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
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
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.