Reflection of Time to Photography as an Existence

Selim Süme

A photograph needs time and space to exist. In order for a photograph to occur, firstly it is necessary to decide these two cases: where and when it will be taken. Photography is an outward representation of space an time and it has a fundamental importance with this feature. It is one of the most effective methods for documenting by the ability to reflect and capture everything in front of the lens, thanks to the camera's capability. At the same time, photography is considered as a proof of the existence of the documented entity. For this reason, it is one of the most powerful instruments in relation to reality. At first glance, the relation of photography with time seems to be easy to understand, but it is quite complex. Photography, which needs time structurally, become hesitant in the face of the ambiguity of time.

For the concept of time, St. Augustinus states, "If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know." (1)

The French philosopher Henri Bergson mentions two kinds of time to read the photography on this slippery ground, where the time cannot be easily described: duration and spatial time. When defining time, Bergson distinguishes the time in everyday life from the concept of real time. The homogenous and physical time we use in our daily lives is measured by means of movement. Although the practical benefits of this concept cannot be ignored, it does not matter in Bergson's work. He does not believe that time is measurable, he defines real time as an intuitive experience and he calls it "la durée - duration", "le temps vecu - lived time". The duration is a function of consciousness. Our consciousness continues without a break. Even if you stop, time comes to you and the consciousness witnesses it. The real time, indivisible and immeasurable, solely is the naked time consciousness of the individual. He compares measuring real time to cutting fire with a knife. The individual consciousness that arises from the perception of time is a key. As the homogenous and physical time is measured by the motion, it needs space. He defines the time as a form of internal life independent from spatial relations. Time is firstly equivalent to the continuity of our inner world. He uses some metaphors to explain the duration. The most memorable one is the internal understanding of melody. When we listen to a melody, we perceive it as a whole, without breaking into its notes. This integration is possible through the time which we experience internally. Bergson believes that the duration can only be understood intuitively. Otherwise, the individual notes would not give us an idea about the melody. According to him, the "time" which we divide into pieces for the photograph to appear chemically/ digitally is not time but space, and he calls this "spatial time". We perceive time in everyday life as a homogenous tool, where the facts about our consciousness are in. The time that is thought in this way is "spatial time". According to Bergson, memories which can be conserved reflect a moment (which he calls "snapshot") and they record the result of the movement, not the movement itself. They are products of both time and space. When the duration stretching from past to future, if it leaves a mark in space, then the duration becomes both visual and measurable; time becomes spatial. What we assume as parts of the time is actually the pieces of space. They symbolize the time, characterize, creates a representative, but do not form it. Spatialization of time is a two-way mechanism. On the one hand, time needs space to become an externalized representation of itself. On the other hand, spatial representations of time -the snapshots- need to be conscious of duration in order to be named in this way. Bergson said, "Without real time, the point would be only a point, not an instant. Instantaneity thus involves two things, a continuity of real time, that is, duration, and a Spatialised time, that is, a line which, described by a motion, has thereby become symbolic of time." (2)

These two cases of time constitute the photograph and influence the eye in reading the photograph. When a photo audience looks at a picture, s/he experiences two different senses of time. The first one is the duration of the instantaneity that the photographer chooses (this affects the clarity of the motion of the photograph), the second is the historical reading that comes out in the memory of a period (a year, a month…) in which it was taken, that is, the evaluation of the eye during the time experienced by the eye. This psychological reading connects the photographer's time to the present day. According to Barthes, photography has a strange capacity to represent the past today. In this sense, the representation of photography does not only originate from its structure but depends on the life experience of the eye, the information and memories that are coming from the memory while looking at the photograph.

Reception and reading are made at the same time in photography. Assuming that the photograph is believed to reflect the reality itself; for example, a photograph of an animal or fire may be perceived as God before the monotheistic religions, it will face another reading in the eyes of believers of the monotheistic religions. This reading, in the light of the information we have experienced over time, learned from those who experience it, or that patriarchy forces us to learn, breaks out of consciousness and shapes our perception.

The photography also claims to be a historical fact. It contains a section of time and witnesses the history through this section, records the images of the events and contributes to the formation of visual history. This power of photography allows it to create a collective time. The time is reflected on the photograph to be read historically.




According to Bergson, the memory is not a storage or a drawer where old items were to put. Keeping and recalling memories is not something like, it can be a memory of this and that, something stored in a drawer which is stored in and then taken out from the memory. Because remembering something does not mean going into memories store and back to the past, it means that the thing will be remembered is spontaneously disassembled and integrated into the present state. In this context, the relationship of the photograph and the time is on a slippery surface. The difficulty of defining the time when interpreting a photograph appears here as well. Time left a mark on the photo, like a stone bouncing off the water. Henri Cartier Bresson calls the selection of the most accurate moment from the bouncings, as "decisive moment", and expresses this occurrence as the brain, eye, and heart aiming an event. This moment gives the photograph its character.

Roland Barthes mentions a punctum that the eye looking at the photograph experiences/ finds after a moment of decision by the photographer. He says "Punctum will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time it is not I who seek it out, it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me." (3) The common field described by Studium is punctured, and the punctum cannot be explained in any common language by historical, social, cultural reference. In another respect, during this decisive moment that photographer choose, the time is spatialized and reflected in the photograph. Barthes states we can see the past, the present, and the future at that time. This moment can inhold the entire story. However, punctum is a psychological phenomenon experienced by the person who looks at the photograph. So it will vary from person to person. In this context, the punctum in the photo and the decisive moment are differentiated from each other. Even if the decisive moment is reflected in the photograph, the story is reconstructed by the audience and the punctum appears.




Reality is a phenomenon as deep as time. In general, it means "everything that exists." Everything that occupies a place in space and time is real. Everything substantial must exist independent from thought. However, there are different definitions in science, religion, and philosophy. The individual's view of the world where s/he lives is realistic. When people perceive physical objects they believe that these objects are perceived by others in the same direction and that these objects exist independently from themselves.  

Our visual perception is one of our most important concepts when defining reality. But we don't have instant visions. Therefore, our perceptions include our past experiences and future expectations. John Berger said, "Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak." (4) We notice that we can be seen immediately after seeing something. In this context, vision is archaic. It comes from the pre-linguistic period. When a human being comes into the world, s/he hasn't got the phenomenon of "I" yet. "I" occurs at the stage what Lacan calls as the mirror stage. With our image in the mirror, we learn that we are visible and a separate entity from the mother. This period is also the stage in which we learn resembling. We resemble our image in the mirror. A person who is aware of this analogy is also aware that there is no depth and what s/he sees is an illusion of his/her. Fred Ritchin states "Photography, as we have known it, is both ending and enlarging, with an evolving medium hidden inside it as in a Trojan horse, camouflaged, for the moment, as if it were nearly identical: its doppelgänger, only better." (5)




Considering the transference within all branches of art, painting is the closest art discipline to the photograph due to the resemblance and representation power of the final work. Therefore, the reception of the photography has originally come through the legacy of painting. However, where the painting was produced by a limited number of painters, -with fact that the camera getting smaller and easily accessible- photography transformed into an instrument that everyone could experience and use. In terms of time theory, the most important feature of the photography is overlapping of the image formed on the surface with the present time, which is based on the principle of concurrence. Photographic image is the result of the physical effect of the light reflected from the object on the surface of sensation (film/ sensor). On the other hand, when it comes to painting, it is not possible to refer a single moment, as in the case of photography. The process of emergence of the painting is created by accumulation of consecutive moments. Thanks to the synchronicity of the photography, people can compare the image seen from viewfinder with the resulting photograph by experience. This subsequent resemblance caused photography to be percepted as a reflection of reality.

The painting has left the effort to reflect the reality to photography and it has become the main purpose of photography. Common perception confirms this too. It is assumed that the physical reality in the image that appears in the photograph exists independently of the thought. The photograph is a proof. That object in the photograph has definitely existed. Therefore, the relationship between photography and reality has intertwined and become dominant in the reception and reading of the photograph.

Time and space are the phenomenon that is necessary for the existence of photography, and also they ground the relationship between photography and reality. In existence, there is a present time. When we say that something exists, we talk about right now. According to Heidegger, time is intangible but it is essential for something to happen. It is the meaning of existence.

This mission of reflecting the reality of photography has problematized in time by various photographers, and fictional realities have been created and photographed. In such photographs, the reality is no longer real but a fiction. And in a time where the society is used to the idea of photography showing the truth, the photography began to lie. In addition to the desire of showing something, the desire of saying something strong has always existed in photography, since its invention, but this desire couldn't change the general perception of it. With the introduction of digital photography, manipulations became easier and this perception began to change. It has been experienced that the photograph can be manipulated easily with a software and thus the general perception is changing rapidly. This has been accepted, especially in fashion and advertising photography. The use of manipulations in news photography, on the other hand, is spectated with fear. The feature of photography as a proof, an evidence is questioned and the relationship between the photography and the reality is cracking.




We benefit from the traces on photography left by time and space during the reception and the reading of photography. While these traces are very clear in photographs taken for the purpose of documentation (personal or social documentary photographs, news photographs etc.), they may sometimes be blurred consciously or unconsciously by the artists. This preference creates a big fracture in reading of the photo. In this type of production, photography carries out the task of reflecting time and space, but the time and space get ambiguous in reading. Thus the influence of reception and reading increases on the concept itself that the photographer wants to focus on. The looking eye with the desire of defining the photograph, has a hard time making a sense of it with the information gained from life experiences and when the eye is looking at it, consciousness hangs in the air for a moment. This moment of hanging in the air points a gap between imagination and truth.  

The perception of time reflected on the photograph strengthens its connection with reality. The person who has a desire and a habit for historical reading, accepts his/ her death and waits. According to Heidegger, photography points out to the temporality of our dasein. It is an expressionist representation of our journey to death. This need for reality and the effort of making sense of the image creates a limitation in the reception and reading of the photograph. Reading photography merely as an expression instrument limits the experience and senses. When the dominance of the content (time and space) and identification effort given by the audience slightly reduces, the resulting sense of staying in limbo allows a new perception and reading.

The unconscious mind of the person who is looking at the photograph tends to isolate the photograph into an understandable form. So, the person can resemble it to something s/he has experienced before. This is equivalent to explaining the meaning of time and life, to divide, to map, to identify and to tame it. In this way, we protect ourselves and eliminate the question marks. We focus on two things while we are receiving and reading the photograph: determining the place of the photograph in linear historical time projection and trying to recognize the place geographically. These are directly related to the relationship of photography with reality. If we can establish these links, we can explain the meaning of the photo. Also, photography is a very important tool for creating a collective time. In this way, history is written by means of evidential images.   




When we reduce the perception of time in photography (the situation that even if the presence and the trace are presented in the photo, there is no determining feature in reception) the established bond with the reality begins to strain, and this tension opens new areas for us to experience the photograph. By deliberately creating a shift in the time and space required by the photograph in the ontological context, a gap can be created in the reception and reading of the photograph, and as a result of this experience the possibility of activating the "pure thought" emerges. What we are talking about here is an artistic approach that takes the advantage of the possibilities of alienation of a person to photography. In this way, the photograph becomes more like a painting by being eluded from the necessity of reflecting and representing the reality, opens up a new dimension to its relationship with history and liberates the experience of looking at a photograph.



Aziz Augustinus; 2010, İtiraflar, İstanbul, Kabalcı

Bergson, Henri; 2002, Key writings, Londra, Continuum

Barthes, Roland; 2000, Camera Lucida, İstanbul, Altıkırkbeş

Berger, John; 2002, Görme Biçimleri, İstanbul, Metis

Ritchin, Fred; 2012, Fotoğraftan Sonra, İstanbul, Espas