07 September, 2018 | Share Article
Panel discussion at the CAMA Gallery, London
I would like to thank Ava and the CAMA Gallery for inviting me to join the discussion today. My topic will be the interrelationship between filmmaking and photography, and I will also speculate on a few reasons why filmmakers might want to venture into the field of photography, as demonstrated in this exhibition.
The catalogue of the exhibition makes the important claim that “A photograph needs to be narrative.” Although not every photograph tells a story, it is certainly true that the pictures that live in our hearts and minds the longest are the ones that tell stories that matter to us.
We might say, then, that at one level photography and filmmaking are different ways of telling stories, or even different ways of telling the same story. Let us take as an example a story about the use of chemical weapons. A feature film which tells such a story – let’s say Jennifer Lawrence’s Project Delirium which is currently in production – at a running time of about 2 hours, at 24 frames per second (the traditional industry standard), would contain around 173,000 frames
Now compare that with Seifollah Samadian’s picture entitled “Protest against chemical weapons in Tehran” (below). Could we not say that Samadian has distilled the essence of the story in a single frame?
One of George Orwell’s golden rules for writing was: “If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out.” Perhaps this is what draws filmmakers to photography: the challenge of brevity, of finding the essence of a scene or a situation or a character: of finding the “decisive moment”, as Henri Cartier Bresson famously put it.
It is well-known that Cartier-Bresson pioneered the genre of street photography, of taking pictures of ordinary people going about their business in public spaces. As Rosenblum explains, capturing the “decisive moment” requires an
“interrelationship of eye, body, and mind that intuitively recognizes the moment when formal and psychological elements within the visual field take on enriched meanings” (A World History of Photography, p. 485).
For example, in Place de l’Europe, Paris (below), one recognizes the ordinary and somewhat humorous gesture of a hurrying man trying to avoid getting his feet wet in a street flood, but the picture also involves a visual pun about shadow and substance, life and art. (ibid)
In a cinematic context, this singular frame would perhaps pass relatively unnoticed, as the longer story propelled towards its resolution. But the photograph forces us to reckon with this exact moment.
Perhaps we could defer to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard at this point. In his Attack Upon Christendom, Kierkegaard isolates a concept called “Øieblik”: literally “glance of the eye”: the instant, the moment. Professor Alastair Hannay explains Kierkegaard’s idea as follows:
“By acquiring a sense of the instant as ‘now’, not abstracted from a spatialized continuum but as containing both past and future, we synthesize the temporal and eternal by incorporating the latter into the former. The eternal is then no longer the ‘future’ … or the ‘past’ … but the present. It is the ‘instant’, that ‘ambiguity’ in which ‘time and eternity touch one another’. The instant defines the present as a present, and not as a vanishing and abstract time-slice cut out of a time-continuum.
Instead of being defined in relation to past and future, the present becomes (in some sense) identical with past and future.” (Roman Králik and Ľuboš Torok, p. 48).
This beautiful idea of “the moment” – as an ambiguity in which time and eternity touch each other – is a transformative thought. It means that we can find ourselves in the moment, rather than losing ourselves in it; become present (and a present) to ourselves rather than feel that we are constantly slipping away.
And perhaps the idea of the moment as a gift accounts for the transformative power of photography at its best. By forcing us to stop and become present to ourselves in the moment, the photograph arrests our normal hurrying-about and enables us to achieve a more reflective state of consciousness.
What the great photographers manage to communicate in these “moments”, is, as Robert Adams suggests, the fact that they have known a miracle: “They’ve been given what they did not earn, and as is the way with unexpected gifts, the surprise carries an emotional blessing.” (Why people photograph, p. 15)
Of course, it would be futile to deny that film at its best can communicate or create miracles of its own. One of the happiest experiences of my life was watching Delicatessen for the first time in a small student cinema in Stellenbosch, South Africa. As the film progressed, the entire audience became completely in tune with the dark, comic horror of the cannibalistic butcher and his captive clientele. We laughed, and laughed, and laughed. We laughed as one, tears streaming down our faces, our stomachs aching in unison. In those precious moments, to be treasured for a lifetime, our individuality was transcended, we became part of something larger than ourselves: a single organism on the verge of the sublime. For what must have been about an hour we experienced a oneness with others, with the universe, with God, in which our egos briefly melted away like a sheet of ice before an immense, illuminating sun.
I have never been to a photography exhibition or seen a photograph that made me feel like that. And so I can imagine, as someone with only very limited filmmaking experience myself, that what might motivate some photographers to try their hand at filmmaking would be to create such little miracles, or to tell stories that require more narrative to bring out the full horror or comedy of a situation, or to bring characters to life in a three-dimensional way. As Robert Bresson wrote in one of his Notes on the Cinematographer:
“Not to shoot a film in order to illustrate a thesis, or to display men and women confined to their external aspect, but to discover the matter they are made of. To attain that ‘heart of the heart’ which does not let itself be caught either by poetry, or by philosophy, or by drama” (p. 47)
This idea of a “fuller narrative” brings me to my next point, the fact that, due to its singularity, the photograph invites interpretation in ways that film usually doesn’t. Given the lack of inherent narrative and context, the viewer must bring more of herself to the photograph; she must make connections from her own knowledge, experience, and imagination, to bring the picture to life. And in so doing she becomes an active participant in the creation of the narrative.
But perhaps there is yet another reason why filmmakers might venture into photography. And this is because filmmaking is almost always a team effort, whereas photography is almost always an individual effort. In the filmmaking process, the contributions of the actors, the sound technician, the cinematographer an the editor are critical – to name only the most obvious ones – and so the director can never claim sole credit for a work. But in photography, one only has oneself to blame if things go wrong, which is another way of saying: if you create a picture that no one cares about, it is your own fault and yours alone. And conversely, if it works you can claim most of the credit.
Of course, photographers do not very often create pictures out of pure imagination. As Robert Adams reminds us, “Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too.” (p. 13)
However, the difference with the film is that there is less frequent contact with other critical voices in the photographic creative process. And so filmmakers who venture into photography might do so because they want to test themselves, on their own terms, without the stabilisers on the creative bicycle.
Another reason why photography might appeal to the filmmaker is that it presents the opportunity for tactile exploration and experimentation, fiddling with the dials and buttons of the physical objects themselves. In filmmaking, the director might not look through the viewfinder of a camera all that often. But a photographer, as Roland Barthes explained so beautifully, has a special connection with his subject through the viewfinder, the “little hole” “through which he looks, limits, frames, and perspectivizes when he wants to ‘take’ (to surprise).” (Camera Lucida, pp. 9-10)
Recalling Adams, we might suggest that it is the immediacy of surprise, or the possibility of surprise, of experiencing the miracle, which accounts for photography’s appeal.
Which brings me back to Seifollah Samadian. I will rephrase my earlier question as follows: has Samadian distilled the essence of the universal story of human suffering as a result of the war in a single frame? In an attempt at answering I will invoke the spectres of Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida and say that a cultural sign acquires meaning only in the context of the whole system of signs.
An alien landing on earth and being presented with Samadian’s picture might have absolutely no clue what’s going on or what its significance is: do all earthlings look like this? It is only by seeing and hearing a multitude of stories that the individual scene acquires meaning. And so there is an important interrelationship between photography and filmmaking – a dialectic if you will – not always immediate or direct, but which exists nonetheless.
I commend you, the filmmaking photographers in this exhibition. In your rage against the dying of the light, your pictures seem to make a plea for a more inclusive humanity, a rediscovery of our shared humanity, and ultimately perhaps the transcendence of our failed humanity. And you remind us that beauty is worth fighting for. These are stories that can be told and deserve to be told, in many ways, in film, and in photography.