The strange world of long exposures

I found exercise 3.2 on long exposures surprising, revealing and utterly intriguing, to the extent that I woke up several times through the night to jot down new thoughts on my phone.

When I first looked at the images by Hiroshi Sugimoto and Michael Wesely, and then at those I made myself for the exercise, I was repeatedly puzzled…
— Why did the screen become so bright in Sugimoto’s movie theatre shots but the audience completely disappear?
— Why did the people on the building sites leave no trace of their existence in Wesely’s images while the sun and/or other cosmic entities marked their paths?
— Where was the bus and where were the cars in my six-second overpass shot? Why had they all disappeared, leaving only white and red lines tracing the paths of their front and rear lights?
— When I flapped my arms constantly in the 20-second exposures, why did they disappear instead of leaving a blurred shape like the angel wing prints we made in the snow as children?
— How come the light of the torch is in constant movement just like my arms, and yet its entire path is recorded?

I gradually came to three conclusions:
1. The more an object moves, the less trace it leaves.
2. The longer the shot, the more completely moving objects are erased.
3. Projected light (from a direct light source) behaves differently to reflected light (from an object) and is recorded at full strength regardless of its movement or the duration of the exposure.

— So the direct light from the projector in Sugimoto’s theatre shots is the brightest thing in the image, and although the movement of the people sitting in the theatre seats must have been fairly limited, the shot is extremely long (the duration of the movie), which is why they disappear.
— So the people who moved around Wesely’s sites disappear and the direct light from the sun leaves its trace, but it’s more diffuse than the stationary light from the projector in Sugimoto’s theatre.
— So the direct light sources in my overpass shot left the trace of their path for the entire six seconds, but the moving vehicles (which were only reflecting light) disappeared.
— So when I flapped my arms in 60 degree arcs (a lot of movement) for 20 seconds they disappeared completely but when I limited the arc to about 15 degrees (less movement) I was left with short tapering arms.
— And the torch is another direct light source, so (like the headlights) leaves the trace of its path for the entire duration of the shot, in this case 20 seconds.

In these images our daily experience of the world is inverted. Things we normally experience as solid (objects) become less prominent or disappear altogether, while things we normally experience as transparent (light sources) have the strongest presence in the images. Indeed, the usual hierarchy of noticeability/prominence/visibility is completely reversed and is now:
1. Light: most prominent.
2. Objects that don’t move: next level of prominence.
3. Objects that move: disappear altogether.

The true nature of the universe is revealed, in which our own physical existence as living, moving beings is brief and transient and leaves no trace, while inanimate objects outlast us and the only thing with real persistence and endurance is light itself.

References and resources

Dewdney, J.W. (2018) ‘Portfolio: Movie Theatres’. Available from: [accessed 06/02/18]
Itchyi (2018) ‘The Longest Photographic Exposures in History’. Available from: [accessed 06/02/18]
The Museum of Modern Art (2018) ‘Michael Wesely: Open Shutter at The Museum of Modern Art’. Available from: [accessed 06/02/18]
Sugimoto, H. (2017) Hiroshi Sugimoto. Available from: [accessed 06/02/18]

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Marion Palace, Ohio (1980)

Michael Wesely: The Museum of Modern Art (7 August 2001–7 June 2004)

f/22.0 6.0 ISO 200 focal length 50 mm

f/22.0 20.0 ISO 100 focal length 50 mm

f/22.0 20.0 ISO 100 focal length 50 mm

f/22.0 20.0 ISO 100 focal length 50 mm