Autumn 2010

Adventures in motion pictures

Kerry William Purcell
Frozen fire

‘It’s like a game of rock-paper-scissors, in which the flicker of film melts the frozen photograph.’

If, as the critic Peter Wollen famously said, 
film is like fire and photography like ice, what happens when technological developments force an elision between the still and moving image and how does this affect the content of the picture? The development of new cameras that enable photographers to shoot high quality video has seen many moving effortlessly between the two mediums. Also, many editors and art directors are simply grabbing stills from HD video and using these as a photograph, making the unique vision of a photographer progressively more redundant. Echoing the 1960s argument that television would kill the traditional role of the documentary photographer, some are now arguing that the ability to shoot moving image on still cameras will eventually sound the death knell for photography as we know it.

Traditional print outlets for still imagery 
are going through a period of deep crisis; 
add motion to this mix and you have a situation in which the future looks uncertain.

There is also an uncanny resemblence between the manner in which photographs are (increasingly) plucked from movie footage, and the way we experience images via the internet and associated devices. When you visit many websites today, the first thing that greets you 
is a video grab. Clicking on this allows you to watch the film. In such moments, the image we first see is just movement in posse, a congealed form of energy waiting to be unleashed by the viewer. These ‘images’ are snatched from a flow of information and circulate the Web, only to vanish in the digital torrent. What happens when a decisive moment simply becomes a precursor to a cinematic one? It appears to be an elaborate game of rock-paper-scissors, in which what Wollen calls the ‘light and shadow, incessant motion, transience, flicker’ of film melts the ‘motionless and frozen’ photograph.

The way images are positioned or cropped in a monograph, magazine or gallery wall, has long drawn on the cinematic techniques of montage. It is a delicate balancing act that, if done right, can create a unique and original narrative that gives the viewer time and space to roam and reflect on the story being told. As the 
American photographer Minor White once said, ‘a sequence of photographs is like a cinema of stills. The time and space between photographs is filled by the beholder, first of all from himself, then from what he can read in the implications of design, the suggestions springing from treatment, and any symbolism that might grow from within the subject itself.’

We only have to look to the work of pioneer photographer-film-makers such as Paul Strand, Helen Levitt, William Klein, Robert Frank, Hollis Frampton and, most famously, Chris Marker, to see how the dichotomy commonly set up between the still and moving image is misleading. Through their work, the questions of how stills interact with (or become) the moving image have given rise to creations of profound intelligence and beauty. Their work reveals the potential of a ‘cinema of stills’ to both arrest movement and be its springboard, creating a space for the viewer’s imagination.

With the widespread use of touch screen mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad (and their associated apps) the traditional format of the slideshow is once again offering photographers one way to bridge the realms 
of still and moving image production.

There seems something particularly apt about the way this traditional way of presenting images is finding a renewed lease of life with these new technologies. Unlike many other ways of viewing photographs, the slideshow’s flow of imagery (especially when accompanied by music or voice-over) can create narratives of stark contrast, poetic associations, and evoke the ephemeral quality of a forgotten moment. The slideshow links the still and moving image in a way similar to the act of memory itself. When we recall an event it is, as photographer-film-maker Stephen Gordon said, ‘as if we were focusing a camera. However, each time we focus we can only capture fragments, as the past we are trying to recollect is in movement.’

Unlike the traditional slideshow experience, when all would gather around to bear witness to someone’s holiday pictures, swiping images across a screen on a small handheld device 
is often a solitary and intimate experience. 
In such moments, our physical engagement with the images reveals, as Gordon implied, how movement is more about the relationship of images to each other. Like memory itself, 
we are swiping across both time and space in a way that can be profoundly moving. One thinks of Don Draper’s presentation to Kodak in the tv series Mad Men (season 1, episode 13). In his pitch he proposes they change the title of the device for showing images from ‘the wheel’ to ‘the carousel’. Clicking through images of his own life – at a time when it is slowly falling apart – he says: ‘This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine … And it takes us to a place where we ache to go again … It’s called The Carousel ... It lets us travel the way a child travels … Around and around and back home again … A place where we know we are loved.’

In 1971, Hollis Frampton said, ‘a still photograph is simply an isolated frame taken out of the infinite cinema.’ As more and more photographers simply select those stills that meet their requirements from HD streams, 
this idea appears remarkably prescient. Yet, 
to choose pictures in such a way is to turn away from the rich seam of possibilities that exist 
on the cusp of the still and moving image. Fortunately, the same technology that is obscuring the line that divides the production of film and photography is also producing devices and applications that enable another way to experience the still in movement.

In truth, the single photograph has never existed. In our encounters and memories, it is always part of a continuum of stills. Although speaking in a pre-digital age (and more concerned with the idea of the religious power of the single image), Minor White accurately summarised this deep truth about photography when he said: ‘Amid the static its name lies in the images that have an affinity for one another. Many readings flicker until suddenly one reading is unequivocal – frozen fire.’

First published in Eye no. 77 vol. 20.

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can also browse visual samples of recent issues at Eye before You Buy.


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