Making New Technology to Shoot Impossible Photos of Time

Memory  /  Time Travel
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Adam Magyar is a Hungarian street photographer you might call the anti-Bresson, with a point of view about time and photography that’s almost mystical:

“I was never really into seeking those magical moments when things come, and happen in a magical way, and you capture a whole story in one photograph. I was always more interested in the rest: the unimportant, ignored moments. Because I think of this enormous thing that always surrounds me — and I’m never going to understand — it’s always there. It’s so amazing, it’s a gift always, and it’s in ALL the moments. And that’s what I’m trying to capture.”

–Adam Magyar

Magyar, who grew up tinkering with things in his father’s workshop, found himself wondering, in his quest to photograph time beyond and between the decisive moments, what would happen if he put a flatbed scanner sensor in front of a camera lens. Unlike a shutter release, which freezes time, the scanner moved from one side to another, spanning time.

This homemade mashup basically produced slit scan photos — like those used for track photo-finishes — and made sometimes-surreal images. (We’ve featured some otherworldly slit scan selfies in the past). Magyar set it up on a tripod in an alleyway, pointed out onto city sidewalks; each exposure was about two minutes long, allowing for a good flow of foot traffic. “Each little fragment is the present, and all these present fractions come together to give you the story,” he’s said. “By the time we see the story, it’s like our memory. It’s already past.”

He called the resulting images — which, when printed, are a foot tall by eight feet long — the Urban Flow series.

Adam Magyar makes new technology to shoot impossible photos of time.
Detail from Urban Flow 1865, New York, 2015.

“I was especially interested in the flow. I wanted to capture this ever-changing nature of life — things are always going on, minute after minute, day after day, life after life, generation after generation. So I traveled to big cities where the pedestrian traffic was massive enough to have this relentlessly-going-on thing…this technique is about measuring time. It’s not like our subjective time, where we emphasize things or ignore things; neglect things, then emphasize them again. It’s like a clock — tick, tock — it’s recording everything relentlessly.”

Besides the morphing effects we’ve seen with other examples of slit scan photos, Magyar’s technique has an interesting side effect: everyone seems to be walking in the same direction. Why? Because the scanner reads in one direction, effectively ignoring anything moving the other way. (If you can’t quite wrap your head around how this works, Magyar gives a detailed explanation, along with visuals, at 7:56 here.)

“I really like this because it looks like everyone is heading towards the same destination. We’re kind of following each other. I often think about how much genuine choice we really have when we select our paths.”

Adam Magyar makes new technology to shoot impossible photos of time.
Detail from Urban Flow 1089, London, 2008.

For a sense of just how detailed these 96″-wide images are, here’s a brief pan-and-zoom from a Hong Kong photo:


Adam Magyar makes new technology to shoot impossible photos of time.
Detail from Urban Flow 1807, New York, 2015.

For his next project, Stainless, Magyar once again went into mashup mode, sourcing a high-speed industrial camera used for quality checks on fast-moving assembly lines, modifying it for street use, and creating a smart phone app to control it. Then he mounted the whole kit on a tripod in order to capture New York subways as they rocketed through the stations. (Maybe not surprisingly, this led to detention and interrogation by the New York Transit Police. They released him after he showed them his portfolio, but fined him $25 for using a tripod. Ever resourceful, he put the electronics — with wires trailing — in a back pack, and made a chest rig for the camera, then stood on the platform).

At first glance, Magyar’s still Stainless images are so pat and precise — it’s just a picture of a subway car, after all — that it’s easy to forget: that subway car is traveling at speed, photographed from the platform as it passes.


Adam Magyar makes new technology to shoot impossible photos of time.
Stainless, 13316, Paris, 2011.

As with Urban Flow, there’s an abundance of crisp detail if you look closely, the windows of the trains ready-made frames for truly candid portraits of commuters:

Adam Magyar makes new technology to shoot impossible photos of time.
Detail from Stainless #7649.


But even more striking: when Magyar reverses the POV, and gets on the train himself, training his ‘camera’ out the window and towards the platform as he streaks by. These videos — some of which are nearly half an hour in length — are both hypnotic and mundane, eternal and instantaneous — just as the artist is ever seeking.