Seeing a year - one moment at a time

March 20, 2003|by Chris Copley

It was artistic vision that drew West Virginia photographer Stephen Lawson into time-lapse photography. He wanted to capture one subject over the course of time - in one still image.

Mechanical innovation allowed him to bring his vision fully alive.

Lawson's photos, on display at Washington County Arts Council Gallery through Saturday, April 19, portray something not usually associated with still photography: the passing of time. His wide images - showing a landscape throughout a day, a season, a year - are composed of many narrow slices of time lined up to show something impossible to see in real life.

One of his images, "Perth and the River Tay," shows a view looking south over the central Scottish city. The sun rises at the left edge of the photo; midday clouds float in an achingly blue sky over Perth, the Tay, brown hills and green fields; the sun sets over a dark land at the image's right edge. An entire day passes before the viewer in one composite photo.


Lawson, a Scotsman who visited the United States in 1968 and decided to stay, developed his dramatic images through patience and a knack for mechanical meddling. Originally, his composite images were made of individual photos cut and pasted side by side.

"When I started, I was shooting just with a regular 35-millimeter camera," he said. "I would frame the whole image and cut out the strip I needed. But I couldn't take this to the commercial shop. They attempt to print them all (as if shot) at midday."

Custom printing gave better quality but was hideously expensive. A single composite of 100 thin strips could cost him $1,800. Lawson decided to try another approach.

"I realized I could monkey with the inside of a camera," he said. "I could alter the aperture to expose a tall, narrow strip. I could get seven or eight exposures on one regular-size print."

In this way, Lawson reduced his costs while improving his art.

Three of Lawson's cameras will be displayed with his photographs in the WCAC gallery. These are the units Lawson attaches to trees and posts when he makes his exposures.

Typically, Lawson shoots each narrow photo himself, but some cameras can operate on their own.

"If it's a daylong composite, I have to stay there all day and shoot every seven minutes. I have a timer that keeps me on the ball," he said. "If it's a yearlong composite, the strips were taken at week intervals."

Some composites, such as "Spring Plumage," show day-by-day progression from one season into another. Lawson said he shoots each strip at the same time of day, introducing a random element into the composite.

Lawson continues to build new cameras, but he likes what he's accomplished so far.

"Most people think of photography as the stopping of time - you know, the frozen moment," he said. "But a lot of my work shows the passage of time - one-hundred-twenty-fifth of a second at a time."

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