A fast-forward trip through time's passage

Artists who document their lives by taking a self-portrait a day can condense years into a few minutes of video.
By David Sarno
Times Staff Writer

April 15, 2007

IN 1998, 22-year-old Jonathan Keller of Detroit began taking pictures of his own face. Two years later, Noah Kalina started doing it in Brooklyn. Then it was Ahree Lee in San Francisco. One picture per day, same angle. No smiles, no frowns, and definitely no blinking.

These three visual artists pioneered a new type of time lapse photography: When thousands of days of the self-portraits are shown in a high-speed sequence, the subject appears to age before your eyes.

Hair slithers outward and is suddenly cropped. Beards and mustaches sprout and vanish. Glasses flicker on and off, clothes swirl and flash. In Kalina's case, as the years pass, different apartments whiz by in the background, giving viewers a sense of where his life is going and where it's been.

These artists are all young enough that the onset of aging's inexorable decline is only barely perceptible in their films. There are no wrinkles, receding hairlines or loosening jowls yet. At most, the flush of youth in the first pictures begins to wane by the movies' end, replaced by the slightest late-20s wizening.

"I think it'll become more interesting the older I get," said Kalina, 26, whose video "everyday" has been a YouTube smash, even inspiring parodies. "It'd be nice if I started to age a little more."

Knock on wood!

Lee, Kalina and Keller — Lee calls the trio a "fraternity of the obsessed" — have all vowed to continue taking the photos until … well, forever. What's not clear is whether people will be willing to sit through something that long. "I did the math," Kalina said. "If I kept it at the same speed until I was 80, it would be like an hour and a half."

"I think it would have to just be sped up," he added.

Keller — who maintains a large and eclectic archive of daily photo projects on his Web site at sees a funny sort of competition among the three original portraitists.

"Who will be the first to die or give up their project?" he asked. "Will the person who lives the longest be given the greatest acclaim?"

In other words, can there be only one?

But wait. Hidden in a remote part of New York City, there is another. A child. Her name is Ellora.

Arno Klein, a neuroscientist at the New School, has been taking similar pictures of his daughter every day since she was born, and if things go according to plan, she may be the first to lay claim to a genuine whole-life portrait.

Of course, said plan was not hatched by Ellora, who turned 3 last week. When she gets old enough to know the difference, Klein said, "it's totally up to her whether she wants to continue it."

"It's her project," he said.

Klein's wife was initially uncomfortable with the idea of thousands of pictures of her daughter being posted on the Internet but was finally swayed by Klein's enthusiasm. Klein seems unworried by Internet bogeymen ("I have no enemies in this world") and prefers to focus on the project's artistic and even scientific promise.

"It's a data set," he said. "You can't really do something like this without giving it away, knowing that it'll be used for better purposes later."

Eased by technology

IT'S only recently that the kind of volume these projects create — troves of thousands or tens of thousands of digital images — became feasible for the average consumer. In the last several years, lower-cost digital cameras and picture-taking cellphones have helped boost the number of pictures snapped each year into the billions.

"This is a new world in terms of monumental image production," said Doug McCulloh, curator of "Command Z," a digital photography exhibit at the Torrance Museum that features the work of both Kalina and Lee.

"And [the huge image production] is paired with these new tremendous distribution avenues," he said, referring to mega-repository sites like YouTube, Flickr and PhotoBucket. "What's coming out of this is art that has less to do with individual photographs and more to do with devising means of encountering them."

A quick look on YouTube reveals a wide array of homegrown time-lapse projects. One guy made a daylong study of a hot-air balloon race in Reno, another recorded the bloom cycle of an amaryllis flower on his desk, and someone else posted a sped-up computer drawing session that starts as a blank page and ends as a photorealistic image of Radiohead's Thom Yorke.

When John Stone started his daily photo project in early 2003, it wasn't about anything as fancy as art or science. It was about getting ripped. "I was in really bad shape," he explained. "Miserable, smoking a lot of pot, drinking heavily — it was just rock bottom." So Stone did what any normal person would — he began an extremely rigorous diet and weight training regimen and documented his progress with photos.

In the time-lapse movie on his site, Stone begins as a pale, flabby computer geek who looks like he hasn't gotten off the couch for months. But as the days progress, his pot belly shrinks, and his arms, shoulders and chest seem to tighten and resolve. After six months, he's lean, tan and hardly nerdy at all. But Stone kept going, spending years honing his diet and lifting technique, and keeping it all on film. As of his portrait of April 1, (he takes them only once a month now), Stone looks like the buff dude on the cover of Men's Fitness.

Why are "during" photos so much more compelling than old-fashioned before and afters? Easy, Stone said. "It drives home the point that everybody can do it. It's not just some magic pill."

Maybe so, but beware. This is the seductive illusion of time-lapse. Start to believe the string of widely spaced moments is somehow continuous, and you're liable to forget that life is all the heavy lifting that happens in between.