The Relationship Between Film and Photography, Still and Moving Image

Rebecca Baron 2 - How Little We Know of Our Neighbours

Context: Still image within the moving image, a look at stillness within a saturated digital environment.

This essay will seek to outline my findings on screen and narrative by looking at the intimacy, beauty and comparisons between still image within moving image. I will discuss the value of, and interest in, stillness and moving image and present my findings and opinion within the wider context of social and cultural values of visual communication and narrative. How has digital and the omnipresent screen altered our consumption of moving image? Do we now seek more tactile qualities to quench our thirst for visual narratives and information? Does the message have more of an impact when we are able to stop, pause and consider the content being projected at us? Fine artist, Douglas Gordon, has taken this to an extreme in his piece 24 hour Psycho. He discovered, when he happened to reverse his Psycho tape, that slowing down a film, and pausing, to two frames a second, transformed the viewing (Death 24x a Second, L. Mulvey, p101) and allowed the beauty of the cinematography to be seen. Laura Mulvey suggests that beyond the artists commentary on technology, we – the audience – are made aware of the fragile nature of portraying time within film (Death 24x a Second) … This work creates a dialogue between the film and the technology to discover something that is not there in the original … but can be revealed within it … and thus the traditions of the Avante Garde film … beyond its slow motion, seems to take the cinema, paradoxically refracted through an electronic medium, back to its own materiality and yield up the stillness of the individual frame in the filmstrip … we become await of the intermittency of the film image and the fragility of the illusion of real time in motion pictures. (Death 24x a Second, Laura Mulvey). Advancements in digital technology have had a dramatic impact on our interaction with screen. Most of our daily activities are carried out through the screen, our house keeping  and communication, our social interaction is played out in part through social networking sites such as Facebook. Daniel Miller (Professor in Material Culture, UCL)  suggests that Facebook is a social community and an authentic culture (Lecture notes, 02/03/11, LCC). Our values and expectations have altered as technological advancements become commonplace and integral to our daily lives. Therefore, to clarify, film / moving image, has evolved in response to rapid changes in technological advancements and our social, cultural and commercial interaction with screen has become the fabric of our daily routine.

Rebecca Baron is a media artist who explores an experimental documentary style of film making, with a particular interest in still photography and its relationship to moving image. How Little We Know of Our Neighbours (2005) is a piece of film made as a response to the Mass Observation Project started in the 30’s and its links with wider contemporary issues of surveillance, web cams and reality TV. How Little We Know of Our Neighbours is an experimental documentary about Britain’s Mass Observation Movement and its relationship to contemporary issues regarding surveillance, public self-disclosure, and privacy. At its center is a look at the multiple roles cameras have played in public space, starting in the 1880′s, when the introduction of the hand-held camera brought photography out of the studio and into the street. For the first time one could be photographed casually in public without knowledge or consent. Mass Observation used surreptitious photography to record and scrutinize people’s behavior in public places. Mass Observation was an eccentric social science enterprise founded in the late 1930′s in England that combined surrealism with anthropology. The film traces the history of the movement from its inception as a progressive if naive “anthropology of ourselves” in the 1930′s through its reincarnation as a civil spy unit during World War II and its eventual emergence as a market research firm in the 1950′s. Mass Observation’s history is echoed in a range of present-day phenomena from police surveillance to web cams to reality television that points to ways in which our notions of privacy and self-definition have changed. “. Jessica Helfand notes that the voyeuristic nature of our surveillance society has led to a greater importance being given to observation and our collective role in storytelling “… the concept of the eyewitness is central to thinking about the new visual narrative … It values the power of the individual observation over the onesideness of oration.and, in so doing, makes the experience of viewing that much more memorable.” (Screen: NewMedia, New Narrative: The Lost Legacy of Film, J. Helfand, p119) Baron’s documentary highlights the prevalence of the camera in everyday life and the voyeuristic and flaneur results.  How Little We Know of Our Neighbours explores the theme of surveillance and observation within society and Baron comments that  “… there is a parallel between the snapshot and the diary because they belong to the private and the vernacular world.” she goes on to conclude “… surveillance imagery, which my new film deals with, is an extreme manifestation of this – the surveillance camera is on perpetually, and that changes the weight of the image.”

When moving image references its origins of photography in the still, either by literally freezing the frame or eluding to photography through colour palette, composition and perspective, we are forced to observe and consider the content of  what we see. This coupled with the powerful dynamics of the space, in terms of time,  around a still image, builds the sense of witnessing an event and intimacy. Referring back to my early point, that surveillance and the screen have become the fabric of our daily lives, we then can start to understand how creating a contrast within film and digital moving image by using the media of photography and the still can enable the audience to recognize the message – the moment – and its links with our everyday lives “… pictures provoke us by challenging our perception of – and hunger for – visual authenticity.” (Screen: NewMedia, New Narrative: The Lost Legacy of Film. The Remembered Image, J. Helfand, p132)

Several artists and filmmakers have explored the concept of still within moving image, or have been heavily influenced by photography within their filmmaking, Chris Marker is one such filmmaker / artist. He began his career in the 1950‘s as a photographer and writer, himself inspired by Alfred Hitchcock. Both his films – La Jetee (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983), were seminal pieces. La Jetee, was influenced by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and made entirely from black and white still photography. The 29 minutes of film is intense in its narration, and the assemblage of stills is as if piecing together evidence and recording actual events – the semiotic values that photography brings with it is partly what falsely creates this sense of real time.  The snapshot – the replication of a moment in time printed as hard evidence, take this and drop it in amongst the sea of digital footage and screen based communication of today – reincarnate the analogue feel of film and traditional photography and it heightens our senses and registers with us as something to remember, “… ironically and inspite of the increasing emphasis on pictures that move, the images we tend to recall, quite often, are those that stand perfectly still …”  (Screen: NewMedia, New Narrative: The Lost Legacy of Film. The Remembered Image, J. Helfand, p132). 20 years after Marker made La Jetee Derek Jarman produced Blue (1993), a film that takes the poignancy of the still within moving image to another dimension, 75 minutes of a blue screen that begins to oscillate with its intensity. This the backdrop for a narrative on terminal illness and the inner most thoughts of the narrator. The nowness of the still image is never more directly felt than in this significant work, the blue of the screen both illustrates and focuses our attention on the spoken word. Using still photography to create a moving image and making us aware of being in the moment and the passing of time, is Sam Taylor-Wood’s Still Life (2001) and A Little Death (2002). As Marker did before her, she eloquently displays the fragility of life as it decays before our eyes. The silence combined with the stillness accentuates the beauty and delicacy of the image. The still life was purposefully staged to refer to classical Dutch painting in the 16th and 17th Century that used the still life to make visual statements about vanity, human life and the passing of time. Dryden Goodwin’s work is focused around voyeurism, capturing private moments as people go about their daily business. He is particularly interested in the scale and the juxtaposition between the frenetic qualities of the moving image, capturing and isolating individual frames – set apart to be viewed individually “… when they focus in on the individual it becomes a much more intimate and one to one contact.” (Dryden Goodwin interview on his work DVD)

The media of film and photography merge significantly in A. Gonzalez Innaritu’s film Amores Perros. A huge admirer of Nan Goldin’s photography, to the point that at a meeting with the producer he took a book of her photography to use as direct reference for the whole look of the film – the producer brought the same book along. Every aspect of the making of this film was heavily influenced by the look of her photography down to the type of film used to shoot it. This film is a perfect example of “… the mediums conflicted relation to movement and stasis … through the encounter of cinema and photography.” (Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography, Karen Beckman and Jean Ma, ed’s, p138) the structure of this film relies heavily on the still image within the moving image which serves to further illustrate time, motion and movement (Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography, Karen Beckman and Jean Ma, ed’s, p137) “… these narrative and formal manifestations of interrupted or strained motion are reinforced by the intrusion of a phenomenal number of still photographs into the mies-en-scene of the film.” . Gonzalez Innaritu’s constant iteration between film and photography reinforces my argument that the still image within the moving image can act as a powerful medium to tell a story or present a potent piece of communication. The intellect of the audience is actively engaged in bridging the gaps of time and space that occur between the two processes (Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography, Karen Beckman and Jean Ma, ed’s, p155) “… he (Gonzalez Innaritu) takes cinema to the edge of itself by staging its repeated encounters with stasis, photography and the instant, creating a visual and temporal gap, a pause for thought and imagination.” .

This play with time and scale alongside media and technology is a recurring undercurrent in all of the work discussed so far, it is not enough to have something to say but – arguably more important – is how you say it, with what medium. Marshall McLuhan in the 60’s, (and Lev Manovich more recently, 2001), expands on this statement in his books The Medium is the Message and Understanding Media, where he explains that any medium escapes attention as a mode of communication until it has content and why it can so easily be overlooked by the designer of visual communication – media is invisible without a message at its heart (Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography, Karen Beckman and Jean Ma, ed’s, p155) “… he (Gonzalez Innaritu) takes cinema to the edge of itself by staging its repeated encounters with stasis, photography and the instant, creating a visual and temporal gap, a pause for thought and imagination.” . Semiotics is the study of the theory behind sign systems, structures and their meaning. Semiotics can be opened up and related to how we read an image based on the media it has been created with – for example a drawn image will have a different visual message to a photograph of the same image.

Interactive design and interactive screens – the democracy and interaction with the technology and screens we are surrounded by – makes the success of visual communication vital and critically dependent upon our ability to understand narrative, audience and drama (Screen: NewMedia, New Narrative: The Lost Legacy of Film, J. Helfand, p119) the playfulness of the fine artists and filmmakers discussed all use the screen combined with new technologies to create  narrative and drama with great effect, and could be seen as a model for development in the computer screen, using the richness and tactility of these arthouse examples in our everyday consumption of visual communication. We are a sophisticated society that is highly tuned to the subtleties and ease with which the worlds information is at our finger tips, an email is sent in a moment a phone call can be made instantly to the other side of the world, there is no corner untouched by the omnipresent screen and digital communication. Designers tapping into our innate understanding of multiple media and utilizing the impact that still image within moving image have a potent formula to work with. Baron, when speaking about her experimental documentaries says she never sets out to make neatly packaged hour long documentaries that pretend to have all the evidence weighed up and a rounded conclusion formed. She invites the audience to have some intellectual participation, presenting the imagery and footage and asking the viewer to reach their own decisions. In conclusion, this acknowledgment of democracy and participation of the audience and a technology savvy consumer forms the difference between the onesidedness of oration seen in traditional narrative structures and the collective role of storytelling that social networking, the internet and digital screen has to offer – a “… hybridization of alternatives.”  (Post Cinema: Digital Theory and the New Media.)

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