Freeze Frame

August 27, 2021

From Stainless -- 42nd Street, Video by Adam Magyar

In Adam Magyar’s video series, Stainless, the camera pans slowly across a long line of commuters frozen in place on a subway platform at the 42ndStreet station in New York City as they wait for a train to pull in. But what appears at first to be a startlingly lifelike high-definition still image turns out to be something else altogether. As the camera scans the faces of the commuters standing motionless on the platform, there appears to be the slightest movement from one of them.  Did that woman just blink?  Did that man’s hand move ever so slightly as he tugged on the strap of his shoulder bag?  It turns out this is no still photograph but a panoramic sequence filmed in hyper-slow motion using an industrial video camera capable of filming at up to 100,000 frames per second. At such a rate, played back at normal speed, a moment becomes a minute, and an 11-second clip of a train pulling into the station becomes an 11-minute video.   As a result, the world is revealed in ways that normally escape our notice because they happen too quickly to be comprehended.

I am reminded of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ecstatic description of a photograph in an article he wrote for The Atlanticin 1861.  He was describing a stereopticon slide of a street scene along Broadway in New York City.  This was still in the early days of photography, and until then exposure times had been so slow cameras couldn’t capture motion at all.  A photograph of a busy street scene would have appeared empty.  Yet here was a street scene bustling with life, the way you would see it with your own eyes – except nothing moved.  “All is still in this picture of universal movement,” Holmes wrote. “Take ten thousand instantaneous photographs of the great thoroughfare in a day; every one of them will be as still as the tableau in the ‘Enchanted Beauty.’ Yet the hurried day's life of Broadway will have been made up of just such stillnesses. Motion is as rigid as marble, if you only take a wink's worth of it at a time.”

Holmes might well have used the same words to describe Magyar’s video of passengers on a subway platform, a tableau made up of tens of thousands of stillnesses captured on a high-speed industrial video camera.  Motion indeed appears as rigid as marble if you take it a wink’s worth at a time, even if you are shooting video.

Time and motion vexed philosophers long before photographers got in on the act.  The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides insisted that all appearance of time, motion and plurality were illusory.  His student Zeno sought to prove it with a series of logical paradoxes, the most famous of which involved a race between Achilles and a tortoise. Zeno postulated that if the tortoise were given a head start, Achilles could never overtake him.  In the time it took Achilles to close the gap between the two, the tortoise would advance some distance farther on. And once Achilles had closed the gap again, the tortoise would have advanced still farther -- and so on, ad infinitum.  There would always be a gap, no matter how infinitesimal; hence, Achilles could never overtake the tortoise.  Zeno concluded from this that motion therefore must be illusory.

We could well imagine Magyar filming such a race.  It would start at normal speed with Achilles rapidly closing the gap with the sluggish tortoise.  But then Magyar’s high-speed industrial camera would kick into overdrive, and suddenly it would appear that the two were frozen in place, with the tortoise still ahead by a nose.  We are now viewing the race in what Magyar calls “in-between time.” At 100,000 frames per second, the blink of an eye on video would take more than six minutes to play back at normal speed.  A ten-second race would last over 11 hours.  And yet, Zeno notwithstanding, is there any doubt that Achilles would be first to cross the finish line?  

Since no sane person would ever bet on the tortoise in a race with Achilles, we might well conclude Zeno’s paradox is disproven by reality. If motion is real, then something else has to give.  And since time and motion are the two variables in question here, the only alternative is to conclude that time itself is illusory.  How can this be?  Time obviously exists as an abstract measure of change.  The problem comes with instantaneous time, those discrete instants when time is frozen to reveal Achilles straining to close the gap with a sluggish tortoise he can never quite overtake.  

But what if there are no instants in time?  A young theorist from New Zealand named Peter Lynds argued as much in a paper published in a physics journal in 2003. He wrote, "With some thought it should become clear that no matter how small the time interval, or how slowly an object moves during that interval, it is still in motion and its position is constantly changing, so it can't have a determined relative position at any time, whether during a interval, however small, or at an instant. Indeed, if it did, it couldn't be in motion."

Plot each instant on a line representing the flow of time, and something else becomes apparent.  An instant, by definition, has no duration, any more than a point has dimension.  And, as we all learned in geometry class, no number of points will ever add up to a line.  Similarly, no number of instants will ever add up to a flow of time.  Yet we all have a sense that time is passing, even if we can never point to exactly what it is that passes.  Lynds believes temporal progression is no more real than instantaneous time. “It's something entirely subjective that we project onto the world around us,” he writes.

St. Augustine, curiously enough, arrived at a similar conclusion in the 4th century.  "I say that I measure time in my mind," he wrote.  "For everything which happens leaves an impression on it, and this impression remains after the thing itself has ceased to be....When I measure time it is this impression that I measure." In modern terms, Lynds maintains that time is a neurobiological process, principally a "persistence of vision," that causes the mind to string together a series of impressions to create a perception of movement, much like still images threading rapidly through a projector to make a movie.

Magyar’s subway panorama forces us out of the flow of time into an in-between place that appears to be neither movement nor stillness.  He says, “I’m extending the moments—the present, the now—because as humans we live only in the past and the future. But the only existence we have is now, and that is something that we don’t even consider.”   This in-between time that Magyar presents is not the same thing as an instant – a slice of time in which all movement is brought to an absolute standstill – nor is it the normal persistence of vision in which we are swept along by the unblinking currents of time.  For want of a better term, call it eternity -- or the closest we can come to a graphic depiction of eternity. 

Theologians – Augustine among them – have long argued that God exists outside of time; he is the “high and lofty One who inhabits eternity,” as the Prophet Isaiah once put it. This characterization was no doubt meant to place God well beyond the reach of time-bound mortals.  Except now it turns out that we mortals may also inhabit eternity, whether we realize it or not. It is in plain sight in the interstices between past and future, between memory and expectation.  It may be found in what the philosopher George Santayana once called “the essence of nowness [that] runs like fire along the fuse of time."

We live eternally in the present moment, yet we think in time; indeed, we have no alternative except to think in time.  It is literally embedded in the grammar of our thoughts, each thought carefully segmented into past, present or future, like the still frames of a motion picture.  So if it is God we seek – the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, as the Prophet Isaiah put it -- then we must likewise inhabit eternity.  Yet it is not as far as we think; in fact, it is best not to think at all. Then we might just find we can get there in no time at all -- or perhaps I should say, we can get here in no time at all.

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