Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 38, November 2002

 

 

R. J. Warren Zanes

 

Photography Into Motion

 

 

_Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video_

Edited by Patrice Petro

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995

ISBN 0-253-20890-4

314 pp.

 

The processes through which the many-voiced character of academic conferences finally become published volumes of essays are many. Generally speaking, however, editors often choose either to foreground that intrinsic polyvocality, or instead distinguish certain recurring themes from among a conference's multiple fields of inquiry, using those themes to frame the proceedings in hindsight, to confer a degree of order that was perhaps not conspicuous at the time of the event itself. _Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video_ is a volume belonging to the former category. The range of the collection's essays, at times verging on disjuncture, both betrays the roving spirit that marks academic gatherings and reflects the character of the photographic medium itself, a medium that could also, and appropriately so, be described as roving. Indeed, photography goes everywhere.

 

Among the diverse essays gathered in _Fugitive Images_ are those that consider specific histories of photography, a few of which describe the absorption of photography into discourses preexisting the birth of the medium, essays that go more directly to the matter of photography's ontological status, and essays that elaborate and explore the theoretical legacies that seem to offer the most to contemporary critical studies of photography. What sets the volume apart from comparable edited collections, however -- I think, for instance, of Victor Burgin's _Thinking Photography_, Richard Bolton's _The Contest of Meaning_, Carol Squiers's _The Critical Image_, and even Alan Trachtenberg's more historically comprehensive collection _Classic Essays on Photography_ -- is the fact that the majority of the writers involved in _Fugitive Images_ are first and foremost film theorists.

 

While a few among the authors collected are known primarily for their critical interest in the photographic image, most notably John Tagg, they are the exceptions. What this film theory association finally means, however, is that, more than the topics mentioned above, the matter of the relation between the still image and the moving image emerges as the issue of particular critical interest. But as that issue is not pressed into service as the structuring center around which the volume coheres, there are essays in the volume, Tagg's included, that do not touch upon the subject, even indirectly, and there are several essays that go between discussions of photography and film without addressing explicitly the consequences and questions that emerge in the process. Nonetheless, the porous border between the still and the moving image is the matter that haunts the volume in various ways.

 

Edward Buscombe's essay 'Inventing Monument Valley' considers the inheritance by Hollywood Westerns of certain landscape traditions, traditions associated with Romantic painting and filtered through the various geographic survey photographies that were a part of the exploration of the American West. Buscombe focuses on the making of an iconic landscape, giving particular attention to John Ford's part in constructing Monument Valley as one such place/symbol. Suggesting that Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon were made to signify not simply the Western but 'America itself', Buscombe makes the point that these were places that, in some sense, could not be seen until they were constructed as seeable through various cultural channels. In the process of making such an argument, Buscombe enumerates some of those cultural channels, including those of art, of science, of industry, and of tourism, demonstrating how these many discursive strands contributed to the making of a cinematic icon.

 

Buscombe's essay offers a rather straightforward discussion of the relation between particular genre conventions, in this case pertaining to the Western, and the pictorial legacies (whether still photography or, earlier yet, Romantic painting) that precede and, finally, inform those conventions. Embedded in this discussion is the simultaneous argument that still images, for instance the *scientific* images of geographic surveys, are always already polysemic, open to resignification. Both of these main points are, in many ways, not difficult to digest. In fact, in consideration of the probable target audience of _Fugitive Images_, Buscombe's essay seems one that will likely find the fewest to argue against its main theoretical premises.

 

Equally well-crafted, but more individual as a scholarly contribution, is Tom Gunning's 'Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations', being among the collection's most satisfying pieces. Gunning makes the valuable point that photography has multiple histories, histories that are often overshadowed by that more monolithic history of photography as index. Referring to Freud's theory of the uncanny, Gunning argues that photography's capacity to produce a double is an aspect of its ontology that, particularly in the 19th century, made photography a perfect if unlikely tool for those seeking to look beyond this world into its uncanny other, the spirit world. At a profound remove from a history of photography that emphasizes the camera's visual truth as it is related to a Cartesian tradition, this study of, among other things, Spiritualist photography uncovers a modern conception of evidence quite apart from that associated with photography's documentary legacy. Here, the notion of photography as a *medium* is given new resonance.

 

Sharing some obvious ground with her well-known study of pornography, _Hardcore: Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible_, Linda Williams's contribution is not unlike Gunning's in that she attempts to complicate those histories of photography that forge too strong, or at least too definitive a link between photography's origins in the camera obscura and a relation of the observer to the observed that is founded upon distance and mastery. Leaning quite heavily on ideas formulated by Jonathan Crary in his _Techniques of the Observer_, William's argument demands a reconsideration of photographic modernity's visual legacy, finally claiming that it was not photography's realist capacity alone that has governed the medium's pornographic uses -- if by *realist* one suggests a phallocentric conception of visuality that separates the seeing (and unseen) subject (typically male) from the seen object, which in Williams's study is the female body.

 

What Williams is redressing is film theory that has, she insists, perpetuated the notion of 'mind/body dualism by privileging the disembodied, centered gaze at an absent object over the embodied, decentered sensations of present observers' (15). She thus attempts to demonstrate, first, the manner in which the wall between viewer and object is a theoretical construct that limits our understanding of visual modernity, second, that visual modernity involves a particular corporealization of the viewer that is conspicuous in pornographic viewing practices, and, third, that the complexities of pornography, as she has argued on several occasions, are little understood because certain intellectual and cultural biases against it serve to impede any sophisticated critical analysis. Her argument involves an extended discussion of the ways in which the purportedly distanced, disembodied viewer is actually implicated in the scene/seen of pornography, an argument made, following Crary, with reference to the various technological innovations (for instance, the stereoscope and the mutoscope) that cannot simply be made synonymous with the camera obscura, that symbol of Cartesian dualism. To reinforce her point, Williams also remarks on ways in which cross-cutting sutures the viewer into the pornographic narrative as *object*, observer becoming observed. Then, to further challenge the theoretical model of seeing she describes as the 'ahistorical, Mulveyan male gaze' (5), Williams posits the possibility of a female viewer, basing this possibility on the sheer range of pornographies evidenced in the archives and her 'guess' that 'some of the vast numbers of such photos were bound to find their way into the hands of women' (25). While this last moment marks the rhetorical low-point in her argument, it nonetheless reveals her eagerness to challenge the purported dominance of a particular film theoretical model from within her discussion of photographic and cinematic pornography.

 

If the above-mentioned essays deal with both the photograph and the moving image, none of them take the relation between the two as their explicit subject. Authors Regis Durand and Philippe Dubois, however, approach the matter more directly. Durand, for instance, challenges Roland Barthes's famous understanding of photographic temporality as a 'having-been-there' by first considering Barthes's distinction between the cinematic image flow (which informs even the reception of the film still) and the photograph's allowance for a viewer's 'pensiveness' (144). Such a distinction established, Durand then argues that the significant matter of Time as it relates to the photograph has less to do with the temporality of the represented object than it does the thinking process that is a part of photographic viewing. He thus distinguishes between the moving image and the photograph not in terms of the photograph's ontological status but, instead, the particularities of this photographic viewing. Ambitious, Durand nonetheless recognizes the magnitude of his reversal, this call to shift the study of photography from the discrete photographic object to the particularities of photographic viewing, ending his essay by suggesting that photography's 'theater of signs and memory . . . remains to be studied in detail' (151).

 

Philippe Dubois, echoing some of Durand's suggestions, presents himself as an example of a critic who has wrongly given himself to the search for photography's essential ontology. The viability of such a quest, he insists, 'is no longer possible in today's audiovisual and theoretical landscape' (152). If Durand shifts the focus from the object to the viewer, Dubois remains focused on the object, calling for the 'oblique' view of any one medium from the perspective of another. 'The best lens on photography', he suggests, 'will be found outside photography' (152). Risking overstatement to make his point, he suggests that Antonioni's _Blow Up_, more than any other text, has taught us the most about the 'photographic imaginary' (153). This approach to understanding the specificity of any one medium, by processing it through another, finally serves to complicate the kind of ontological essentialism through which photography is to be understood in radical isolation. Looking at case studies of filmmakers who are also photographers, Dubois manages to put forward some insights regarding the particularities of photography that are among the collection's most theoretically provocative.

 

Among all of the essays, Eduardo Cadava offers the most successful example of one that, as described above, 'elaborates and explores the theoretical legacies that seem to offer the most to contemporary critical studies of photography'. Discussing the place of photography in Walter Benjamin's vision of modernity, Cadava, in a kind of formal allusion, borrows the very structure of Benjamin's 'Theses on the Concept of History' to suggest that his agenda is to work *with* Benjamin in order to demonstrate Benjamin's immediate relevance. The Benjaminian form, as this allusion suggests and Cadava insists, is enduring. Cadava's admirable explication thus carries with it the tone of reverence. If Durand makes the point that Barthes's photographic 'having-been-there' suggests that the temporality of the photographic belongs to the referent, here it is Benjamin who is presented as the theorist who recognizes that 'the image emerges in the now-time of reading' (233). This reverberation of Durand's suggestive argument, discussed above, thus brings to light another theme that recurs in _Fugitive Images_.

 

Among the other essays in the volume is Aine O'Brien's photo-essay on an Irish penal jail, Kilmainham Gaol, an institution that has been repackaged as a tourist destination. The essay acts as a kind of middle-section in the book. Demonstrating the difficulty of bringing theory into art, O'Brien's piece is, in and of itself, opaque. In an unfortunate editorial choice, O'Brien's photo-essay follows Buscombe's carefully executed study of the Western and landscape construction. Cumbersome footnotes, meant to diminish the opacity of O'Brien's piece, overreach themselves and emerge as somewhat desperate efforts to buoy a project that simply does not translate (in part because of poor reproductions) into book form. While quite different, Herbert Blau's essay suffers from related issues. Powerful as a diffuse, aphoristic piece, Blau's essay fails to bring its many points into conjunction with one another. The brilliance of certain of its facets leaves one feeling that the essay is in the process of becoming, finally proving a disappointment. Likewise, Patricia Mellencamp's contribution seems not to have reached its culmination -- seems not, in Mellencamp's case, to have made its mind up whether to be personal criticism, post-feminist theory, or a study of hybridity as it informs both the makers of film and their mediums.

 

The paucity of theoretical studies of photography alone makes one grateful for the arrival of _Fugitive Images_. The disappointments with which the collection leaves one, however, are perhaps related to the editor's decision to do less rather than more as regards structuring the volume in relation to specific issues. The recurring matter of the photograph's relation to cinema is present enough as an issue to have served more conclusively as an overarching theme. Indeed, this might have brought to the collection the very thing that could have served to mitigate its disarray. The interesting effort to bring the matter of photography to a group comprised primarily of film theorists proves not, in and of itself, to be enough of an organizing principle. One can well imagine that _Fugitive Images_ could have been a very different collection had certain participants in the conference been able to contribute to the book -- I think of Sally Stein and Allan Sekula, in particular.

 

Photography is, of course, the ultimate interdisciplinary object, which, curiously enough, has received only a muted response in this the age of interdisciplinary studies. Perhaps only the written word has the ubiquity of the photograph and its imagistic progeny. But the medium's contexts being profoundly multiple, the photograph is not easily cornered. Thus the impasse is one in which a few names, notably Barthes and Benjamin, emerge again and again as those which can be associated with a rigorous theoretical consideration. Unfortunately, rather than *following* Barthes's and Benjamin's examples, one sees scholars merely *citing* their example. _Fugitive Images_ is an encouraging sign. But, like Goethe on his deathbed, one finds oneself calling for 'More Light!' It is, to be sure, time to get photography into motion.

 

University of Rochester, New York, USA

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

R. J. Warren Zanes, 'Photography Into Motion', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 38, November 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n38zanes>.

 

 

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