My Camera is a Time Machine

Imagine looking at the world through an opening the size of your thumbnail. While that may sound restrictive the truth is it is a window to a different reality, one that only a photographer can experience.

Photographers view our world through the viewfinder of our cameras - a window literally smaller than those old-fashioned snail-mail postage stamps. But what a world it is. There is a land of magic and wonder contained in that view. We choose the frame, composition and subject. The image we make is our view of reality. It is a product of our imagination, skill and talent.

But when we press the shutter what we see in the viewfinder is gone forever. It is as if we destroy the reality we see in the viewfinder by creating the photograph.


Before you ask what my drug of choice is let me explain.


First, every photograph ever taken captures a scene that no longer exists. Like the sage’s observation that no one has dipped themselves in the same river twice, no photographer has ever photographed the same scene twice. That view is gone forever after we press the shutter. The river before our cameras is not of water but of time.


Secondly, cameras allow us to see the world in tiny slices of time. We mere mortals do not live in 1/1000ths of a second, but our cameras do. Cameras can, and do, freeze the movement of birds in flight or bullets piercing an apple. They also reveal movement where our eyes cannot detect any, such as the stars as they drift across the night sky. Our naked eyes cannot see these realities, unless they are seen in the photograph a camera makes. Thus the cameras sees things we cannot.

Henri Cartier-Besson put it this way: “To photograph is to hold one's breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It's at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”


This, then, is the advantage of our craft: to record that “decisive moment in time” (again to quote Cartier-Besson).


What makes photography different from other visual arts is the cameras technical abilities. Yes it is true that artists can paint or draw a scene that is in fact not real. The painting is a representation of reality that has been interpreted from the artist’s fertile mind. Where a photograph differs is that we point our cameras at the real world, the world of our five senses, but what we produce is not discernible with those senses. Technically, the image is not a product of our imagination, but rather of the camera’s ability to record a split-second in time. That moment passes, and will never exist again.


So my camera is a time machine. It allows me the ability to turn the mundane into extraordinary one-of-a-kind images by making time stand still. The potential for unforgettable images have as much to do with finding the right time as they do in finding the right light.

Worlds Oldest Surviving Photograph "View from the Window at Le Gras" Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

Perhaps this is why the early artists who adopted this form of art called it photo-graphy, that is, “writing with light”. They innately understood the images they created were of moments as fleeting as the speed of light.

(To the right is the oldest surviving photograph known, "View from the Window at Le Gras", by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, circa 1826.)


This also helps explain why patience is an absolute must in photography and this is why I dawdle and wait for the right time to come along.


And sadly I frustrate my impatient non-photographer friends with my dawdles. They do not know I peer into a time machine when I look through my camera’s viewfinder. They live in a different reality, and are limited by their perceptions of that reality. They do not see or feel what I see and feel. They do not understand the time machine.


Poor souls. Someone should tell them the truth.

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About the author:  JS Engelbrecht began his photography career in a High School dark room for the school's Year Book. Later he entered the fashion industry and product photography before turning his attention to Nature. "I moved from shooting pictures of beautiful jewelry to shooting pictures of natural beauty."

Now JS Engelbrecht enjoys capturing beautiful scenes during his travels. He is also a gifted teacher and guide for local photographers. Click here to see his fine art gallery.

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