It’s About Time: Classic Stroboscopic Photos
Ask 20 random people, “What is the nature of time?” and chances are pretty good that you’ll get 20 different answers born of a thousand different factors, from a respondent’s cultural background to the mood he or she happens to be in when asked the question. Time is an arrow, says one. Time is a circle, suggests another. Time is relative. Time is an illusion. Time is a kangaroo in a top hat and tails. (Granted, that last one is an unlikely reply.)
But no matter how assured or unhesitating their answers might be, most people would be hard-pressed to offer a single, definitive method for illustrating time. A clock face is too prosaic; a pendulum is too arbitrary; a gravestone is too . . . gravestoney. How on earth can we capture what is essentially a philosophical concept like time (or, if you prefer, Time, with a capital T) using a purely practical method or mechanism like, say, photography?
Fully aware that the true nature of time remains an unfathomable mystery, LIFE.com offers a selection of marvelous photographs, stroboscopic and otherwise, by the great Gjon Mili. (At left: Mili’s famous 1949 portrait of Pablo Picasso creating what LIFE magazine called a “distorted spatial centaur” in midair with a small flashlight.)
Here are technically brilliant pictures that fiddle with moments, junctures, sequences, and in the process offer a playful commentary on the slippery relationship between mere mortals and the temporal — perhaps even the eternal.
“To see a world in a grain of sand,” William Blake once wrote, “and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.” At their best, Gjon Mili’s stroboscopic photographs not only serve as a kind of modern adjunct to Blake’s vision; they also celebrate — with an unsentimental, clear-eyed wonder — the reality of sentient beings moving through both time and space.
In the end, though, seen decades after they were made, Mili’s pictures remain simply and incredibly cool.