Finding the Meaning of Life in Timelapse Imagery

March 3, 2016

As a graduate student at UNL, a lot of my time revolves around my research. My thesis comprises applications of time-lapse imagery to communicate ecosystem changes. My days consist of ogling PBT’s photographs, glaring at data (data acquired from either 1. pixel-analysis of the time-lapse images, or 2. collected concurrently alongside PBT’s cameras with recorders or sensors), or eyeing photos and data simultaneously. Lots of beautiful visuals- lots of numeric values- lots of integrating two similar, yet different, forms of information. And it’s got me thinking a lot about the structural underpinnings of science and art (i.e. photographs, visualizations, story, video, numbers, relationships). So I thought I’d share.

“The objects of science, like the direct objects of the arts, are an order of relations which serve as tools to effect immediate havings and beings.”

– John Dewey, Experience and Nature, 1925

At a fundamental, foundational and ideological, level, art, and science are analogous — concepts of inquiry– of striving to understand ourselves, the environment around us, and our relationship to the world, to develop and interpret perspectives and infer meaning to the human experience.

But there is a dichotomy to the inherent parallels. Science is a discipline of methodological study; analytical, logical, objective observation and experimentation to explain fact. Art is a construct of expressive, creative, subjective aesthetics and usually emotive work.

Digital technologies (i.e., the internet as the public’s leading source of scientific topics, great-grandma’s cellphone) have increased the potential for art and science collaboration and obscured the lines of distinction between disciplines. The compelling interface of science and art emerge in various ways and on many fronts: cue the applicability to PBT.

Photography can be thought of as a universal language, capable of bridging information gaps and reaching broad audiences. Images are more easily understood and can condense complex information. They can provide documentation, establish a baseline, tell a story, and evoke an emotional response. Time-lapse photography has a secret tactic over still imagery — an augmented dimension– temporal structure; where a discrete frame of view is captured over iterations of time. For scientific inquiry; this is exceedingly useful as data can be extracted from the images by measuring changes in pixels. For aesthetically emotive work; it’s darn pretty- capable of capturing changes often invisible or too subtle for human eyes to see in standard time and elucidating the compelling phenomena of the natural world (i.e., seasonality, river morphology, invasive species encroachment). In contrast to photographs, numerical values can be analyzed, examined, and statistically validated. But data alone can be abstract. And boring.

A dually aesthetic and scientific depiction of a system can unfold with the fusion of time-lapse photography and data. This fusion, particularly with further narrative framing (and thus added artistic elements), may offer insight to spark creative perception, enhance our understanding of ecological systems, and ignite broader thinking about scale, place, context, and relationships. And anyway, it’s always more interesting. Here’s a simplified example:

Does the meaning of life reside at the intersection of art and science? Perhaps not*. But at its core, time-lapse enables and encourages us to explore the complexity and interconnectedness of the world, through a beautifully and logically aligned synthesis of science and art.


*The meaning of life is 42.


PBT team photo. Summer 2023

About PBT

We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

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