The Broader Picture: Dark to the music of time

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The Independent Culture
These images speak of huge and unknowable things. Seeing them without explanation one might think they were set designs for King Lear, or scenes from some cosmic cataclysm or hi-tech modern war - or Armageddon. In fact, they were taken on family holidays in Brittany, on moonless nights on an island lit only by a lighthouse, on film exposed for an hour. "When there is no moon," explains Patrice Terraz, the photographer, "there are no more shadows."

The rocks are cut by light, etched against blackest shadow, lashed and stroked by sea and wind over aeons, unmoving, immemorial. There is a lunar, leprous cheesiness about them, and some look like Easter Island statues. The stars go by like traffic, like the old cars of the gods, and the rocks seem to watch them.

Stars don't normally move; nor do we normally see them move, except for the odd shooter. But these stars appear to be racing vertiginously by at a zillion light years per second, with tremendous gyring trajectories, steeply or gently curving or almost straight, describing the shape of the Universe, with us apparently in the middle; except that they're not, of course, and we're not (how sad). The trajectory we see in our sky, in frozen curved needles of long-extinguished light, is that of our own blue planet, and it measures not light years but a little earthly hour.

These pictures, then, show apparently stationary bits of our planet against a background of apparently whirling stars. There are no people in them. Yet they are entirely artificial. The stars could obviously not be seen thus without time-lapse photography, and no more could the rocks. With the passing of the minutes their black shapes are eaten into by the rotating beam of the lighthouse - consumed, in the slowest of slo-mo, by time.

The lighthouse prints the rocks with time, explains Patrice Terraz. I think it sounds better in French. Indeed, I do not think it too fanciful to detect in these photographs - in their logic, artificiality and poetry - a peculiarly French sensibility that is quite lost in translation. "On voit le temps passer. Seul le temps trouve le temps de laisser sa trace, par la rotation de la terre, par la faisceau du phare qui sculpte le paysage." ("One sees the time pass. Only time finds the time to leave its trace, by the rotation of the earth, by the beam of the lighthouse which sculpts the landscape.")

M Terraz is 32 and has been working as a photographer for 10 years. He has done poster campaigns for various public services in the Midi (he lives in Montpellier); he has exhibited in Paris, New York, London. Most of his photographs have been portraits, often with a philosophical bent; in one recent series, he posed mummies from the catacombs of Palermo against living Sicilians who looked like them.

There is an intriguing similarity, intellectually at least, between those pictures and the nocturnal studies shown here (there are 20 of them, taken over two August fortnights in 1994 and 1995). In the Sicilian pictures, the viewer sees twins, one alive, the other centuries dead. Here, the idea is applied to natural rather than human history, but the effect achieved is the same: by drawing attention to the nature of time, Terraz contrives to transcend it. !

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