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
"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 c71123.com/daily_photo/
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
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
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 [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.