The Hour of Exposure

By Yinka Elujoba

December 20, 2019

Umberto Verdoliva. Cover photo of What is a Dream?, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Elasticity: the ability of a material to return to its normal shape after it has been stretched or compressed. A photograph is, perhaps, the medium with the most sensitive of elastic limits. The moment of its creation marks that moment as eternal, once and for all. A photographer is a trader in these moments, measuring time, weighing angles, recognizing the right instant to swallow light. A second later or earlier and the image formed would be different—a memory broken, a moment lost, an irreparable and eternal mistake. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote in his book, The Decisive Moment (1952): “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Some of the world’s most brilliant photographs are collusion between serendipity and acuity, raising inevitable questions like: how much of a photograph is formed? How much of it is discovered? A photograph is a documented but interminable instant, a continuous representation of the balance between serendipity and acuity at the moment of its forming. That is, until we begin to consider double exposures.

The first double exposure photographs were probably discovered (or created) by accident. During the earliest years of photography, taking a portrait was a tedious and delicate process. The subjects would have to sit or stand still for a minimum exposure period of at least 20 to 40 minutes in order for the photographer to capture a clear image. If, during such a period of exposure, the photographer were to change something in the scene—for example, if he moved a subject being photographed from one seat to another, or if he decided that a standing subject was better than a sitting one—the resulting photograph would become doubly exposed, appearing in two places (or postures) within the same photograph. At first, photographers started taking great care to avoid double exposures, but it was only a matter of time before a new school of thought began to emerge and the more adventurous began to test the limits of what was obtainable with multiple exposures. 

How elastic is a double exposure image? A photograph’s meaning can fall apart if there is a miscalculation at the instant of its forming, so what holds a double exposure in place? Or, perhaps, the right question would be: can double exposures be a measure of any kind of elasticity at all?

All photography is elastic ritual. For the single exposure photograph we will measure its elasticity based on the aforementioned collusion between serendipity and the photographer’s acuity. We will weigh it to see if he has taken the shot too early or too late, or whether he has overemphasized the already obvious. But to measure double exposures this way is impossible for they are lacking both serendipity and spontaneous acuity. 

The cover image of photographer Umberto Verdoliva’s online project, a series of double exposures entitled “What is a Dream?” (2012) is instantly immersing. A boy sits on large, stone steps, shadows surrounding him. His eyes are intent on some thing, or some thought outside the frame. Behind him, light dissolves in the mist. In the foreground of the photograph a man appears to be levitating, smoke pouring from the canisters he holds in his hands. This man is the great Chinese contemporary artist Li Wei, whose works often depict him in phantom positions, defying gravity. But Wei is not the only entity defying gravity in the photograph: the boy in the background holds the string of a gently rising balloon. On his website, Verdoliva writes of the series: “It’s a project made on film with a Nikon FM2n, using fixed focus 50mm f/1.4 double exposure, two or more shots, where pre-visualization and research on the street play a key part. The basis was roaming the city looking for different ‘connections’ between things, people and feelings: as if everything were a dream, and it was astonishing.”

Verdoliva’s statement is instructive. What his project brings to the fore is the possible duality of a moment—a planned coincidence for which two elements are inherently responsible. The first element, pre-visualization, is an easy-to-define term: it is what the photographer imagines his combination of exposures can become, how he decides to orchestrate a singular scene from a combination of different exposures. The second element is, however, a bit trickier and requires that we employ a word composite enough to hold its meaning. This second element is consonance

And what is this ‘consonance?’

“No image stands alone,” author and photographer Teju Cole wrote in the New York Times in 2015. “Each is related in straightforward or convoluted ways to other pictures.” This consonance begins as a relationship—or “connection” as Verdoliva puts it—and evolves into something else. Simply put, consonance is the tuning effect each exposure in a multiple exposure photograph gives to the other exposures; it is the meaning one exposure adds to or removes from the others; and it is how each exposure adapts or adjusts itself to the presence of other exposures.

Consider the 2019 compilation of selected images by photographer Fan Ho published posthumously in the book Fan Ho: A Hong Kong Memoir. Ho, born in Shanghai, immigrated with his family as a teenage boy to Hong Kong in 1949. In the 50s and 60s, he photographed Hong Kong’s gradual development into a metropolitan center. Some of his photographs from this period were never developed, remaining only in black and white negative form. In 2010, Ho, now in his eighties, returned to his set of never-printed negatives and began to sandwich them, creating new images entirely from the different, previously unprinted exposures.

“While I was reviewing and archiving my negatives, I noticed that when I combined two or more together, I got a really interesting effect. I call this technique ‘making something old new again’,” Ho has said of this series. “I have to imagine the scenery first in my mind. After that, I sought out my archive. It’s a lot of trial and error.” Fan Ho’s statement, like Verdoliva’s, is instructive, making clear that pre-visualization is also a key element in his project. But again, what about consonance?

Fan Ho. Of Cat and Woman, 2014. Courtesy of Fan Ho: A Hong Kong Memoir, 2019.

Of Cat and Woman, one of Ho’s double exposed images from the series is a good place to begin. The image is both lucid and alarming: two cats circle a woman on the run, waiting to pounce. Ho has played with light so that the shadows of the cats make it appear as though there were four cats instead of two, as though the ambush were total, and the woman’s attempted escape was futile. The photograph’s crispness almost hides the fact that it is a combination of different scenes melded into one multiple exposure. But obviously, cats this size are improbable—Ho has enlarged the cats and minimized the woman, so that now the cats appear as giant monsters terrorizing the tiny figure of the woman. 

If we were to separate each exposure in Of Cat and Woman into individual photographs, the results would be mildly uninteresting: a woman running, a cat on a street, and the same cat on the same street in another posture. When looked at singly, these exposures do not carry a meaning too distant from when they are sandwiched into a single photograph. The cats are obviously surrounding something and the woman is still running. But when the exposures unite, each of them gains a newer meaning—a result of the presence of the other exposures. The cats are still encircling, but are now tuned into something different. No longer small, harmless animals on a street, they are now something a person should be afraid of, something a person should run from. 

Returning to the cover photograph of Verdoliva’s “What is a Dream?” with this new knowledge, it becomes easier to see how consonance has shaped the different exposures and added newer meanings. Look at the single exposures—a boy sitting amidst shadows on the steps of a large hall with dreamy eyes and a balloon floating from a string in his hands; a man levitating, smoke pouring from the canisters he holds. When these two exposures combine, the tuning effect is complete: the hovering man morphs into an embodiment of what the boy’s daydream might be. His reverie is no longer a vague concept or an imperceptible idea to anyone observing the photograph—Li Wei is now a tangible representation of something immaterial, a physical proof that not only balloons can defy gravity.

Since we now weigh the elastic limits of double exposures in terms of pre-visualization and consonance (just like we weigh those of a singular exposure in terms of serendipity and acuity), how then do we measure, using these elements, the elasticity of double exposures? When does a double exposure fall apart?

One of the most interesting class of photographers that descended from the discovery of double exposures were “Spirit Photographers” who, during the late 1800s to early 1900s, claimed to be able to capture images of ghosts and other spiritual entities. These photographers were actually working with multiple exposures while asserting they could help their clients create photographs of themselves and their loved ones who were missing or deceased. If we, for a moment, choose to overlook the deceptive and sometimes treacherous methods employed by these spirit photographers, and choose rather to examine their works simply as pieces of art, then William Mumler’s untitled photograph, of Mary Todd Lincoln (c. 1869) with the “ghost” of her husband Abraham Lincoln, is an interesting consideration. It is easy to identify what Mumler has pre-visualized: Mary seated, her husband’s ‘ghost’ standing behind her, his hands on her shoulders. Lincoln is his wife’s continuous guardian, even in the otherworld. On a technical level, Mumler achieves his aim perfectly. There is even a slight bend in Mary’s left shoulder, as though she knows that her husband is behind her, as though she were leaning into him. But is there any consonance in this photograph?

William H. Mumler. Mary Todd Lincoln, circa 1870. Image courtesy of The New Yorker.

Consonance’s subtlety can make it easy to assume its presence, but if we were to look at the two exposures of Mumler’s brilliant deception as single entities, we see that his joining them together achieves only what he has pre-visualized. There is no tuning effect on either exposure as a result of their mixture into a single scene, no addition of a newer meaning. Mumler’s photograph falls apart when we test its consonance—it’s an inelastic image. 

In Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes considers a photograph by the Dutch reporter Koen Wessing and writes: “I understood at once that its existence (its “adventure”) derived from the co-presence of two discontinuous elements, heterogeneous in that they did not belong to the same world…” Are multiple exposure photographs less ingenious photographs in this regard since they appear to be a forceful way of achieving this “co-presence of two discontinuous elements” and bringing together the “heterogeneous” from different worlds? This question may be irrelevant when we consider the difference between the elements responsible for elasticity in both categories of photographs. The single exposure photographer works within the barriers of serendipity and acuity; his masterful stroke is dependent on how well he utilizes the moment of the shot. He knows that whatever he decides is true at the moment of the shot will be true forever. The photographer of multiple exposures recognizes the opportunity to move beyond the limits of working with a “decisive moment.” By taking even the most ordinary of photographs and merging them with others, he creates power by making newer meanings from old ones.

Yinka Elujoba is a Nigerian writer and art critic currently living in New York.

Leave a Reply