Clocks for Seeing: My Cirkut Panoramas on Display

This is an updated blog post that first appeared on my previous blog site at I am particularly proud of the earlier work I did with my antique Cirkut camera and thought you might enjoy revisiting it as well.

From December 20, 2014 to May 3, 2015 the National Gallery of Canada exhibited two of my photographs (shown in this post) as part of the group exhibition, Clocks for Seeing: Photography, Time and Motion. The photographs are from the gallery’s permanent collection and were first exhibited in 1996 in its sister gallery (now absorbed into the National Gallery of Canada), the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.

I say all this partly because I am proud to have photographs in the collection of our country’s premiere art gallery but also because of the conceptual underpinnings of the exhibition.

The title “Clocks for Seeing” is a phrase coined by Roland Barthes in his seminal book Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography: 

“For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches — and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.” 

Jonathan Newman, curator of the National Gallery show expands on the concept of time implicit in Barthes’ quotable phrase, “clocks for seeing”:

“The invention of photography has had a profound effect on the way we see and know the world. In many ways, this is due to the medium’s relation to time. Photography has opened a window that allows us to see “what was” in ways that were inconceivable before its invention, irrevocably altering our connection to the past. Our histories and memories, both collective and personal, are now shaped by photography and the glimpse (however fragmented and imperfect) it enables into the past. At the other end of the spectrum, photography has extended human vision by allowing us to see the dynamics at play in the tiniest slivers of time. The motion and flux of things that once were beyond the capacity of human perception are now knowable through the frozen moment of the photograph. Clocks for Seeing: Photography, Time and Motion considers the relationship between time and photography through a selection of historical and contemporary photographs that encompass practices ranging from science to art.”

At first glance, my long, thin panoramas of the Canadian prairies – part of my Grasslands series – might appear to have but a glancing relevance to either Barthes’ or Newman’s statements. Until you bring the apparatus used to take these pictures into the equation. Take a look at the short video below.

This is the Cirkut Number 6 Outfit, a c.1916 camera devised to take panoramic images. Someone, in the early decades of the last century, had likely used this very camera to take the long group portraits that this camera was designed for. In the 1990’s, I acquired it as a means to expand the view of my photographic work, which was oriented to landscape subjects. My concern at that time was that, standing as a photographer/observer in a landscape, my understanding of a place, the reason I would want to set up my tripod and camera at a particular spot, was influenced by what lay behind, above and below me as well as what was “the subject” in front of me. The Cirkut camera, capable of taking a full-circle image, approached that need. 

What you don’t immediately “see” in the images this camera produces is the clockwork sense of time as the camera rotates. But it is there, the exposure starting at the left end of the panorama and ending at the right edge of the image, 30 seconds or so later. Time is laid out before the viewer, a photographic charting of time as well as place. 

What you can’t hear in my Cirkut images is the sound of time passing. That is part of my memory alone, the sound of gears whirring still strong when I view these pictures. As Barthes says, “For me the noise of Time is not sad….”

the demarcation of prairie land, grasslands national park (Saskatchewan), 1992
gelatin silver print
21.3 x 151.2 cm; image: 15.5 x 144.5 cm
Purchased 1996 by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (no. EX-96-43)

Detail, the demarcation of prairie land, grasslands national park (Saskatchewan)

tagging the endangered western prairie fringed orchid, saranchuk prairie (near Gardenton, Manitoba), 1994
gelatin silver print
21.2 x 151.9 cm; image: 15.6 x 147 cm
Purchased 1996 by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (no. EX-96-42)

Detail, tagging the endangered western prairie fringed orchid, saranchuk prairie (near Gardenton, Manitoba)

The front end of the Cirkut Outfit is a standard 5″ x 7″ Kodak field camera.

At the back end, the camera’s ground glass/film holder is replaced with the Cirkut attachment.
On the right is the vertical shutter slit, which is held open once the camera is switched on. 
On the left is the spool of 6″ wide film attached to the spring-driven motor. Below the drive, is the gear that connects to the tripod base gear when the back is closed. Once the device is switched on, the motor rotates the camera on its turntable base and pulls the film across the shutter slit.  

10 thoughts on “Clocks for Seeing: My Cirkut Panoramas on Display

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  1. HI David. This is fascinating. Thank you!. I especially enjoyed your mention of noise included in the passing of time. Gears and film turning — yep, give me the real stuff of equipment. I would never have thought about this … thanks for posting it. Verna

  2. HI David, thanks for this. I’m amazed by the clarity of thought behind your projects.

    I don’t remember if you are on Facebook. There I continue in my (quite willingly) “muddled up” approach to posting anecdotes from our family history, ca. 1865 to 1965, illustrated in large part courtesy of the 5000-photo digital archives gathered by my brother Keith. I’m interested not just in the stories and images, but in the process of playing with them on Facebook, as a socio-historic artifact in itself.

    Today I posted the first image that Keith and I have “created” together, with an excerpt of one of the oral histories recounted by one of my grandfathers.

    Since I don’t recall if you use FB, I’ll forward a couple of messages that I use to gather up some of the anecdotes and forward to some of the ones in the family, who don’t use FB.

    There are two sides to my particular family, meaning the one I was born into – English (Dad) and Italian (Mom). At the moment I’ve been riffing on the English side, so … nothing Italian there.


  3. Very interesting photographic examination of Space between Time. Thanks for the detailed essay which accompanies the photos.

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