One of the things I knew I wanted to explore in Havasupai was water… particularly how our perception of water changes depending on the length of the moments we occupy in time. Visually we inhabit around 1/15th of a second. Although this speed allows us to perceive most movement that is perceptually relevant on a pragmatic level, a great deal of motion is either too fast or too slow for us to differentiate (i.e. without any aids, I’ve never been able to watch a bullet fly or a mountain grow).
To get a sense of motion that is perceptible to us, consider the next two images. To me, the first photo looks like a long exposure, while the second looks more or less “normal.” In actuality, both capture shorter fragments of time than what our eyes perceive.
At 1/25th of a second, this image depicts a moment only slightly briefer than what my eyes saw when I was physically present. Based on the how the water appears as a smooth sheet and how the white foam is obviously blurred, it feels like a “long exposure.” Curiously however, this is only true in comparison to other photographs. Our visual process actually blurs the motion even more than this.
At a 1/320th of a second, this image is frozen far beyond what our visual system can process. It looks “normal,” but I believe this is only because photography has familiarized us with thinner slices of time than what we are physiologically capable of perceiving. Within the realm of captured images, a 1/320th of a second actually is a fairly common exposure time.
Conversely, photography has also introduced us to longer units of time than what we naturally perceive. The image above records of several seconds of motion. Long exposures like these are beautiful, but my explorations in Havasupai focused primarily on ultra-fast captures instead. When imaged at high speeds, water reveals some truly unexpected behavior (if you haven’t seen this two and a half minute video of bouncing water drops at 2000/fps, you’re in for a treat).
This image and all the following images were captured at 1/8000th of a second.
Also Mooney Falls from the top. As I increased my distance away from the falls, I found it interesting that motion seemed to blur. This image is also a 1/8000th of a second, yet somehow it feels like a longer exposure.
With all scales of streams, waterfalls, and pools (plus slightly warmer weather), Havasupai proved to be an ideal space to visually explore moving water. Unlike flora and fauna, with carefully ordered engineering and vibrant colors, the beauty of water is less explicable. It makes me wonder why I find it so interesting. Rather than delivering entirely new visual content, water distorts and mirrors the world around it. Perhaps this distortion is what captivates me–a simultaneous alteration of my forward gaze and an unexpected mirroring back of the world behind me.
And water is alien. Even though my body and our planet are mostly made of water, it only feels more strange the more I study it. We inhabit space and time quite differently than a fluid. If you shackle my arm to something, my whole body is shackled. If pulled hard enough, my arm may detach, but it won’t just fuse back on later. My brother Andrew studies moving water as a geological system and has explained some things about this that make my head hurt. Rivers and streams, for example, posses a backward physical linkage within themselves. It’s obvious that if you dam a river, a lake will form upstream. Less intuitively however, if the flow of water is accelerated or curved at one point, perhaps by a steeper terrain grade or an obstruction, this significantly affects the behavior, shape, and speed of the current many miles upstream. One could argue that this allows a river to be present in multiple moments of time simultaneously …or at least that it is materially connected to its past. However we look at it, the characteristics of water don’t fit a paradigm that I find intuitive.
Lastly, I’ve noticed that my visual interaction with water and time has made me more aware of how my other senses sample time. Our hearing for example, can differentiate extremely precise differences compared to vision, while taste and smell sample relatively large units of time compared to vision. It makes me wonder how our way of understanding the world around us would change if we were able to smell more instantaneously and couldn’t hear as quickly.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!