READING: Contemporary Photographic Criticism

Oct 17

Confronting two types of stillness; or, Of the horse… We know nothing.

This weeks readings, David Campany’s Stillness from his book Photography and Cinema, and Janet Sarbanes The Idea of Still, an interview conducted by Sarbanes with director Rebecca Baron about her films exploration of still imagery, both highlight the murky similarities and differences inherent in still and moving imagery. Where Campany often deals with moving imagery which toys with aspects of stillness and gives a historical overview of the complex intersections between film and photography from Muybridge to The Matrix, Rebecca Baron deals more directly with the ways in which prolonged looking at still imagery within the filmic experience “allows and challenges you to look differently than you would in a casual way.”


Campany starts out by pointing out a key distinction between the early time based photographic techniques of Eadweard Muybridge and early cinema – the pursuit of “instantaneous arrest, the decomposition of movement, not it’s recomposition.” This seems to highlight the apparent differences in the two mediums pretty succinctly – while film gives the viewer an experience perceived to be occurring in real time, photography, even that with an obvious component of movement over time, seeks to separate an event from it’s grounding within time itself. Campany points out that while Muybridge did animate a few of his works when he invented the Zoopraxiscope in 1879, those experiments were “far removed from the serious project of stilling things.” While filmmakers inherently maintain a sense of illusion, particularly early on in the history of both photography and film, photographers such as Muybridge (who are so often referenced by early film) were attempting to break down and analyze events within real life – in other words, to break down illusion. While this is certainly an important distinction within early film and photography, this distinction begins to blur within more contemporary works.

An example I found particularly interesting of one of the many techniques used within film that begin to blur the distinction between photography and film is the long take and extended tracking shot. As Campany puts it, “the often glacial tempo of their [Ingmar Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, etc.] films seeks a distance from the spectacle of Hollywood and the cut and thrust of television. The fleeting was considered irredeemably frivolous and artistically beyond the pale. Instead, cinema’s gaze would be extended to become so long and so penetrating as to estrange what at first looked and felt familiar – a roadside, a face, a building, a landscape, the sea. The embrace of the slow was also a sign of increasing uncertainty about the recorded image in general.” Here I can’t help but think of the films of Bela Tarr, who Campany mentions among a long list of filmmakers who favor extended shots and long takes. Tarr’s films, which are often composed of scenes which unfold over the course of one long, continuous shot, test the endurance of a viewer and push against the clarity of the narrative he sets out to tell in a manner not unlike that of Michael Snow’s film Wavelength. The opening shot of The Turin Horse, for example, starts with a black screen narrated by a myth about the turning point of Nietzsche’s descent into madness after witnessing the beating of a horse, which ends with the line “Of the horse… We know nothing.” Tarr then cuts to a 4:23 shot of a horse pulling an elderly man sitting in a carriage down a dirt road, struggling against heavy wind. The camera never strays from the horse while moving around the scene itself, tracking it’s movement throughout the landscape it struggles against. Through the camera’s durational gaze and movement around it’s subject, along with Tarr’s resistance to cut from one shot of his subject to the next, the viewer begins to empathize with the struggle the horse faces against the landscape it moves through, and the ravages of time itself. Just as the horse in his film struggles against the harsh winds, the viewer struggles with the expected desire for rapid cuts and cinematic entertainment. Considered against Campany’s initial example of Muybridge’s early studies of motion, both Tarr and Muybridge aim to disrupt the viewer’s experience of movement throughout time to different affect – Muybridge deconstructing his horse’s movement into isolated slices of time, Tarr stretching it’s motion out over time, testing the duration of both the horses endurance against the harsh conditions in which he was filming, and his viewers experience of film as durational.


Another durational shot I thought was interesting in the context of Muybridge was the running scene from Steve McQueen’s recent film Shame. While more directly narrative a filmmaker than Tarr, McQueen often combines more durational techniques like long takes within a more conventional narrative structure. In 2011’s Shame, McQueen cast actor Michael Fassbender as a sex addict, whose daily life and habits are interrupted and confronted by an unexpected visit from his sister. In the midst of Fassbender’s emotional unravelling, McQueen included a 2:12 tracking shot of Fassbender jogging through the streets of Manhattan at night. Uninterrupted, the shot follows Fassbender out of his apartment building and down a number of city blocks from a flattened, clinical perspective not unlike Muybridge’s motion studies of a nude man running, or Ed Ruscha’s iconic Every Building on the Sunset Strip. While the shot is significantly shorter than many of the long takes favored by filmmakers such as Tarr, it is long enough to create a momentary break within the narrative of McQueens film. Watching Shame in the theatre, the sequence created an experience not unlike that of durational video – in the context of more traditional narrative film, Fassbender’s running seemed to extend infinitely, allowing the viewer to forget the larger narrative for just a moment and simply experience the pleasure of voyeuristically watching this man run. In a sense the viewer’s experience begins to blur the line between photographic experience and that of film – just as you analyze the gat of the man running in Muybridge’s motion study, you are also invited to do so for just a brief portion of McQueen’s film, toying with notions of the illusion of film and it’s events happening in real time.

All of this reminds me of something Rebecca Baron said in her interview with Janet Sarbanes. Discussing the use of still photographs within her documentaries, and her reinvestigation of iconic imagery, Baron said: “the filmmaker controls how long an audience looks at an image and where they look at an image. I can give you a glimpse of an image or I can make you look for minutes at a time. You can look away, but you are made aware that you are looking away… The obvious difference between moving and still images is that the latter allows for time to look at a single moment and the former is a series of constantly disappearing images that allow you to see what happens over time and, depending on the shot, expand the frame.” While I would like to cover more of this interesting conversation about the voracity of images and their reinvestigation through film, I feel like I am running out of time, so I will end here.

Oct 10




A momentary glimpse of the present

This weeks readings both dealt with the use of slide shows as art object. One, Darsie Alexander’s Slideshow, tracing the history of it’s use from before it’s inception to more contemporary practice, made me reconsider how prominent the format was within an artistic context. The other, a transcript of Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque 1969-72, felt more engaging and exciting, while also raising the question wether I was missing something between the translation of the presentation and the lecture itself. Ultimately, I finished the Smithson reading wanting to see the presentation in person, even though it is clearly something which cannot be posthumously re-performed with the same first hand experience of the artist giving a slideshow about his own experience.

Alexander begins her essay discussing what initially drew a generation to slide projection, borrowing a line from a 1967 Kodak instruction manual: “Family slide shows were a coming together for members of a discrete clan, a time to watch and reminisce in the comfort of the living room. ‘These and many other happy memories live on…’ “. Perhaps that was the appeal of slide projection initially, the sense that, for a fleeting moment, people could experience their past in a way that felt more immediate, that more closely resembled film. That initial appeal seems to have faded for many of my generation (I was born in 1983) and the generation just before me– while my family did have a slide projector, for example, the experience of having to sit through family slideshows (usually a result of a visit from my grandparents) bordered on torture. While earlier generations may have sat in wonder, happily enjoying family vacations or slides of the wonders of the world, when my parents would break out slides from those years they lived in London, or my dad’s stay in Istanbul, I was far more upset that I was missing Full House than mystified by the glowing images in front of us. This generational change in attitude towards the slideshow is underscored by Alexander, who says “For a generation captivated by images pulsing across laptops and digital pictures of friends on cell phones, such claims about the magic of color slides may well seem exaggerated.” Though slides became a widely utilized educational tool (all of the art history classes I took in undergrad at SUNY Purchase were taught as slide lectures), slides as an educational tool today seem fairly limiting. In order to show an image in a classroom, one first had to acquire a slide of it, and properly take care of it. While institutions had large slide libraries at their disposal, access to those libraries was generally based on institutional affiliation, and not open to the public. With the onslaught of the internet, the ability to find images, both educationally and of the family snapshot variety, is infinitely more available – all one has to do is know how to do a proper search for what one is looking for.


What is interesting to me about slideshows, however, is the sense of duration and time that one experiences within them. Somewhere between the experience of a photograph and film, slideshows give the viewer a fleeting, momentary glimpse of an image, then quickly take it away, leaving a visible moment of black space between the image the viewer is experiencing and that which precedes it. Because of the mechanisms of both the slide projector itself and the camera which made the images being projected, images are “projected in time and in sequence, like a film. But by the same token, the different frames capture a past moment that was taken out of time, like a photograph.” To experience a slideshow is, essentially, to experience images colored by our memory of those which preceded them, yet unlike in film, we experience those images as static, not as fluid motion. This grey area between the static image and the image in motion seems to open a lot of possibilities within the photographic object, and for me, begins to relate, both conceptually and more physically, to memory. Not only do we experience the images within a slide show in conjunction with the memory of the images which preceded them, the fleeting nature of the projections themselves and the afterimage affect of slide projection also reminds me of the fleeting and degenerative nature of our own memories. In Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, for example, one experiences both the individual images and the larger piece as a whole at the same time, a direct result of Goldin’s use of slideshow format. The work isn’t simply a series of photographs which exist on a wall, then are brought into storage after the exhibition ends (though they are now often shown as prints), the work is the experience of the fleeting images projected on the wall in front of you, the soundtrack Goldin curates for the work, the light on the wall of a black box, the feeling of other people sitting and watching the slideshow with you in the same room. The piece itself is fleeting – after it is taken down and put in storage, it is only a file on a DVD, maybe accompanied by a projector. To experience Ballad in storage isn’t to look at a covetable object, it’s seeing a plastic DVD in a filing cabinet (though I guess that is in itself a covetable object.)  

la jetee

Another interesting example of this that Alexander brings up is Chris Marker’s 1962 film La jetee, which consists entirely of still frames that construct a larger narrative involving degenerative memory, time travel, and the shots that mark the beginning of World War III. Marker’s film revolves around it’s main character, who is sent back in time to prevent a gunshot which starts a world war and who was present for the firing shots in the past/present day, though cannot remember exactly his role in the event. The slideshow like format of the film, which is made entirely of still frames accompanied by narrative dialogue, echoes both the inability of it’s main character to fully comprehend the events he is both remembering and witnessing, as well the meandering, mazelike manner in which the film unfolds for the viewer. As a stylistic choice, the decision to construct the film of still frames constitutes a distinct break from the viewers expectations of a filmic experience. The film is experienced both as still images, and as an engulfing narrative – it is viewed as both a memory of the image which came before it, and a narrative description of the emotions “held” within the images. One does not believe the narrative because it is unfolding before their eyes, therefore the viewer is constantly questioning the story unfolding before them. The experience is simultaneously that of the photographic and filmic, both still and moving, narrative and disjointed.

Finally, Smithson’s Hotel Palenque, 1969-72, a presentation and slideshow delivered to architecture students at the University of Utah about the artists travels in Mexico. Rather than deliver a presentation on the Mayan ruins he had come to visit, Smithson’s presentation and slideshow focused on the semi-abandoned Hotel Palenque, where Smithson, his wife, and gallerist stayed while visiting the Mayan ruins. The resulting presentation sat somewhere between performance, documentation, and family slideshow. Smithson’s descriptions were decidedly casual in nature, referring to structures in various states of disuse in a manner that sounds at many times as if Smithson had just thrown together the slideshow moments before his presentation and was speaking off the cuff. Describing a pile of cement found in a shed, for example, Smithson said “It’s not going anywhere, it’s just there, just think of it and dig it for it’s cementness. You don’t really care what use it’s going to be put to.” Entirely left out of the discussion (except for one slide in which Smithson admitted that on a clearer day one can see the ruins from where he was standing, but he was purposely leaving them out) are the ruins themselves. This omission seems fitting when considering the nature of the slideshow in two ways – on one level, Smithson is discussing a journey to visit one set of ruins by instead discussing another, more modern ruin. On the other hand, Smithson’s purposeful omission of the very ruins he had travelled to visit highlights the information between the frames of his slide presentation which his images do not physically describe, but instead hint about – it is a performance not about monumentality, but the forward march of time, the inevitable slide into disuse. It seems fitting, today, that this discussion of ruins was delivered on yet another photographic technology which was inevitably going to be discarded in time.

Oct 08




A break, a shift, a slow zoom.

After viewing several of Bruce Connor’s films, Stan Brakhage’s film Wondering, and Michael Snow’s infamous film Wavelength in class this week, many of the ideas discussed in Annette Michelson’s 1971 essay Toward Snow were clarified, even while a few questions were raised about her claims. Michelson starts her essay with a quote from Stan Brakhage, which seems to underscore the break within avant-garde film that she sees Wavelength as representing. “My eye, tuning towards the imaginary, will go to any wavelengths for its sights”, Brakhage said, which seems fitting given the immersive, psychedelic nature of the directors films. Michelson sees filmmakers such as Brakhage or Connor creating an experience which references dream states, enveloping the viewer in the present moment of what is projected in front of them and effectively “resisting observation and cognition”. This experience is one which Michelson calls “hypnagogic”, or that which is “experienced in the half-waking state”. Films such as Brakhage’s Dog Star Man do not offer the viewer a narrative experience with it’s quick cuts, intense color fields, shallow focus and disorienting speed, but instead create an immersive experience the viewer is surrounded by and becomes a part of. While not offering a direct narrative arc throughout the film, it can be argued that the viewer’s own experience of the film stands in for a narrative, their experience not a series of moments in the past, but of the current moment. Michelson goes on to describe the hypnagogic by saying “the hypnagogic is immediate, appears all at once, disappears all at once, does not fade into appearance or out of view…” By attempting to remove any narrative thread from the images they show the viewer, filmmakers like Brakhage play with our notions of perception.

Wavelength, on the other hand, seems to take the opposite tactic. Decidedly clinical, Snow’s 1967 film consists of a slow zoom across the length of a loft apartment, it’s slow march forward towards it’s anticlimactic end accompanied by the sounds of the street below, people arguing inside the apartment, a gunshot, and ascending and descending sine waves. The piece, unlike in works by Brakhage or Conor, is designed not to envelope you within the imagery you are looking at, but almost to test your endurance, to keep you out. While there isn’t necessarily a narrative taking place across the course of the film, the mechanical forward movement of the camera (a result of the hand zoom Snow used) almost represents a kind of narrative within the film: after only a few moments of viewing, the audience knows the trajectory of the movement of the camera towards the window it is focused on, the film becomes one less about observation than anticipation. Snow described the film “trying to make a definitive statement of pure film space and time, a balancing of ‘illusion’ and ‘fact,’ all about seeing.” While certain “cinematic elements” do take place throughout it’s 45 minute run, the most dramatic being a death, the forward movement of the zoom of Snow’s camera quickly erases any of their narrative implications. In a way, Snow’s technique becomes somewhat photographic – toying with our perceptions of what the experience of film is in ways that break from the traditions of “hypnagogic” filmmakers such as Brakhage or Connor by functioning as an image in motion and a image that negates it’s motion at once. Because the film so obviously bears so much of it’s production visibly in the film, it becomes something like a document of it’s creation, and analogous of the experience of it’s creation all at the same time. In a lot of ways I can see this being perceived as a huge shift from previous experimental films, and definitely see it’s importance in early video art such as performance based works like Bruce Nauman, or even some of the films of Andy Warhol.

Sep 11

Early film; or, Running from perception, screaming.

This week’s readings, Tom Gunning’s An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator and Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer deal with the dawn of early cinema, pre-photographic “philosophical toys”, and the particularly heightened sense of “the imaginary perceived as real” in early audiences.

Gunning begins his essay by paraphrasing, and disputing, many accounts of the horrified reactions of viewers of the Lumiere Brother’s Arrival of a Train at the Station. “According to a variety of historians,” Gunning says, “spectators reared back in their seats, or screamed, or got up and ran from the auditorium (or all three in succession). As with most myths of origin, the source for these accounts remains elusive.” According to these myths of early cinema, many of the early audiences members were so deceived by the power of the imagery in front of them that they could not overcome the feeling of terror produced by the oncoming train before them. This reaction seems understandable, as many people have similarly strong reactions to modern day horror movies, which I witnessed first hand this past summer when a middle aged woman sitting behind me at the movies embarrassingly screamed “OH MY!” in a thick midwestern accent in an otherwise silent theatre during a “shocking” moment of the film we were watching. It seems that kind of reaction is what attracts many people to film in the first place, with much of today’s Hollywood films being built on this exact sense of suspense and shock. Gunning, however, finds this kind of mythology surrounding early cinema problematic – implying that early audiences “were naïve, encountering this threatening and rampant image with no defenses, with no tradition by which to understand it.” As Gunning goes on to say, “contemporary film theorists have made careers out of underestimating the basic intelligence and reality-testing abilities of the average film viewer and have no trouble treating previous audiences with similar disdain.”

Gunning goes on to argue that, while “a reaction of astonishment and even a type of terror accompanied many early projections”, those reactions cannot be written off as simply terrified and naïve. To Gunning, we underestimate early audiences by not considering that sensations of astonishment and fear might have been part of the attraction of early audiences to the new technology. Gunning goes on to point out that initial screenings of the Lumiere brother’s invention were not shown in small, backwoods towns, but in urban centers where audiences would have already been aware of, and attracted to, the illusions of theatre and some early photography. Gunning sites the popularity of the magical theatre, which “used the latest technology (such as focused electric light and elaborate stage machinery) to produce apparent miracles.” Also contrary to the assumed “deception”, Gunning elaborates, is the fact that many early screenings began not with a moving image, but with a still image projected onto a screen which gradually began moving after a period of time to heighten the dramatic affect of the new technology. As Gunning states “far from being placed outside a suspension of disbelief, the presentation acts out the contradictory stages of involvement with the image, unfolding, like other nineteenth-century visual entertainments, a vacillation between belief and incredulity. The moving image reverses and complicates the trajectory of experience solicited by a trompe l’oeil still life.” Just as spectators of the “magical theatre” were aware of the deception going on before their eyes, yet were attracted to it because of that deception, so too were audiences to the wonder and terror of the new cinematic experience. “The audience’s sense of shock comes less from a naïve belief that they are threatened by an actual locomotive” Gunning posits, “than from an unbelievable visual transformation occurring before their eyes, parallel to the greatest wonders of the magic theatre.”

Gunning further suggests that this type of confrontational imagery, or “the aesthetic of attraction” constitute a key component of early cinema. Gunning points out the popularity of films that set out specifically to “thrill” the audience – whether filming railroad collisions, the taking of a young woman’s mug shot, or the electrocution of an elephant. These types of films seem to deliberately acknowledge that they are being made for an audience. As Gunning states “these early films explicitly acknowledge their spectator, seeming to reach outwards and confront. Contemplative absorption is impossible here.” These kinds of “attraction” techniques can still be seen in films today in everything from the popularity of slapstick comedies to our continued interest and attraction to big budget action movies and gory, blood soaked horror films. Gunning argues that we are attracted to these types of images not because of the need to actually experience them, but because of an inherent need for thrill. As he says in his essay “the peculiar pleasure of screaming before the suddenly animated image of a locomotive indicates less an audience willing to take the image for reality than a spectator whose daily experience has lost the coherence and immediacy traditionally attributed to reality. This loss of experience creates a hunger for thrills.”

Similarly, Jonathan Crary’s 1988 essay Techniques of the Observer, deals with devices and phenomena that predate the invention of photography, but nonetheless blurred the line between reality and optical reality. Crary begins his essay describing the phenomenon of the afterimage, or images that remain in one’s field of vision after the object that created them has disappeared. While afterimages were traditionally considered spectral phenomenon and therefore not “true” perception, many philosophers reconsidered them in the nineteenth century. As Crary states in relationship to Goethe’s thoughts on afterimages, “they are no longer deceptions that obscure a ‘true’ perception; rather they begin to constitute an irreducible component of human vision. For Goethe and the physiologists who followed him there was no such thing as optical illusion; whatever the healthy corporal eye experienced was in fact optical truth.” This thought bears striking resemblance to the cinematic experience – though we are fully aware of the fact that the actions projected onto the screen in front of us are not physically happening in real time, we experience them as if witnessing them unfold in front of us regardless. As Crary says later in his essay “as observation is increasingly tied to the body in the early nineteenth century, temporality and vision become inseparable.” Though early film audiences were more than aware of the temporal nature of the imagery they were seeing, the sensations the cinematic experience produced were nonetheless directly tied to their emotional and physical reactions to viewing the film in front of them. These changes in attitudes toward perception are echoed by Johan Friedrich Herbart, who argued that “the mind does not reflect truth but rather extracts it from an ongoing process involving the collision and merging of ideas.”

Crary goes on to discuss the number of optical devices which were invented that furthered the exploration of afterimages and the nature of perception. “The boundary separating their use for purposes of scientific observation and as forms of popular entertainment is indistinct.” Crary explains, “Common to them all was the notion that perception was not instantaneous, and the notion of a disjunction between eye and object.” These objects, like the Thaumatrope, which creates the illusion of a single unified image out of two distinct images when spun at the right speed by the viewer, predate photographic and cinematic experiences, but obviously have connections to both. The idea that we know what we are viewing is only an image of an object, yet often experience that image as the object it is depicting, is a phenomenon at the core of both the photographic and cinematic experience. As Crary says of the Thaumatrope, “the simplicity of this ‘philosophical toy’ made unequivocally clear the hallucinatory and fabricated nature of the image and the absolute rupture between perception and its object.” To put it in other, more decidedly photographic terms, what constitutes “truth”? That which is physically there, or that which is perceived to be there? Isn’t perception, in and of itself, a kind of truth?

This all reminds me of an argument I read about recently that reality is actually a 3-Dimensional hologram of a 2-Dimensional universe. While I am not a scientist, and cannot fully explain the “science” behind the argument myself (nor do I want to back it up haha), it brought up a question in my head almost instantly. If our 3-Dimensional perception of the universe is actually created by the optics within our eyes, are 2-Dimensional depictions of reality more true to life than we otherwise thought? In the end, isn’t that the same, or at least a similar question to those raised in the nineteenth century about the nature of perception? (Or, is this all just a sign that I need to go to bed?)