A photo of the passage of time
In Chicago, 1960, Kenneth Josephson captures not a moment in time, but the process of time. He does it in an image just 3 7/8 x 9 3/8 inches. The compact, unpretentious, black-and-white photo is easily overlooked among the more aggressive works in the Milwaukee Art Museum‘s permanent collection. But you can ponder over this image for a while and take pleasure in the effort.
But look harder. The pedestrians and the dog do not merely crowd together, they occupy the same space. They’re not quite there; time exposures have made them ghostly, translucent. Perhaps one of them lives in the “now” of the photograph, but we can’t be certain. All we know for sure is that at some time these people and a dog passed in front of the fence and Josephson’s lens.
Two posts behind the fence jut above it on the left side of the image. From the left-most, a boom extends 90 degrees, out over the sidewalk. A diagonal brace supports it from above. A diagonal shadow begins at the joint of boom and post and runs at a rakish angle across the fence to the sidewalk. A similar, but fainter, shadow runs just to the right of the first. They intersect at the sidewalk.
They resemble the hands of a clock; they are a clock. The two shadows come from separate exposures. As the sun advances in the afternoon, the shadow moves. Josephson makes the movement evident. The spar and support become the gnomon of a sundial, and the regular pattern of 4-by-8 plywood sheets acts as the sundial’s hour lines. The “wet paint” sign seals the deal. Josephson slyly, wryly invites us to watch paint dry. That takes time, even when sunlight bakes it.
Josephson thus makes us intensely aware of the tick-tock mechanics of time as a function of the earth’s rotation under the sun’s rays and as a measurement we impose on that rotation. Now we can try to divine where the sun might be — or has been — to cast such shadows. It must have progressed through the sky that day in 1960 almost directly above the line of the fence; a degree or two either way, and this photo doesn’t happen.
The imagery and the subject matter take it to a metaphysical level. Consider the title: Chicago, 1960. The paint is not only dry by now, but faded, chipped, discarded with the fence and the sidewalk (of plywood on 4-by-4s), all temporary structures. And the ghostly people — very likely gone by now — are temporary, too. Aren’t we all?
I looked at Chicago, 1960, and thought about all this for perhaps 30 minutes. I might have lingered longer, but the Milwaukee Art Museum was about to close. I ran out of time.
This essay is part of an ongoing series on works in the permanent collections of Milwaukee museums.