F. Percy Smith, 1910
F. Percy Smith was not far from the David Attenborough of his day; a devoted naturalist whose educational films won the hearts of public and scientific audiences alike, bringing the wonders of biology into the domain of entertainment. In Smith’s notebook, an extract from a newspaper described his work as “the highest achievement yet obtained in the combined efforts of science, art and enterprise."
Having impressed film entrepreneur Charles Urban with a magnified photograph of a bluebottle fly, Smith, then a clerk for the Board of Education, was given a camera to reveal and represent the secrets of nature. His early experiment in stop motion, To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly, released in 1909, features a mechanical arachnid weaving a web - an image he boldly claimed would cure people of their fear of the creature.
At the same time, he was quietly working on what would become his magnum opus: The Birth of a Flower. Through the use of candle wicks, pieces of mechano, door handles, and gramophone needles, Smith was able to procure automated photographs of blossoming flowers even in his absence. The result is equal parts mechanical ingenuity and visual poetry: hyacinths, snowdrops, roses, and Japanese lilies open and close with a delicate rhythm, the imperceptible movements that sustain all life rendered visible before our eyes.
This is a cinema of gentleness and beauty; of pure experimentation without irreverence or self-obsession. This is a film teeming with nascent possibility; a playful exhibition of new ways of seeing and understanding the world. But it is also the work of great patience and passion, for Smith devoted months to refining this craft before its magic was glimpsed by public audiences.
The Birth of a Flower is not the first use of time-lapse photography (or, as Smith termed it, ‘speed magnification’) - that achievement is owed, as far as I can tell, to Frederick S. Armitage’s Star Theatre in 1901 - but the film most likely marks the first use of the technique to visualise familiar biological changes over extended periods of time. And, if nothing else, Smith’s experiment consummated the marriage of science and spectacle, presenting non-human life as an appropriate subject of cinematic meditation and cinema as a worthy successor to the static arts.
Since the Industrial Revolution, technology has worked to overcome the inconveniences of time and space: vehicles allow us to traverse the world in a matter of hours, fibre-optic cables share and receive information at the speed of light. Photography, on the other hand, rescues impressions from the evanescence of time, delivering something of the present into the future; the gift of time-lapse, in particular, is the revelation of the slow and subtle, condensing phenomena occurring over hours and days to a matter of seconds.
In light of this, The Birth of a Flower is an understated aesthetic revolution; a discovery of new beauties within the ephemeral cyclicality of life. It is a still life painting imbued with vitality; a vanitas written in light and shadow. Time is stripped of its familiarity, the ordinary rendered sensational by a technology still in blossom.