Beth Lilly talks “A Moving Image of Eternity”

Photographer combines love of driving and blurring techniques in new exhibition

Beth Lilly has always been a storyteller. As a photographer, she has created several concept-driven projects to explore her own life and the lives of others. For her new exhibition, A Moving Image of Eternity, Lilly explores the lives of commuters on Interstates in Atlanta and around the southeast.

“I’ve always joked that London has the Thames, Paris has the Seine, and Atlanta has the Downtown Connector,” she says. “Which sounds so hopelessly functional and boring, but the reality is that each vehicle holds occupants, and each little life is a story that has a past and a future and is connected to thousands of other lives, each with a future and a past.”

Currently the new executive director of the Atlanta Photography Group, Lilly has shown her work around the country, has published one book, The Oracle @ WiFi, and has a forthcoming volume based her newly restaged every single one of these stories is true.

Lilly spoke to Creative Loafing about those moments she spent photographing by the side of the road, her motion-imaging techniques, and her love of driving.

What does the title of the exhibition, Moving Image of Eternity, mean to you?

You know, we experience time in the present — the now — as a singular moment, and each moment arises in succession like the frame of a film. I picture a vast river of moments that just keeps flowing for eternity — it is unstoppable. Classically, most photographs use a quick shutter speed that freezes action. A photograph can seem to freeze time and be a record of what is fleeting and unrepeatable. But when you leave the shutter open, all of those moments accumulate on the sensor and it becomes just an abstract blur of color and light. And so you see the flow itself instead of a singular particular moment.

How did you come up with the concept for the show?

I love to drive; I love everything about driving. And while I’m driving, I’m thinking. And I just started thinking that being in a car, speeding down the Interstate, was the perfect metaphor for how we experience time. The car interior feels stationary. Like my self, who I am, it feels constant, but outside my window, everything is speeding by — like my experiences. But I’d always wanted to photograph on the Interstate. It’s a weird place. We’re a bunch of strangers, all in our own little world, but sharing this narrow strip of space. Rich people, poor people, all going somewhere.

What was your creative process behind putting the show together?

Like a job, I went out several days each week anywhere from two hours to eight hours at a stretch. I tried photographing in every way imaginable. I would drive and shoot in the mornings; and then I’d try evenings, then at night. One day, I might focus on Spaghetti Junction; another day, I might keep riding through tunnels. When I changed the shutter speed, made it slow so the backgrounds blurred, that’s when it really became exciting for me. I knew I had found a way to show what I was feeling. Another big evolution was when I tried printing on the kozo paper. I used that paper before, for an earlier series, and the paper gave the black-and-white images the feeling of lightness, that ethereal quality.

Tell me about using motion on your photographs. Have you done this before?

I’ve always felt blurred movement in photographs was magical. It just looks lovely, liked the blurred wings of birds or the look of water. And it speaks to me about the fleeting nature of life. In the beginning of photography, the shutter speeds were so slow that people just weren’t captured — they moved too fast to register on the film. There’s a famous image of a city deserted except for one man who paused to get his shoes shined. In other early photos, a figure that is only partially solid and an arm or a leg disappears from rapid motion. It fascinated me that we could just “disappear.” I never used motion on purpose before. If it happened by chance, and it worked for that image. But this was the first time I set out to really use this phenomenon of photography.

For most of the show, all of the images were taken by me from inside the car. I know, don’t be alarmed. I put the camera on a tripod, and using a remote cord, I was able to keep my eyes and attention on the road while I photographed. This show was almost entirely shot on Atlanta metro area Interstates. I took a couple road trips to New Orleans and back. I would look for cars with the window down or with interesting people and try to overtake them. Once I’d caught up, I sort of paced them, going at the same speed so the occupants would be sharp but the background blurred. That was the hardest part because I kind of felt like a stalker. My house is near an Interstate overpass, so I’ve been photographing people in their cars from that bridge for years. I knew I wanted to do something with them but wasn’t sure what.

Did you ever try to guess what people were actually thinking as you watched them?

Absolutely — my whole life. I think that is really where this whole project started. Watching other people in cars and wondering what their lives were like, what were they thinking? What was their story?