Ask 20 random people, “What is the nature of time?” and chances are pretty good that you’ll get 20 different answers born of a thousand different factors, from a respondent’s cultural background to the mood he or she happens to be in when asked the question. Time is an arrow, says one. Time is a circle, suggests another. Time is relative. Time is an illusion. Time is a kangaroo in a top hat and tails. (Granted, that last one is an unlikely reply.)
But no matter how assured or unhesitating their answers might be, most people would be hard-pressed to offer a single, definitive method for illustrating time. A clock face is too prosaic; a pendulum is too arbitrary; a gravestone is too . . . gravestoney. How on earth can we capture what is essentially a philosophical concept like time (or, if you prefer, Time, with a capital T) using a purely practical method or mechanism like, say, photography?
Fully aware that the true nature of time remains an unfathomable mystery, LIFE.com offers a selection of marvelous photographs, stroboscopic and otherwise, by the great Gjon Mili. (At left: Mili’s famous 1949 portrait of Pablo Picasso creating what LIFE magazine called a “distorted spatial centaur” in midair with a small flashlight.)
Here are technically brilliant pictures that fiddle with moments, junctures, sequences, and in the process offer a playful commentary on the slippery relationship between mere mortals and the temporal — perhaps even the eternal.
“To see a world in a grain of sand,” William Blake once wrote, “and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.” At their best, Gjon Mili’s stroboscopic photographs not only serve as a kind of modern adjunct to Blake’s vision; they also celebrate — with an unsentimental, clear-eyed wonder — the reality of sentient beings moving through both time and space.
In the end, though, seen decades after they were made, Mili’s pictures remain simply and incredibly cool.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.