If one wants to gauge how the relation of still and moving images is shifting, it is useful to look back at the relation of film and photography in the analogue age. Both media relied on the same optical apparatuses and photochemical processes – they produced images by exposing a photosensitive surface to light refracted by a lens. The images they produced were essentially indexical, and yet this indexicality has played a very different role in the reflection of the two media.
In photography, the indexical nature of photographic images has been fetishized in an almost mystical manner. The encounter of light and photosensitive surface was supposed to produce images of supreme truthfulness, an immediate record of reality imprinting itself on the film as if it were some kind of shroud of Turin. This supposedly immediate and privileged relation to reality, in which the photographer becomes the witness par excellence, was taken to be a distinguishing feature of photography, setting it apart from other types of images, i.e. painting, drawing, etc., that may be more autonomous and aesthetically more spectacular, yet lacking photography’s unfettered access to reality. It was an elegant ruse that turned photography’s dependence on the outside world into a privileged relation to reality in which the photographer served as a mere vessel or catalyst. This in turn demanded that the mediated nature of photographic images, their inherently fictional aspect that persists in spite of the mystical encounter of light and photosensitive film, remained insufficiently reflected for a long time. Genres of photography, such as fashion photography for example, that reveled in artifice and used the medium to create obvious fictions, were highly suspicious in this paradigm, instances of an inherently effete relation to reality. Looking at the history of photography, one often gets the impression that photography as a medium was often very uncomfortable with its mediated nature, to express this in a somewhat anthropomorphized manner.
In thinking about film, however, the very same indexicality never played such a prominent role. Not even documentary filmmakers make recourse to it to underline the truthfulness of their endeavors. One can surmise that film’s evident capability to manipulate time and the evidently edited nature of its products foreclosed the possibility to establish such a linear relation to reality and consequently truth. In film, the light that meets the photosensitive surface is the limelight with all of its attendant vicissitudes. Moreover, narrative film, i.e. mainstream cinema, is a curiously impure medium – partly it partakes in the visual arts, partly it continues the tradition of narrative fiction in literature, i.e. theatre and the novel. Insofar as film is understood as storytelling, it is a priori fiction and artifice, hence its indexical nature is of little consequence, which in turn begs the question whether fetishization of it in photography is not a rather dubious operation. Similarly, when film was used as a primarily visual medium freed from the strictures of narrative (as in experimental film), it was considered primarily an autonomous image in the tradition of fine art, and not as an imprint of reality; although experimental film is in many ways closer to photography than mainstream cinema (more on this later).
What emerges is a sharp and very telling contrast: Despite their more or less identical technical basis, photography in the 20th century was a medium that was considered to have an elevated claim to veracity and authenticity, whereas film was the very epitome of artifice and glorious lies. In my next post, I want to further explore what that meant for their dialogue.