Tom Strini
One Piece at a Time

A photo of the passage of time

By - Aug 30th, 2011 01:02 am
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Kenneth Josephson (American, b. 1932) Chicago, 1960 Gelatin silver print 3 7/8 x 9 3/8 in. (9.84 x 23.81 cm) Purchase, Richard and Ethel Herzfeld Foundation Acquisition Fund M2008.120 Photo by John R. Glembin 8/3/2011 1

We’re accustomed to photos that freeze moments: The football falling into the receiver’s grasp, the hummingbird’s beating wings stilled by a high shutter speed.

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.

It appears at first to be a dull street scene, reduced to a short, wide rectangle. A plywood construction fence backs a sidewalk. A few people and a dog crowd oddly toward the right of the otherwise unpopulated scene. Two narrow, diagonal shadows play across the fence. The dark mass of a building looms over it at the left. A spray of bare tree limbs and a streetlights rise above the fence to the right and add a dash of natural, curvy motion to an otherwise deadpan, man-made scene.

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.

Categories: A/C Feature 3, Art

0 thoughts on “One Piece at a Time: A photo of the passage of time”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is a great photo. However, I’m not so sure that the two primary diagonal shadows are from different times. The two beams overhanging the sidewalk meet to form a triangle. It is the corner of the triangle nearest the camera that is casting its shadow at the sidewalk.

    However, a close examination of the shadow reveals a much fainter shadow that is shifted in time. The most evident effect of this overlap is that the overall shadow changes in intensity, thus making the upper or rightmost shadow look fainter for most of its length. The other shadow is actually a bit more interesting- it goes from dark to light to dark and then finally to light again as it meets the sidewalk.

    Thanks for sharing this photo!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great photo! We all are captivated by the passage of time – drawn to it and at the same time, perhaps a bit fearful – but not when it’s about Chicago 1960!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Tom, for commenting. Part of the charm of this piece is a certain ambiguity; I think you can read it more than one way. — Strini

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