Bullet Time and Cyclical Time: the eternal moment in recent photographic practice.

Introduction: Emergency Numbers

Google Screen grab

Google Screen grab


The events of September 11th2001 in New York unveiled the true extent to which moving and still image have come to shape our perception of reality.At 8.45 am a hijacked passenger jet, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, Massachusetts, crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre. Immediately in Jersey, Battery Park City, Soho, and China town amateurs pulled out video cameras, digital still cameras and mobile phones to diligently capture content. Within twenty minutes, professional news stations had set up a live feed and footage of the fire in the first tower was broadcast via satellite to news stations across the world.

Within minutes of these images broadcasting millions of people were watching as a second plane appeared within the frame. Without explanation or warning the plane made a sharp turn and headed towards the second tower. Millions of spectators collectively jumped as the second tower was hit. 

As the flames raged, cameras zoomed in to capture the desperate many leaping to their deaths. As the firemen ran with hoses up the stairs, the towers were visualised and enhanced from every angle. Then the towers fell and each individual watching realised they had witnessed perhaps the most politically consequential moment in their lifetime. This moment would be written about so many times in so many places it came to be abbreviated into numbers: 9/11 a numeric dial code reserved for emergency. 

While the world reeled from the dizzying implications of this event, a different kind of ‘reeling’ was taking place in editing rooms across the world. The numbered frames were cut, frozen and slowed for re-examination. Reversing, forwarding in half speed: the plane hitting, the people jumping, the towers falling. Amateur footage flooded in: better angles, a new view, more editing. Quickly the collage of history was assembled and fed back to the audience, hungry for explanation and answers. Did it really happen? Yes it did….here it is again. 

“If the Real is disappearing, it is not because of a lack of it – on the contrary, there is too much of it. It is the excess of reality that puts an end to reality, just as the excess of information puts and end to information, or the excess of communication puts an end to communication.”

[1]Written one year before the events described above, Baurillard suggests that in an ‘image world’, the world of the ‘simulacra’, the Real[2]is in the process of disappearing in the process of virtualisation. Photography is deeply implicated in this ‘excess’ and ‘end’ of reality that Baudrillard describes.  

The camera, with its technical ability to capture a moment, has always been linked to both the subject (through indexicality) and time (through the instantaneous moment of its creation). The subject is framed and caught: a moment in time, a singular perspective:

“Painting can feign reality without having ever seen it. Discourse combines signs which have referents, of course, but these referents can be and are most often “chimeras”. Contrary to these imitations, in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.”


In Camera Lucida, Barthes suggested that the very nature of photography was its ability to represent something that ‘had been there’. Our contemporary experience of still images has shifted from this classic modernist concept to a very different understanding of photography and, by association, time and history. In visual reportage, the ‘history making’ machine of documentary film and stills, many of the recognisable features of photography from the past one hundred and fifty years have recently changed. 

Stills are captured from moving images taken at the scene turning the crucial decision of what moment to “take” into an editorial decision made in the newsroom by a producer, rather than the photographer in the field. Even if the camera is recording on (chemical) film the ‘taker’ is removed in time and space from the event. Sequences can be paused, reversed and cut into stills. A ‘realtime’ recorded event can be turned into a film cadaver – to be dissected, examined, replayed and analysed within minutes. The burden of ‘truth’ is passed from photographer at the scene, to an editor elsewhere at a safe distance. 

If moving images can be halted, still images can be animated. The position of the camera is no longer guaranteed a singular location: the wide distribution of cameras and the possibilities afforded by software able to “stitch” images together means our experience of the ‘still’ now incorporates the experience of one moment, seen from every angle.[4] This ‘Time-slice’ of the photographic moment allows the viewer unrestricted access to areas previously excluded from the frame. Individual frames are animated to simulate a 360º circumference of one instant. This technology and others, lead us to conclude that the ‘decisive moment’ is a historical concept, contingent upon the technological limitations of a film-based era, now past.

The boundary between moving and still images has blurred. Advances in audio visual technology mean that moving images, once the province of darkened theatres, collective consumption with strict schedules, under the control of TV or film programmers, are now available in a much more malleable form on the computer and mobile phone. 

The sophistication of software means that almost anything can be created out of code. Digital Imaging has challenged the ‘indexical’ link between the photographic image and the world, making ‘photography’ a style of image, a version of itself in digital form.

“The aesthetic of the digital still thinks with the idea of the index”


Just as the door of a fibre-glass car may shut with the same reassuring thud as a door of steel through the clever use of sound mechanics, so the digital camera clicks and whirs.  

The wide distribution of digital cameras through mobile phone technology coupled with the rise of citizen journalism and web sharing of pictures means that historical events, once documented by a few professional photographers are now open to multiple perspectives. Not only is the act of taking pictures democratised; the process of global image distribution via the web has decentred traditional channels of information. This would be a happy outcome, were it not that alongside this egalitarian return to photography’s amateur roots is an exponential rise in triviality associated with photography, most prominently visible in the large quantities of images of celebrities on newsstands and websites. 

Photography was already ubiquitous, now it is utterly disposable making up a large part of the huge flotilla of stimulating detritus floating in our sphere of consciousness. This profusion of moving and still images results in massive global databases archives of news agencies even nuclear bunkers.[6] This burden of historical evidence has presses on contemporary photographic practice: every new image adding extra weight to the growing mountain. 

In this essay I will look at how two artists address the issue of this photographic ‘inheritance’ to create works that revitalise discussions over the relationships between mediums and traditions. Both Jeff Wall and Tim McMillan address issues around the representation of time and history in their work. Using innovative techniques that quote or appropriate the language of drama, documentary and history painting, they offer an interesting comparison. 

‘Dead Horse’ by Tim McMillan played a role in the creation of the ‘Time-Slice’, or ‘temps mort’ technique popularised by the famous ‘bullet time’ sequence in the Wachowski brothers’ ‘The Matrix’[7] where one moment is captured simultaneously from multiple viewpoints and subsequently ‘stitched’ back together to create an effect of 360º vision. ‘Restoration’ by Jeff Wall is, conversely an attempt to capture a 360º panoramic painting using a panoramic camera and digital imaging. Wall creates a tableau of multiple meanings, times and narratives. Both pieces offer new perspectives on the ’decisive moment’, the relationship of photography to ‘the real’ and the possibilities for photography’s trajectory in the coming decades....

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[1] Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion (Columbia University Press, 2000) 65- 66

[2] Described by Baudrillard as based on the principle of having an origin, and end, a past and a future. The Vital Illusion 63

[3] Roland Barthes, from Camera Lucida, quoted by Nancy Shawcross in Roland Barthes on Photography (1997) 94

[4] This technique can be seen observed watching an important game of football. Here the suspected foul, the failed goal attempt is digitally reconstructed using Time Slice technology and software. Using cameras placed strategically around the goal areas, the player is rendered in 3D and viewers have the illusion of spinning around within the moment examining every angle of the players’ expression, position, and gesture.

[5] Laura Mulvey, Death 24 x a Second (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2006) 21

[6] Reuters hope to hold the largest ‘post nuclear’ collection of photographic imagery in their nuclear bunker. One can only wonder who might argue the point after the event.

[7] See Appendix: The Matrix