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FROM SNOWY MOUNTAIN

 

Nothing complies better than still photography with the argument of the ancient philosopher Zeno of Elea that time is composed of moments. 

At the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, on Granville Island, Library and Archives Canada mounted an exhibition of large-scale photographs of Olympic athletes along Railspur Alley on Granville island, a former industrial park that is now the site of craft shops, galleries, artists' studios, theatres, a university of art and design and a public market. The name of the exhibition was  Portraits in the Street.  At the end of the alley, an elaborate gold frame was set up in front of a backdrop depicting Whistler Mountain under a thick layer of snow. Passersby were invited to take pictures of each other posing within the frame.  The ancient Greeks would surely have sympathized with this impulse to mark one's present at the right place in the right time.

  

Some of our earliest images of Olympic athletes are the black figure decorations on ancient ceramic vessels known as amphorae. These images are the result of a complex firing process in which reddish iron oxide, hematite, is reduced chemically to pitch-black magnetite, a technique  invented by Corinthians around the time of the first ancient Olympics, roughly 2700 years ago.

When the Olympic games were revived in 1896, classic black and white photography was already refined and well spread. Like the black-figure amphorae painting, black and white photography also relies on the process of chemical reduction, in this case, the reduction of silver salts to the black metallic silver. Film-based photography  lacks the durability of Greek pottery and it is unlikely that any original, film-based photographs of the modern Olympic games will exist 2700 years from now.

By the second half of the 20th century, digital photography had been perfected and made widely affordable. Digital cameras do not record images directly but rather write and save their binary DNA code, from which the images, or moments, can be reborn either as printouts or projections—making it possible that some digital photographs, short of a global catastrophe, will endure practically forever.

As far as I can tell, all of the passerby taking pictures of each other in the big frame on Granville Island were using digital cameras. I doubt anyone who posed looked for pictorial immortality beyond the life span of a family album. Nevertheless, some of these images will endure. It’s possible that someone will look at  them closely in 2700 years from now and notice  how very diverse a bunch we were at this moment in Vancouver.

—Christopher Grabowski, 2010

From Snowy Mountain was exhibited at the Roundhouse Exhibition Hall in Vancouver in November 2010