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From Issue #53 October 9, 2014

Making Faces

An adventurer measures time in photographs.

By Chris Higgins Twitter icon 

12:09 p.m. in Leptis Magna, Libya

An hour after I meet Craig Giffen, I stand on a Portland street corner, holding a piece of cardboard with the time 1:11 on it, as he films me. A guy in a pickup truck slows as he drives by and hollers, “Your clock’s slow!” He’s right — the time is actually about 1:30. But Giffen let me choose my time.

“Everyone wants to be 11:11, 1:11, or 4:20,” Giffen explains later, bursting my bubble a bit. He runs the Human Clock, a Web site that serves up the current time as represented by photographs of that time situated in the real world.

As I write this, the Human Clock runs on my computer screen. A smiling woman in Murray Hill, New Jersey, holds up an analog clock showing 11:35. A minute later, a bird pecks at a green apple in Hines, Oregon, with 11:36 written by hand on the feeder. Then eight kindergarteners in Oklahoma spell out 11:37 by lying down in a hallway. (Two of them crouch to form the colon.) There’s just enough time to take in the photo before the next minute appears.

12:02 p.m. in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The ice formed after firefighters doused a fire at Maxwell’s American Cafe in February 2008.

Giffen has maintained the Human Clock since July 16, 2001, as a not particularly profitable experiment in crowdsourced art. The clock now includes 22,022 photographs spanning every minute of the day many times over, most submitted by collaborators around the world. He also created the Human Calendar (a Brady Bunch-style array of humans holding numbers, all gazing toward the current day), Human Clock TV (an HD-video clock filmed mostly by Giffen, often featuring his wife, Cora), and Time Songs Database (a collection of over 1,000 songs in which a specific time of day is mentioned). And he’s building a PO Box Clock made up entirely of postcards mailed to him with a hand-drawn time on them.1

Intentionality

Giffen has a strong conviction that proper Human Clock photos should have the time intentionally present in the images — created by a person in the environment — rather than serendipitously available because some numerals happen to look like a time. He also maintains a strict ban on times added via image manipulation, because they aren’t “real.”

12:06 p.m. in Milford, England

He carries a folding cardboard sign (with paper numerals affixed with masking tape) in order to make clock photos on the fly, but not everyone shares his opinion about what makes a good clock photo. “People want to see random numbers in an environment [as clock times],” Giffen says. House numbers, price tags, highway exit signs, and license plates all make appearances on the clock, as a nod to these random acts of numeral synchronicity.

To Giffen, the purpose of photography is to document a singular moment. Many of the Human Clock photos he has taken are in urban environments, and he prefers street photography to nature photography because nature is predictable: “I know I could go up to Mt. Rainier and, as long as it’s not cloudy, get a nice sunset picture of it.” There will always be another sunset.

In contrast, he recalls a favorite photo taken in Chicago, when he happened upon a street cleaner refilling his truck at a fire hydrant, and asked him to be part of the Human Clock. “That’s the only time in my life that’s ever happened. I don’t know when that’s going to happen again.” Tens of thousands of such moments make up the clock, and they float by, while a few thousand visitors a day dip into the stream of time.

3:10 p.m. in New York City. Cora, Giffen’s wife, is at left; Colin Brooks holds the sign.

Walkabout

Giffen’s other big project is Craig’s PCT Planner, a Web app that helps hikers of the Pacific Crest Trail plan and execute their expeditions. Giffen became aware of the PCT at age 9, in 1982, when he happened across a segment of the trail during a hike with his father. Since then, Giffen has hiked the 2,665-mile PCT twice in its entirety, most recently in 2013, which he documented extensively. He also circumnavigated Australia on bicycle, a 12,600-mile trek that spawned more than 500 online journal entries and 12,000 photos. He completed that adventure in 2003, and was amused to learn upon his return that his online journal was now something people called a “blog.”

For a man with a computer science degree, Giffen is very handy with physical tools. He shows me a Murphy bed he built on his porch, an elaborate series of cabinets built into the unused areas inside his walls, and an ongoing project to build cabinetry into the underside of his basement stairs. There’s no TV in his living room, and there isn’t even a CD player — alongside his collection of vinyl LPs are a cassette deck and an 8-track tape player.2 “It’s like buying a nice bottle of wine,” he says. “The things you get out of it are different, even if it’s just all psychological.” He also emphasizes that he doesn’t see a distinction between analog and digital technologies; what he does care about is craftsmanship. “I like things that are handmade.”

Giffen and his dog, Freddie.

Indeed, he has even written computer code by hand when circumstances demanded it. In 1997, Giffen wrote the original PCT Planner’s program code on notebook paper at a cabin on Lake Louise, Alaska. He had a Perl programming book to guide him. Without reliable electric power, he didn’t need a computer; he just needed some paper.

On the Pacific Crest Trail, hikers use “trail names” to distinguish the dozens of hikers with identical first names. Giffen was dubbed “OTC,” short for “Oh, That Craig,” because so many hikers recognized him from the eponymous program they used to plan their hikes. OTC has been on the trail in one form or another for more than 30 years.

“As a kid, if I was hiking somewhere, I never wanted to see a picture of where I was hiking to. I wanted to imagine what it would look like in my head and then see how it matched up when I got there. I’m not saying I don’t like going places I’ve already been…but there’s something about that.”

After we conclude the interview, Giffen poses on the front steps of his house with the three cardboard clocks he has used over the years, all heavily worn from their travels around the world. He shoots video, I shoot still photos, and we each head back to our computers to save our documentation of the day.

Photo of Giffen by the author. Other photos courtesy HumanClock.com.


  1. There’s also an “analog Human Clock” available on the Human Clock Web site. It shows pictures of a person (usually Giffen) whose arms represent hour and minute hands, pointing at times on a giant dial behind him. 

  2. Giffen has been taping concerts (and trading tapes) for decades. After our interview, he sent me some rare Springsteen. 

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