Photography versus film

The idea of putting photographs together into a presentation format, or photofilm, has the advantage of the editor being able to dictate or impose the reading time (Wollen 1984). Indeed, Wollen used the filmic work of Chris Marker as an example of how “still photographs, strung together in a chain, can carry a narrative as efficiently as moving pictures” (p 79). Rather than destroying the photograph’s power and action as Metz (1985) accused film of doing, showing a series of images that were taken as possible standalone images in fact increases their overall potency and (together with the audio) leaves less room for misinterpretation of their overall intended message, enabling the viewer to “believe more in one thing” the referent does not lose its significance in favour of the unfolding of the narrative, despite the presence of the supplementary soundtrack.

According to Medeiros et al (2015), Marker’s film La Jetée was made by gluing the photographs to separate pieces of paper and subsequently filming them! As Marker said: “The painter does not really turn to photography, then to the cinema, he starts from a single preoccupation … and modulates it through all the media” (quoted in Medeiros et al), which reminds me of Robert Frank turning to cinema after he felt he had exhausted the possibilities of photography. I have found that switching to film is not as easy as one would think, in actual fact!

Marker used the documentary genre, but rather than allowing the audience to assume the documentarian’s detachment or lack of involvement (the leap of fantasy that documentary relies upon for its verisimilitude), Marker created ‘personal essays’ about the realities he depicted, drawing attention to the images themselves while showing the other side of mainstream political ideas and world views. Combining his own images with archive footage and reusing the same images and sounds in different films detaches them from the realities they purport to show and challenges the way they are interpreted, or their “preferred readings”.

The fact that a number of images presented together can give a fuller understanding of what is represented was utilised by the early picture magazines in their photo features, but the reductionist trends of consumerist society mean that although “a visual exploration involving at least several images can reveal much more of the context denied by the single image” audiences demand “packaged, and homogenized information” (Davis 2005, p 62). However, as Davis continues, such “regulation of complex stories to a single, often decontextualised image necessarily brings into question the representation of reality” (ibid, p 62).

Despite Bazin’s (1967) claim for the language of cinema in opposition to the excisional nature of the photograph (liberating objects from time and space) Medeiros et al (2015) reveal that in postmodern culture this ontological distinction between photography and cinema is becoming blurred: “Territories that once stood on their own no longer have easy-to-define boundaries. Instead, photography and cinema are dissolving the grounds of their formerly assumed differences by systematically evoking the effects of the other” (p 2). As such, cinema uses the device of still image to fix moments or events, while photography alludes to movement by employing technology such as stroboscopic lighting.

David Campany also remarks on this indistinctness between image-making technologies, and comments that it has prompted a “radical shift in the understanding of what photography is, what it is good at and what it is for” (2003, n.p.). He goes on:

The definition of a medium, particularly photography, is not autonomous or self-governing, but heteronomous, dependent on other media. It derives less from what it is technologically than what it is culturally. Photography is what we do with it. And what we do with it depends on what we do with other image technologies” (ibid).

Sliwinski (2006) points out that the early lantern shows of social reformers such as those of the Congo Reform Association isolated the photographic subjects from their own oral testimony, with the result that individual experiences became abstracted into a generalised standard event to evoke a universal response (which in the case of CRA was the desired outcome – rallying Christian notions of duty and responsibility). In dissolving the particular, Sliwinski observes that the relationship between viewer and viewed was also abstracted from ‘I and Thou’ to ‘I and Them’, reinforcing geographical and cultural difference and confirming the status of the Other.

The narrative structure I have used, utilising the documentary elements of in-depth study as well as day-in-the-life story, combined with the vernacular of family album snapshot work together to form a cross-section of my subjects’ public and domestic lives, instilling the whole project with reality and intimacy. Interview recordings give the subjects the opportunity to construct their own narratives based on their life experience, reducing the risk of abstracting them and emphasising the ordinariness of their characters and their lives, their dreams and ambitions, as well as their way of expressing them.

In juxtaposing the images with personal narratives, the diegetic space is thus closed, preventing any obtuse or ‘third meaning’ being read into the images (Barthes 1977, pp 52-68).

According to Barthes, a series of images presented together form a syntactical sequence, elevating the signifier to ‘suprasegmental level’ as an effect of the synergy of multiple images:

several photographs can come together to form a sequence… the signifier of connotation is then no longer to be found at the level of any one of the fragments of the sequence but at that… of the concatenation” (1977, p 24).

In contrast to what Barthes saw as the repressive function of the captioned still image, to direct reading of the image’s signifieds, when a series of images is shown alongside an accompanying relay-text or spoken word,

text… and image stand in a complementary relationship; the words, in the same way as the images, are fragments of a more general syntagm and the unity of the message is realized at a higher level, that of the story, the anecdote, the diegesis… dialogue functions not simply as elucidation but really does advance the action by setting out, in the sequence of messages, meanings that are not to be found in the image itself” (ibid, p 41)

This is the connotative structure I am aiming to achieve through the presentation of image and spoken word.

Thinking about the length of time devoted to each slide, I had been using Marker’s average of between 4-5 seconds (although he tends to show images for a shorter time). I came across the following observations by Burgin:

To look at a photograph beyond a certain period of time is to court a frustration; the image which on first looking gave pleasure has by degrees become a veil behind which we now desire to see. It is not an arbitrary fact that photographs are deployed so that we do not look at them for long; we use them in such a manner that we may play with the coming and going of our command of the scene/(seen) (an official of a national art museum who followed visitors with a stop-watch found that an average of ten seconds was devoted by an individual to any single painting – about the average shot-length in classic Hollywood cinema)” (1982, p 152).

While we seek to gain control over the image, which manifests itself in our turning of the page, or moving on to the next slide in the series:

To remain long with a single image is to risk the loss of our imaginary command of the look, to relinquish it to that absent other to whom it belongs by right – the camera. The image then no longer receives our look, reassuring us of our founding centrality, it rather, as it were, avoids our gaze, confirming its allegiance to the other. As alienation intrudes into our capitation by the image we can, by averting our gaze or turning a page, reinvest our looking with authority” (ibid, p 152).

It’s true that it is very difficult to look at images at the same speed as another person, and one always wants to be the one turning the page or holding the release cable. This is partly why it is difficult for me to judge how long each image should be on screen. In my last project I varied the length of time according to what I felt was the relative ease or difficulty of reading the particular image’s contents. This time I’m going for a constant rate.


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