Written By: Ben Cosgrove

Ask 20 random people, “What is the nature of time?” and chances are pretty good that you’ll get 20 different answers. Time is an arrow, says one. Time is a circle, suggests another. Time is relative. Time is an illusion. 

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. Here, LIFE.com offers a selection of marvelous photographs, stroboscopic and otherwise, by the great Gjon Mili. These  technically brilliant pictures  fiddle with moments, junctures, sequences, and in the process offer a playful commentary on time.

“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.

Stroboscopic image of a trick shot by billiards champion Willie Hoppe in 1941.

Stroboscopic image of a trick shot by billiards champion Willie Hoppe in 1941.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Stroboscopic image of ballerina Nora Kaye performing a pas de bourrée in 1947.

Stroboscopic image of ballerina Nora Kaye performing a pas de bourrée in 1947.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Choreographer Martha Graham performs her own work at Gjon Mili's studio, 1941.

Choreographer Martha Graham performs her own work at Gjon Mili’s studio, 1941.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Drummer Gene Krupa at Gjon Mili's studio, 1941.

Drummer Gene Krupa at Gjon Mili’s studio, 1941.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

United States pentathlon champion John Borican leaps a hurdle in 1941.

United States pentathlon champion John Borican leaps a hurdle in 1941.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A nude descends a staircase, 1942

A nude descends a staircase, 1942

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

New York Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell throws a curve ball, 1940.

New York Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell throws a curve ball, 1940.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Dancer and actor Gene Kelly in a multiple-exposure dance sequence from the movie Cover Girl, 1944.

Dancer and actor Gene Kelly in a multiple-exposure dance sequence from the movie Cover Girl, 1944.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Stroboscopic image of FBI agent Del Bryce drawing his gun, 1945.

FBI agent Del Bryce draws his gun, 1945.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Rope-skipping champion Gordon Hathaway in action, 1947.

Rope-skipping champion Gordon Hathaway in action, 1947.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Multiple exposure photograph of Pablo Picasso using a small flashlight to "draw" a figure in the air in 1949.

Multiple exposure photograph of Pablo Picasso using a small flashlight to “draw” a figure in the air in 1949.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Stroboscopic image of Martha Graham dancer Ethel Butler in 1941.

Stroboscopic image of Martha Graham dancer Ethel Butler in 1941.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Sammy Davis Jr. as "Sportin' Life" in the MGM production of Porgy and Bess, 1958.

Sammy Davis Jr. as “Sportin’ Life” in the MGM production of Porgy and Bess, 1958.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Stan Cavenaugh juggles tenpins, 1941.

Stan Cavenaugh juggles tenpins, 1941.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Stroboscopic image of the head and shoulders of a model wearing an elaborate hat and jewelry, 1946.

Stroboscopic image of the head and shoulders of a model wearing an elaborate hat and jewelry, 1946.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Stroboscopic image of New York University fencing champion Arthur Tauber (left) parrying with Sol Gorlin, 1942.

Stroboscopic image of New York University fencing champion Arthur Tauber (left) parrying with Sol Gorlin, 1942.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Stroboscopic image showing a repetitive closeup of Isaac Stern playing violin at photographer Gjon Mili's studio in 1959.

Stroboscopic image showing a repetitive closeup of Isaac Stern playing violin at photographer Gjon Mili’s studio in 1959.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Stroboscopic image of choreographer George Balanchine watching New York City Ballet dancers rehearse in 1965.

Stroboscopic image of choreographer George Balanchine watching New York City Ballet dancers rehearse in 1965.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

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