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Outside Time – Documents Lawson’s Photographic Achievements

Stephen Lawson describes his artist book, Outside Time, as his “mongrel brain-child.” This description belies the complexity and depth of his lifetime of work in photography, but is surprisingly apt at describing his unconventional career. In the early 1970s, the Scottish-born Lawson studied conceptual sculpture and earth art, which led to his epic exploration of time using photography in his adopted home, Morgantown, West Virginia.READ ENTIRE ARTICLE

Lawson, himself is an interesting contradiction, a photographer in his 70s who never used a traditional darkroom, but built cameras from the screws up to create his own brand of time-lapse pictures. This Scotsman is not interested in f-stops and shutter speeds, but his photographs, some of which take a calendar year to expose, must be calibrated down to the smallest increment of time in order to succeed.
Lawson has spent much of the last three years creating Outside Time so future artists and scientists will be able to understand his mechanical process. Though artists using digital technology can approximate his methods, his one-of-a-kind cameras render his pictures different from other images, both in theory and in practical execution.
“The photo-based works grow from my background as a sculptor. These are four dimensional in concept and execution, but only two in the presentation. The concept of space and time is reconstructed in the mind of the viewer,” Lawson wrote. “The year and day-long works could be thought of as bringing a concentrated gaze; the brief, dynamic shots read as a glance, in the turn of the head, as the eye itself sees, before the mind edits this to a visual memory, often as a “still.” Indeed, all of the images could be thought of as movies presented as stills.”
Though Lawson has used a variety of techniques, he is perhaps best known for his collage like images that combine narrow strips of photographic prints, each strip depicting a place at a specific time, and taken in equally specific increments, such as every 10 minutes or once an hour on the hour. When Lawson assembles these strips into one whole picture, the viewer can see the landscape over a year or a day or whatever unit of time Lawson employed for that particular photograph.
“The unique cameras required to produce these time based works have been constructed by me and evolved over the years, one capability leading to the next. The first “rig” was put together in 1980. These have been very labor intensive, built with simple hand tools, hard work and patience, the conceptual skills as with the manual ones deriving from a background in sculpture,” he wrote. “The work is presented in a poetic mode that asks one to stand briefly outside the usual flow of time, hopefully causing us to reflect on our “time-in-the-world,” individually, culturally, and even as a species.”
Outside Time is more than an artist’s monograph, it is a metaphor for his career: hand-made, hard-won and unique. Many distinguished institutions, including The Chicago Art Institute and the Princeton University libraries, have acquired the handmade version of Outside Time, in recent days. Lawson is looking for a publisher to issue a commercial version of the book.
Like his cameras, some versions of Outside Time were made by Lawson with a stainless steel cover and back that contain nearly 200 pages of text and pictures describing his artistic roots, development, tools and ideas. The book is a house for his legacy, much as his cameras provide a sturdy home for the film he must protect during long exposures.
Lawson writes that the book came together in a piecemeal fashion much like the trajectory of his career – winding from sculpture to earth works to photography. “Youth is not the best vantage in writing an autobiography. So now I have a better stance to make a panoramic picture of my own landscape,” he wrote.
Lawson first began to think of writing a book, as he was preparing for a 2011 exhibition at Lumière, because his cameras were on display along with his photographs for the first time.
Though technical details are crucial to Lawson’s work, more so than most photographers, all of his mechanical creations are in the service of an almost literary interpretation of time. Lawson proves himself a poet when he writes:“Time can be tedious, time can be fleeting. Time is elastic to our emotions, in response to our awareness. Like the air we breathe, we live within it, unnoticed until a sensation draws out attention to it. Now at a certain age, I wonder where so much of it went; it is no longer here. Mostly, I swam in it, luxuriating in the buoyancy, assuming it an ocean, an endless resource, if thought of at all.”
Despite such modesty, Lawson most certainly thought of the hours and the moments and what they mean – Outside Time is the proof.
More of Lawson’s work can be seen on his Lumière Artist Page.

Posted in: a Deeper Look

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