2. A Look Back (Part I)

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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.

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2 Comments

  1. Carol Yinghua Lu
    Posted 31. January 2013 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Dear Martin,

    Thank you so much for evoking so many interesting issues about photography and film with your second blog, which offers a very close examination of both media in a very specific aspect.

    Two days ago, my family acquired our first Iphone. Because it’s new and we are not so familiar with it, when I want to take pictures of my son’s funny expressions or shoot a short video of his GANGNAM-style dance movements, it would always take me some moments before I could find the right function and press the right button. By the time I am ready to shoot, he’s either run away or stopped the dance. I could only ask for a re-enactment. This is one of the experiences in which the indexical relationship of documentary photography or film to the reality, as you describe, is also very much dependent on the reality that’s constantly shifting, equally on the subject and how he/she knows and handles the machine.

    When photography was first available to record the reality, to bring us closer to the reality, the cumbersome scale of the machine was in itself an obstacle to getting close to the reality. After the photographer moved the machine to a certain spot and was ready to press the shutter, it was likely that the reality had changed its face. The sun had set and the light had gone out. Even for documentary photographers, when they have missed a certain scenario that they intended to capture and set out on a second search for such scenario, they would be looking for a particular scenario and reality with their impression, experience and subjectivity. Even when he/she keeps photography and carries his/her camera all the time, he or she will have to make a choice out of thousands of photos that were taken to “represent” the reality. The decision is taken partly on his/her subjectivity and experience. It’s a part of the reality that they have witnessed, experienced or imagined. I think it’s interesting to look at the role of the subjectivity of the person who takes the photo and uses the machine in mediating the relationship between the reality and the photographs.

    Recently, I have encountered a series of sculptural work by an artist called Liu Ding who singled out human figures from documentary photographs of the second World War and turned them into sculptures each on a podium. The position of the figure on the podium corresponds exactly to the position of the figure in the original photograph but the rest of what was happening in the photographs remain absent in his 3-D rendition. In his research, he’s discovered that although these images were taken during the war as everything was happening and there was an extremely amount of tension, these documentary photographs could only communicate so little of the reality and appeared rather theatrical and staged, and rather isolated from their actual context. What the frames of the lens captured were what the photographers saw and wanted to record, but not all of it. Again, I think it’s interesting to consider the subject who takes the photographs and operates the machine, the position of the subject, the limit of his/her experience and vision, his intension and choice.

    There is also the issue of how much the photographer knows about a machine, the details of a machine, its potential, possibility and limitation, which ultimately affects the quality and content of the photographs. The language of the medium of photography itself owes a great deal to the specificities of the machine and how well the person who operates it knows it and handles it, the relationship between the subject and the camera and how well the two of them work together.

    Let me know what you think!
    Have a great weekend
    Carol

  2. Elisabeth Lebovici
    Posted 4. February 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Hello
    Thank you, for “going back” — that is for going back to the still ongoing discussions which concerns a rich history of conversations, discussions, debates or statements about photography: and more specifically, to the inversion which you begin to operate, revising the photographic, indexical vision through the elaborations of montage and manipulations of time that are the materials of cinema, whether narrative or not.
    My upbringing in photography was indeed linked to my puzzlement while being confronted to the famous early article (1961) of Roland Barthes, reflecting the theory of the uncoded nature of photography as paradox.
    Barthes claimed that the photographic image, being the perfect analogon of reality is a message without a code. Photography, to him, was a “denotative message” although the norms that treated photography, whether professional, aesthetic, or ideological, were factors of “connotation”, which meant they were derived from a code. There was his photographical paradox: “the coexistence of two messages, one without a code (the photographic analogue) the other with a code.”
    I only wish to refer to Barthes claim, not to reclaim it or to discuss it here, but just to signal that the reflexions on the photographic index and on the indexicality of photography specifically – film, as you say, delivered another kind of message – occurred on this terrain, too.

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  • By 2. A Look Back (Part I) | Photography Now | Scoop.it on 29. January 2013 at 12:40 pm

    [...] 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 –…  [...]

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