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Stroboscopic image of FBI agent Del Bryce drawing his gun, 1945.
Stroboscopic image of FBI agent Del Bryce drawing his gun, 1945.Gjon Mili—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Stroboscopic image of FBI agent Del Bryce drawing his gun, 1945.
Stroboscopic image of a trick shot by billiards champion Willie Hoppe in 1941.
Stroboscopic image of ballerina Nora Kaye performing a pas de bourrée in 1947.
Choreographer Martha Graham performs her own work at Gjon Mili's studio, 1941.
Drummer Gene Krupa at Gjon Mili's studio, 1941.
United States pentathlon champion John Borican leaps a hurdle in 1941.
A nude descends a staircase, 1942
New York Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell throws a curve ball, 1940.
Dancer and actor Gene Kelly in a multiple-exposure dance sequence from the movie Cover Girl, 1944.
Rope-skipping champion Gordon Hathaway in action, 1947.
Multiple exposure photograph of Pablo Picasso using a small flashlight to "draw" a figure in the air in 1949.
Stroboscopic image of Martha Graham dancer Ethel Butler in 1941.
Sammy Davis Jr. as "Sportin' Life" in the MGM production of Porgy and Bess, 1958
Stan Cavenaugh juggles tenpins, 1941.
Stroboscopic image of the head and shoulders of a model wearing an elaborate hat and jewelry, 1946.
Stroboscopic image of New York University fencing champion Arthur Tauber (left) parrying with Sol Gorlin, 1942.
Stroboscopic image showing a repetitive closeup of Isaac Stern playing violin at photographer Gjon Mili's studio in 1959.
Stroboscopic image of choreographer George Balanchine watching New York City Ballet dancers rehearse in 1965.
Stroboscopic image of FBI agent Del Bryce drawing his gun, 1945.
Gjon Mili—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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It's About Time: Classic Stroboscopic Photos

Mar 08, 2012

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.)

Pablo Picasso by Gjon Mili, 1949But 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.

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