Compressed time

Earlier this week, Instagram released a smartphone app called Hyperlapse, which lets you shoot timelapse videos. The genius thing about their take on it is that they use the phone’s accelerometer to dynamically correct shakes and bumps that occur in a handheld video, resulting in satisfyingly smooth clips. Over at Pacific Standard, Casey N. Cep wonders if time-lapse videos might fit much better into our times than single shots:

So many of the things we love to photograph aren’t easily captured in a single picture. That’s why our photo libraries are cluttered with dozens of pictures of the same litter of kittens or single night of fireworks. We took many pictures trying to get just the right shot, but because the subject was alive or animated, no one picture represents the experience of seeing what we saw. And we never watch the videos we made because it’s like watching a live stream of life, 10 minutes for every one second we’d actually care to revisit.

Those are the kinds of experiences that time-lapse documents so well (…).

What I find the most interesting about her piece is the speculation whether timelapsing is more than just a gimmick. whether it serves a bigger purpose:

But time-lapse already appeals to one of our strongest cultural desires. An agent of nostalgia, time-lapse lets you move quickly between the past and the present, or if you go backward, between the future and the past. Merge time-lapses and you’ll be able to watch your block or street change over a few weeks or a shoreline erode across years.

Two of our greatest cultural fears, gentrification and climate change, will be instantly visible in time-lapse in ways that even sequences of photographs, those juxtapositions of before and after, couldn’t accomplish.

As a medium, photography oscillates between utility and art – and sometimes even strikes a balance between the two. Does it have to show a bigger issue, a cultural fear? Photography scholar Fred Ritchin seems to think so, but I don’t agree. It can comfortably rest on the artful side of the spectrum and be perfectly acceptable. In fact, it sometimes manages to become useful without the photographer ever intending on it; for instance when street photography freezes a particular age and lets us revisit it years down the road.

Time lapses are yet another tool at our disposal to document the age we are living in, further expanding our already complex relationship with the passage of time. We can use it to make engaging clips, that compress time in a way the human eye and brain never could. But it can also be used to make the myriad issues around us visible. It is a great time to be a photographer.