless" images is photographs documenting sporting events. For example, a camera records the moment the contestants reach the finish line in the 100-yard dash. The image obviously has a documentary significance in that it records who first crossed the finish line in the race. But there is also the "timeless" quality that viewers of any era can relate to, in that the image also depicts human beings who are giving their all (to the point of complete exhaustion) to first reach the finish line. I believe that there are images of contestants in foot races, painted on urns by the Greeks of antiquity, that could also be characterized as possessing a similar "timeless" quality.
  17. I think "timeless" is a considerable compliment and it is usually opposed to images which we today might consider mundane. For instance after spending much of the day commuting to and from work, most people don't care to view the captures of someone elses commute to and from work. I'm sure you've seen that snapshot of the car's dashdoard and the traffic beyond the windshield. Most people understandably would rather veiw a sweeping panorama of the Grand Canyon or the Pyramids at sunset than a photo of pipes in the amature photogragher's basement or the tract houses on his street.

    But as time marches on, things change. I did a little work for our local Historical Society a few years back and you'd be amazed how significant and charming those amature snapshots become once time has seperated the viewer from the photogragher. It was the amature photograghers snapshots that won hands down in giving us insight into the way they lived and the way our community grew. The professional photograghers from the same period were always very careful to remove any evidence of the contemporary.

    So in regards to some sort of legacy, all those snapshots of your car's dashboard, the pipes in your basement and the houses on your street will provide endless fascination for future generations centuries from now, whereas sweeeping panoramas of the Grand Canyon and saturated sunsets silhouetting the Pyramids will only highlight the shortcomings of the technology available when they were created and prove that some things never change.
  18. That would be photographer, not photogragher.
  19. Sorry, haven't been able to return to this thread for a couple of days, but other people have done a good job of discussing the issues.

    To paraphrase Nietzsche, 'Whenever I hear the timeless, I reach for my gun'. I don't think there is any such thing as 'timeless', but as I indicated at the start, I'm biased on this point. A point in case is that there are different kinds of 'timeless': I am thinking of the nineteenth-century vogue for posing people in 'traditional' costumes, or tableaux derived from historical or mythological subject matter, a conscious attempt to transcend the perceived limitations of a present moment that now looks hopelessly dated (but is interesting as historical evidence of the culture of the time). Landscape is one of the standard genres in which photographers currently seek 'timeless' images, but landscape as a genre does not predate the seventeenth century (before then, it was only used as background). Moreover, landscape itself is not 'timeless': there is no physical environment on earth that has not in some way been affected and transformed by human settlement. In other words, the appearance of 'timelessness' is the consequence of the lack of a sufficiently developed historical perspective.

    Jason, I wouldn't say Proust is 'timeless' either, but PN is probably not the place for discussing Proust (nor Paul Ricoeur).
  20. Sorry - my paraphrase should read, 'Whenever I hear the WORD timeless, I reach for my gun'.

    "To me, 'Timeless' usually means a scene that was shot recently but looks as if it could have been shot 100 years ago".

    In which case it would be faux-historical, not timeless - though it might be interesting because of that. 100 years ago is not before the dawn of history. Interestingly, some art photographers are now using daguerrotypes (spelling?) and even wet-collodion plates in the attempt to do what Jason suggests, use both form and content to establish a dialogue with the past. David Hurn has used a view-camera to replicate the shots that make of a survey of the Welsh landscape taken about one hundred years ago, and thereby record the ways in which the landscape has changed in the meantime (someone else has done the same with some of Atget's shots in Paris - I forget who).

    "Almost-timeless, in my book, is more interesting than timeless. I'm reminded of a world press photo winner from two years back that showed an Afghan guerrilla on a rearing horse. His traditional clothing gave the photo a timeless quality, but the Soviet tanker's helmet on his head gave the lie to it. The semi-timelessness of the picture said far more about Afghan history than a "timeless" photo would".

    This is a fascinating idea: of course, some things change less (or much slower) than others. They serve as indices, points of orientation within the shot.
  21. Sorry - another correction. I wish we could retrospectively edit forum contributions.
    'of course, some things change less (or much slower) than others. They serve as indices, points of orientation within the shot'.
    I meant that the modern elements are the 'indices' of change.
  22. "A point in case is that there are different kinds of 'timeless': I am thinking of the nineteenth-century vogue for posing people in 'traditional' costumes, or tableaux derived from historical or mythological subject matter...." etc. etc.

    Funny you should bring that up ... the prize in the albums I mentioned above was a portrait in that style. Full length portrait of a woman in white, garlands etc, looking off away from us into the distance -- positively Victorian. Dated 1919 (if it was shot then, rather than dated then), it was an anachronism when it was printed. Timeless, definitely not! Firmly tied to that nineteenth century romanticism -- and the more interesting for it.
  23. So help me out here... What is timeless? (A serious request, not sarcasm.) Is it Eternally appealing? Inoffensive to all, profound to none? Lacking temporal cues? Presenting content that transends boundaries between the Ages? Presenting content in a way that is accessible to inhabitants of all the Ages?
  24. Bill's perspective is interesting to me: whereas Bill sees "timeless" in the documentation of a sporting event, I feel it is actually a concretising effect: an attempt to preserve a moment in time. Translated into the photographic activity, I would not notice if some had said "what a timely shot".

    Jonathan, your view of landscape photography is very provincial. As a point of digressing, oriental waterpainting of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD) distilled the philosophy of Confucian and Taoist strands within the landscape itself: Yang (the masculine elements - therefore mountains, phallic symbolism) and Yin (feminine forms - waters and valleys) formed the complex and spiritual efforts of a whole dynasty. It is not the "timeless" element which such painters seek: time is suspended by the artist in his imaging. The question of time is not then foregrounded. More of a challenge for a photographer then?

    And Jonathan is probably right - the register of photo.net is such that it would easier to discuss "Unchained Melody" as "timeless", or its nearest photographic equivalent. I'm reminded of Athena Classics which are marketed as "timeless classics" - no doubt these images have assaulted us at some time or other - images of a man staring dispassionately at a baby, and other images of red tinted roses held by little children.

    Ward - your question is way too complicated for a single answer perhaps. Not only do we use language in different ways, but we have different experiences of time: the answer will be pluralistic if it is to be meaningful.

    Kind regards,

  25. I stand corrected for my provincialism!
  26. I agree with some of the others here. Timeless to me is used for those types of photos, or genres, that retain their appeal over a number of generations. Perhaps certain landscape photos would fit this bill, as well as studio portraiture. However, I also agree that a timeless image is defined by the culture and not really timeless in an absolute sense. Sooner or later a specific style may fall completely out of vogue - such as the Greek allegory images of 19th and early 20th century.
  27. Im not sure if it has been mentioned but timeless image should be quite the compliment. There was once a studio (Timeless Image) here in Las Vegas. I do miss the photographer and his art. Timeless should be associated with bliss. Where there isn't a care for time and the work of art is instilled in one's memory till the end of time. But if you really want to be pessimistic about it.. then yes this is an insult, because people truly do not need photographs... they need only their memory to enjoy their past.
    topher contra<br>

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