The man behind these mind-bending images is artist, filmmaker and political activist, Jay Mark Johnson. Humans Invent sat down with him to get an exclusive insight into his work.
Johnson’s panoramic camera works by capturing vertical slivers of a landscape whilst rotating fraction by fraction. When these slices are viewed side by side, they make up a panoramic photograph. He says, “Just like a desktop scanner, the camera scans one very thin line of an image, then it moves ever so slightly, then scans another line right next to the first one. This continues until it produces a large image.” But by keeping the camera in a fixed position, the slices, when viewed side by side reveal the passing of time, and the resulting images depict reality like you’ve never perceived it before. “The camera I use is designed to shoot panoramic space. I modify it to shoot panoramic time.”
My images seamlessly combine both spatial and temporal dimensions
While the images are visually poetic and are displayed in art galleries, there is an accuracy to them that is comparable to data visualisation used by scientists in many different fields. Johnson says, “These images are all true photographic timelines. Scientists use timelines in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Like seismographs or electrocardiograms, the images I produce are smooth left-to-right depictions of an event that has occurred over time.”
Time is represented in Johnson’s images along the x-axis, from left to right. Consequently, an object moving quickly past the camera appears squashed, while an object moving slowly is elongated. “My images seamlessly combine both spatial and temporal dimensions. In my pictures, the predominant “x” axis presents a smooth visual record of the passage of time,” says Johnson.
Another effect of the techniques employed by Johnson is that stationary backgrounds appear as lines of colour that isolate and emphasize the moving subject of the image. The result is a portfolio of tremendous variety. He says, “Some images, like my ongoing ocean wave series, which I have now been shooting for years, offer alternative yet still recognizable views of our natural surroundings. Others like my images of unwrapped ferris wheels, are unpredictably strange and can be difficult to fathom, like looking at a Möbius strip or gazing at the convoluted etchings of M.C. Escher.”
Johnson’s work spans the gap between scientific accuracy and art, enabling Johnson to express himself artistically as well as produce detailed studies of the world around us that expand our perception. “At times I have tried to produce images that invoke the work of, say De Chirico, in which I try to develop something poetic in reference to the isolation that an individual feels in the modern setting. Other images are less emotive, more anthropological in their viewpoint. The variety make generalizing a bit difficult.”
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite
The technique used by Johnson could someday have unforeseen scientific applications, and parallels can be drawn with the method used to create “M-mode” pictures for ultrasound imaging, where a cross section of the scan is displayed in a timeline and parts of the image that don’t move appear as straight lines, just like in Johnson’s art.
The “Spacetime Photography” images produced by Johnson are a reminder of our own limited range of perception within a four-dimensional reality. While we have a great range of sight and motion within the three spatial dimensions, like a helicopter in flight, we are on a fixed path when it comes to the temporal dimension, more like a train on a track, forced to travel in one direction at a fixed speed, the future and past hidden from us. By allowing us to see the world beyond our normal means of perception, in a sense Johnson is giving us a glimpse of reality as it really is. More specifically, he is trading in a spatial dimension in exchange for an expanded temporal dimension; merely slicing reality along a different plane. For any sci-fi fans, this will conjure up memories of the Tralfamadorians of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, an alien race who perceive reality in four dimensions and have therefore experienced every instant of their own lives.
“I feel there is an importance in trying to work on thoughts and ideas that either challenge or otherwise expand upon things that we already know,” explains Johnson.
More broadly, Johnson’s work brings to mind how limited our senses are for perceiving the universe generally. There is simply so much of it that we just can’t perceive, for example the estimated 84% of the universe which is dark matter, only detectable by the gravity it exerts. Unless you are willing to implant magnets into your body, the most fundamental of forces remain literally imperceptible.
If you navigate to the gallery section of Jay Mark Johnson’s website you are presented with a brilliantly apt quote from William Blake’s, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, one that describes both the feeling conveyed by Johnson’s work as well as the method he employs to create it. It reads, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through the narrow chinks of his cavern.” Through Johnson’s photos the chinks become just a little wider.