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    Steven Sebring Photographs the Fourth Dimension

    Written by

    Matt Marquez

    Image via the author

    Steven Sebring’s method of recording the fourth dimension works the same way the Wachowski siblings filmed the famous “bullet time” limbo sequence in the Matrix. Sebring calls his setup “The Rig”: a paneled geodome with 100 digital still cameras arranged in a circle and calibrated to fire simultaneously or in any order he wants.

    The result is a massive collection of RAW image files that can be turned into things like sculptures, interactive iPad images, and videos that have a sweeping “bullet-time” look. And photographs where light and movement are blurred into ghostly reflections of reality. By taking a sequence of photos from a full circle or revolution of the rig, Sebring says he can compress space and time into a single image.

    Steven Sebring, courtesy the artist.

    “The fourth dimension is a revolution, so you’re moving in a revolution but then we’re blurring the time and the light and we’re considering that the fourth. If people want to argue that, show me the fourth,” he said, smiling.

    The 69th Regiment Armory is a three-story giant of a building that takes up a full city block in Midtown Manhattan. For three days this week it was filled with the latest results of Sebring’s almost four-year dance with the fourth dimension, which began when he started exploring how interactive photos could be used in multimedia apps.

    As I toured the installation, called “Revolution,” I paused at an iPad to rotate an image of a woman in a flowing dress. I looked up to see a white sculpture of the same woman standing nearby. Overhead, the 60-foot screen at the center of the collection showed a video of the same woman. Sebring calls this experience getting the “motherload.”

    “I want to really make sure that people understand that this system we’re creating is all media,” he said. “You can’t make it as one thing. One press of the button and I can shoot a revolution. [It] literally gives you a touchscreen, your sculpture, your photographs, your films, your whatever you want.”

    The system took more than three years to build because the whole project is financed by Sebring’s earnings as a fashion photographer for firms like Ralph Lauren and Coach. In 2008, he won a Sundance Cinematography Award for Dream of Life, his documentary of rocker Patti Smith. The two are longtime collaborators and Smith contributed several songs and poems to “Revolution.”

    Only a sliver of what he’s captured with his rig is in the show, Sebring said. But when he saw an opportunity to present his work at the Armory, he knew he had to recreate the painting Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp, which was on display at the Armory exactly 100 years ago.

    “And so we’re like, OK, let’s do Nude Descending a Staircase,” Sebring recalls. “So we did it. And we had a perfect shot within three revolutions. It was insane. So then we started manipulating it, going backwards, moving up it, crawling up the stairs. Then we’re like, OK, we killed that. Now let’s take it to the fourth dimension. And these are the images in the back wall.”

    Image via the author

    Sebring’s version is eerily similar to the painting. Except, you know, it’s reality. “What we’re doing is not manipulated, it’s all truth and incredibly pure,” he said. “There’s no CGI, there’s no retouching, it’s straight out of the cameras.”

    In the years since the Matrix, other filmmakers and photographers have expanded on the “bullet time” concept. These days, all it takes is a bunch of GoPro cameras to shoot an approximation of the effect. “Anybody can put cameras on a pole,” Sebring said. “It’s what you do with it. That’s everything.”

    “What we’re doing is not manipulated, it’s all truth and incredibly pure." — Steven Sebring

    For Sebring, that means exploring new ways to share art. One example he wants to pursue is offering art buyers a 360 degree view of a Picasso (also an inspiration) before making a bid. Another potential project would be to include “peace makers” like the Dalai Lama in an educational series of “monster portraits that actually move and you can interact with,” he said. “And you can see them blinking and you can see them moving and what’s happening is you’re taking them into these other dimensions.”

    It could be for fun stuff too. He sketched out a fight scene for a samurai movie where the camera could freeze time and swoop in to capture a critical blow. “I can make the rig do anything I want,” he said. Even the Vatican has checked in to see how it might take advantage of the technology.

    Image via the author

    It seems that what stops us from fully enjoying the fruits of Sebring’s system are the limitations of the ways we can view it. Photographs are two dimensional, and sculptures are stuck in a static 3D. Video is better because it can play with time as it flips between angles. But the iPad’s touchscreen capabilities might hint at the future of Sebring’s technology.

    Imagine watching that samurai movie scene, but instead of passively viewing it like any other film, how about if we could swipe the camera to follow any one of dozens of samurai battling on a field? And then perhaps we could rewind and watch the scene again from a completely different angle, pausing to watch a gory beheading or brilliant counter attack. Although such technology might be far off, Sebring is already playing around with RED cameras to see what is possible.

    “Your readers should know, whatever your imagination can comprehend we can probably do it now,” he said. “And the interactiveness will be there, the sculpture part will be there, it’s all there.”