Jonathan Shaw’s work portrays the flow of objects in space, recreating perception as something that is always in flux. This piece was shot at Crash, one of the most turbulent and decadent clubs in London. The viewer is presented with a sea of human bodies captured as they undulate rhythmically to the sound of the beats. Flesh, faces and limbs blur into one, occasionally giving way to moments of clarity as a face or feature emerges, focused and sobering, from the heady scene. Shaw’s work can be situated within a long photographic tradition of experimentation that has deployed the camera as an instrument of both scientific record and aesthetic exploration. Historically, this tradition can be traced back to pioneering photographers such as those of Muybridge and Edgerton (as featured within Shaw’s Time|Motion publication). Like the work of those early pioneers, Shaw’s practice demands an engineer’s engagement with the form. From his earliest work he has been designing, building and cannibalising his own customised camera equipment to enable him to produce unique images of time and space.
The CRASH exhibition at New Art Gallery Walsall comprised of a single large-scale panoramic photographic image reproduced to the height of the gallery walls and wrapping its entire length. The large partitions that divide the gallery space drew the audience into a visual and physical experience of a claustrophobic and hedonistic club world. The image was reproduced at a high resolution, using the latest digital technologies. It was printed onto a self-adhesive vinyl and adhered directly onto the gallery walls. A book edition of CRASH published by Cornerhouse is available. An essay from the book is republished below.
Revelation, Occlusion and Some Serious Misunderstandings: an essay bY Jean Baird
On November 26th 1881, a photographer, a scientist and a few select others assemble in Paris at E.J. Marey’s house on Boulevard Delessert. It’s a confluence of art and science: these men are here because of their various attempts to discover and depict the true condition of nature. Marey is captivated by a series of extraordinary visual revelations that are the result of innovations in photographic technology, pioneered by Eadward Muybridge and demonstrated through his zoopraxiscope, a device which projects painted images taken from photographs across a screen. Muybridge’s photographs, each of which records a single instance of a particular gait of the horse, unfurl sequential moments and movements that are, subsequently, magically reanimated to reveal and represent the truth about the horse’s motion. Knowledge, illusion, science and art coalesce into a convoluted narrative of revelation and occlusion.
Marey has already seen Muybridge’s photographic sequences of Stanford’s horse, Occident, which prove that all four feet leave the ground during a gallop. Leland Stanford, railway magnate and Governor of California, had engaged the photographer to supply visual proof of the horse’s gait. The commissioning of Muybridge originated from Stanford’s knowledge of Marey’s experiments (1873) with a device called ‘the pneumatic shoe’. Etienne-Jules Marey, a scientist-physiologist, innovator and inventor, had listened to the sound and deciphered the trace of the footfall of the horse. Muybridge’s photographs support Marey’s observations; Marey is excited by the idea of using ‘a chemical sensor’ as he believes human senses are unreliable and apt to deceive. One had to ‘invent processes of direct inscription, so as to separate life from its secrets, put it in the open and force a direct writing from it’. Marey has already experimented with photography, but Muybridge’s innovations meant that there was now the opportunity for a writing of life, a writing that which would also picture what lay beyond the capacity of human vision.
Motion is spasmodic; it is the result of phases of acceleration, stuttering stops and starts, and Muybridge’s photographic apparatus does not provide an accurate or adaptable enough visual record of time and motion for the purposes of the newly emerging science of physiology. For Marey, the meeting with Muybridge is not an unqualified success. When he leaves Paris shortly afterwards, he is already conceiving of a camera that will record motion in successive phases from one point of view, improving his inventions until he finally produces the apparatus that makes the invention of cinema possible in 1892. The scientific, if not artistic, interest in Muybridge’s project thus evaporates.
Marey uses movement against movement, one known against another under investigation. Through the implementation of rotating discs with slits that act as shutters, he knows the time taken between each figure recorded by the film. This is a system that freezes motion at regular, measurable intervals, distributing successive images over the surface of one piece of film in a fixed plate camera. There are other cameras that record continuously onto moving film, where the subject is draped in black against a dark background so that all that remains visible are white lines, dots and points which mark the skeleton or limbs. The outline of the moving body is lost in a dark anamorphosis, but bones and limbs form lines that trace, write and graph phases of motion. In Chronophotography, technical innovation results in pictorial metamorphosis as the picture, as a comprehensible and coherent unity of time and space, as a perspectival system of representation, a decisive moment, is undone. Chronophotographs are pictures where a trace is also a form of writing, they are photographs that write time before light.
Muybridge’s work captures phases of motion arbitrarily divided into sections, where time is a consequence of reading horizontally and vertically along the sequence of images. While his photographic tableau preserves the conventional coherency of the picture space, the sequences are not always constructed out of consecutive images: there are gaps and occlusions, differences in cropping, repeated images and even empty frames. Despite the inconsistencies of form, we recognise something familiar in this pictorial representation of time and motion. Closer to art than science, they create a fantasy of movement through narration and suggestion in the idiom of photographic realism, played out through the revelation of bodies crossing and overlapping over and upon the space of the screen. Muybridge’s tableau are epitomised as a technological way of seeing, normalised and objectified through an apparent ‘scientificity’, borrowed from its propinquity to Marey’s less well-known and less well-understood work. It looks as if, to cite Hollis Frampton, ‘the photograph could no longer contain the contradictory pressure to affirm time and deny it. It split sharply into an illusionist cinema of incessant motion and a static photographic art that remained frozen solid for decades’. He continues, ‘There are two different sorts of perceptual time. I propose to call one historic and the other ecstatic’.
Like Etienne-Jules Marey before him, Jonathan Shaw uses movement against movement to make either the moving or stationary subject appear or disappear. What he photographs is modified by the choreography of the movement of his own body, or the organisation of a scene that is not unlike the activity of Muybridge. Shaw does not measure or objectify what is in front of his lens, he is paying attention to the activity of his subjects, their way of being, an existence in time that is not separate from his own. The interchange between scene and seen is vitally important: Shaw is interested in the visual as it is organised in the form of a form of spectacle. This is evident in the pictures of theatre or sport, but the other pictures are also spectacles. They take place where the architecture of the street orders the activity of people into particular relations with that locale and with each other, with relations modified by the self-consciousness of looking and being looked at in public and mediated in relation to the camera.
Despite the hundred years between Shaw, Muybridge and Marey, and despite the digital displacement of the indexical trace of light on film, there remains a stubborn belief in the photograph as evidence of a truth secured precisely through the capture of historic time, the truth and knowledge of nature that Marey sought to find in the unseen interstices of the visual. In Shaw’s photographs everything is relentlessly surveyed by a modified shutter that builds the picture up out of thin strips of sight, like a photo-finish camera that moves with the winning horse right across the racecourse. Technical innovation results in pictorial metamorphosis, which results in a photographic vision true to life and true to motion as everything that lives, moves.
What Jonathan Shaw’s photographs reveal in their panoramic sweep is a photographic time at once both historic and ecstatic, where the ecstasy of subjective perception becomes a social phenomenon caught in the mingling of perceptual time. They show us a time that moves at a different pace in the same place, relative to its orchestration by the artist and the location. We are not held captive by these images and cannot view them from a stationary perspective. Shaw’s subjects look back at us; they participate in our observation as they give themselves to be seen by the camera – except there is no certainty that they will appear, as only things that are placed at the point of focus of the lens reassemble in the image in proportion to their real forms. The exchange of the gaze between subject/photographer/camera/spectator is grounded precisely in this uncertainty of the photographic trace, which restores the wildness and wonder of the truly photographic in an era dedicated to its digital simulation.
Jonathan Shaw is a photographer, researcher and educator based in the UK. He is Associate Head of the Media Department at the School of Art and Design, Coventry University. He is responsible for ‘creative practice’ research as part of the Centre of Disruptive Media. As an educator, leading the photography team he has pioneered free and open undergraduate photography classes #picbod (Picturing the Body) and #phonar (Photography and Narrative). These classes have been accessed by thousands of people all around the globe. The 2003 book Time|Motion published by Dewi Lewis placed Shaw’s work alongside the photographic pioneers Eadweard Muybridge and Harold Edgerton. His photographs can be found in the collections of Arts Council of England, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Birmingham Central Library Photographic Archive, as well as various private collections.
Jean Baird is Senior Lecturer in Theory and Practice of Photography at Nottingham Trent University, UK.