Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox

Notes of a rather semiotic or probably more accurately linguistically flavoured journal article – rather heaving going.

Photography can be taken two ways:

  • as event – frozen gestalt, which doesn’t convey much of what is happening in real life. Event = abrupt artifact. Artifact = life outside continues, time flows by, captured object slips away. Example = press photo – freezes life that goes on outside. Instantaneous/snapshot. Snapshot = is theft/steals life. Shows unperformed movement -> refers to impossible posture. PARADOX = movement has already been performed, but in the image the movement is frozen. The paradox arises from the indexical nature of the photographic sign.
  • as picture – autonomous representation which can be framed and hung, which stops referring to event from which it was drawn. Picture = natural evidence/live witness. As live evidence = designates the death of the referent/accomplished past/suspension of time. Example = funerary (relating to funeral) portrait – it depicts a life that has ceased offstage. Time exposure.
  • Series
    • Superficial series -> generates photo as semiotic object (image-producing)
    • Referential series -> generates photo as physical sign (reality-produced)
    • See Eadweard Muybridge’s Galloping Horse as example
  • Paradox of unperformed movement and impossible posture = unresolved alternative. Reality is not made out of singular events, not gestalt. When photo freezes event in form of an image, problem is that that is not where the event occurs. Surface shows a gestalt and is disconnected from temporal context. Barthes calls this the “real unreality” of photography.
  • Time Exposure: any portrait is funerary in nature -> landmarks of the past. It reverses the paradox of the snapshot. Snapshot refers to fluency of time without conveying it, time exposure petrifies time of the referent & denotes it as departed. It liberates an autonomous and recurrent temporality – time of remembrance. Offers possibility of staging that life repetitively in memory.
  • Snapshot stole a life it could not return. Time exposure expresses a life it never received. Deals with imaginary life that is autonomous, discontinuous and reversible – life has no location other than the surface of the photo. Refers to death as the state of what has been.
  • De Duve compares the snapshot linguistically to the present tense – too early to see the event occurring, too late to see it happening in reality. Conversely he compares time exposure to the past tense as a sort of infinitive/empty form of potential tenses (I’m assuming that would be the conditional forms of a tense).

Photography produces a new category of space-time. For the snapshot = “here” and “formerly” and for time exposure “now” and “there”. “Here” = superficial series -> place -> surface of photographed event. “Formerly” = referential series -> past sequence of events. “Now” = superficial series as if it were time. “There” = referential series as if it were a place. The focal point a photographer chooses is the choice to fill the indexical sign – the “now” is an absolute value.

The author then delves into reading procedure, trauma, temporal pauses, travail, work of mourning, and other psychoanalytical aspects mentioned by Freud which I really struggled to understand. This kind of journal article needs a lot of readings before it can be understood properly, so I hate to admit this, but I’d rather be reading Martha Rosler!



de Duve, T. (1978) ‘Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox’ In: October 5 (Summer) pp.113–125.

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