I’d like to say the separation of the arts according to the specifications of the medium is a thing of the past, but is it? The multidisciplinary artists who graduated from the academy often see their works labeled as “installations” given the amalgam of techniques presented and the rigidity of a certain History of Art, sometimes resistant to consider a photograph as a sculpture or a painting as a living space. Just as the installation presupposes active reception by the senses, so does photography – in particular -, and cinema – in general-, for both interfere with the mechanisms of representation that trigger the senses. If, nowadays, the vehicle for art is more often language than matter, then maybe photography and cinema have a unique way into portraying the invisible.
Due to their index status, photographs exert a one of a kind magnetism, they make objects appear closer to a an animated state that only the observer recognizes. In A Short History of Photography (1931), Walter Benjamin traces the story of the ascent and fall of the aura: there is a first moment in which technique and object meet in harmony; and a second, marked by technological advances (such as the fact that optics had become more luminous), which allowed the “magic”, hitherto associated with the continuum of light that emerges from the penumbra, to give way to the transparency and luminosity of the image. Either way, photographs rescue the mundane from falling into the ordinary, or, as Walter Benjamin put it:
It is a different nature which speaks to the camera than speaks to the eye: so different that in place of a space consciously woven together by a man on the spot there enters a space held together unconsciously. While it is possible to give an account of how people walk, if only in the most inexact way, all the same we know nothing definite of the positions involved in the fraction of a second when the step is taken.
Photography, however, with its time lapses, enlargements, etc. makes such knowledge possible. Through these methods one first learns of this optical unconscious, just as one learns of the drives of the unconscious through psychoanalysis.
A recurrent example of how a photograph can illustrate complex concepts – like that of the transition from life to death – is the still frame of Marion’s pupil in Psycho which, through repetition, gives account of the passage of time and the emptying of life, abandoning the body. It is as much a mechanical procedure as its effects are of a different order – physical and psychological. Everyone is able to understand that it is the narrative structure that allows photography to develop an emotional effect on the viewer, but the exact ways in which she does this are never clear.
The perspective each of us has about ourselves depends on our ability to construct a more or less linear narrative for ourselves. Without this cognitive faculty, we are drifting entities, without identity. This seems be the great drama of illnesses associated with memory loss, as well as diseases associated with traumatic events. If, as a memory aid, photography can play a fundamental role and even give rise to a clinical practice – that of phototherapy -, when it tries to substitute memory, some signs of perversion start to emerge. From the appearance of the papyrus to the advent of photography, history has been marked by written record of events and the consequent circulation of documents, allowing the human being to evolve comparatively, i.e., to think both about him/herself and civilization as part of bigger picture, from which there were records (then understood as facts). The democratization and the consequent massification of photographic devices, which took place in the twentieth century, not only led photography to overthrow word, but established her as a compass for dreams. As icon, photography took the place of reality. This massification of photography made societies rethink the relation between the individual and the collective, insofar as the photographic register creates a false illusion of proximity, provoking changes in the formulation of expectations, affections and human interaction.
The space of photographic language, while offering the perfect conditions for experimentation – absence of paradigms, ghosts or mannerisms – condemns us to live at a crossroads where automatism settles in. Despite its relationship of mimesis, a “good” photograph is always subjective. The fact that a photograph has an extended life when separated from its referent often makes it a medium easily penetrated by (psychic) automatic processes. In this sense, the greater the multiplicity of frames in an image, the greater its potential to become an automaton.
As a technical resource, repetition allows singular moments to dissolve into each other, giving way to free associations. As a psychological resource, repetition points to lapses, obsessions, traumas. Vising the same places is often a symptom of insufficient memory or of a search for meaning. In 1914, Freud wrote about the compulsive act of resistance, later known as repetition compulsion, to explain that repetition can emerge as a replacement for memory: “We learned that the patient repeats instead of remembering, and this repetition is an act of resistance”. Many of our defense mechanisms, which Anna Freud identified, resort to repetition as a way of “isolating” and “eliminating” the act that originated the defensive gesture in the first place. However, if and when adapted to creative works, repetition tends to be a revealing force of the desire for order which, we can assume, results from an “ego-split”.
In Seminar XI of Jacques Lacan on the Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan develops the Freudian concept of repetition by explaining that the return of the same significant proves that the unconscious exists. Repetition is, therefore, the primordial mechanism of automatism, because it is the expression of the unconscious. Repetition, as a manifestation of the real, is an automatic process of returning to traumatic questions. In the arts, repetition is a resource for composition, configuration of space, narrative, etc. This “gesture“, as Lacan makes clear when relating repetition with automatism, is above all a way of trying to attain the primordial image, that which will then occur in repetition. In this insistent return to a reality there is a transference. Whether these fragments of reality return as figures in a drawing or as shadows in a photograph, their reproduction animates the objects (seeing an object countless times the viewer becomes familiar with it and creates empathy), but also makes them “more real”.
While of photography we expect it to “cut into living flesh to perpetuate the dead” (Dubois), in cinema we expect to see death itself, for in cinema the spectator isn’t invited to see the mechanism of representation. Instead, the viewer is expected to believe the product. Although we live in the age of post-photography and post-cinema, and although both media maintain a relation with time that is characteristic to them, they do differ in their “time of experience“. In photography, understanding light makes it possible for us to “freeze” scenes that we would otherwise never see. In cinema, the same light that gives life to the image is the same that instantly kills it and that “time of experience” triggers a different kind of aesthetic experience. However, if a plan is delayed on the screen, even if that plan consists on a sequence of different frames, the viewer may well relate in a similar way both to the “moving” as well as to the “static” image. In these circumstances, photography and cinema exercise the same transformative power. Here, static and motion do not differ in their genesis, in the construction of an an acoustic image that echoes within us.
Several examples illustrate this idea of temporal elasticity that unites photography and cinema and transgresses both their borders (particularly when it comes to repetition). Pièce Touchée (1989) by Martin Arnold and Le Tempestaire (1945) by Jean Epstein are two examples. The first is an experimental exercise made from “found footage” of a 1954 Hollywood movie called The Human Jungle (by Joseph M. Newman). Of the 18 seconds of the found frames and through an expert game of editing, Arnold features a 16-minute video re-configuring the rhythm of the cinematic genre itself. The video opens with the image of a woman sitting in a chair, reading. At one point, a man tries to open the door, and Arnold makes him go back and forth, stressing the impact of such a gesture (a decision?). Throughout the rest of the video, Arnold makes clear how important time and repetition are and how easily they can be used to address neurotic or to point to subliminal layers within images. Speaking about Eric Rondepierre – Eric Rondepierreor working with photograms (between spot and texture) -, Philippe Dubois addresses “the razor’s edge where cinema meets photography in their most intimate specificity”:
That impossible photogram, as Roland Barthes said. An object which is not (even) an object, but at the same time is actually two objects. It doesn’t (really) belong to the cinema or (simply) to photography ; it is more than a photograph yet less than a film. It is, therefore, a sort of axis or fold, the precise crossing point (punctum) between cinema and photography.
This is of course profoundly contradictory. The photogram is an impossible object : it is both film’s condition of existence and its total negation. Obviously a film consists only of photograms, yet seeing a photogram for what it is (the frozen image of a film) necessarily means not seeing the film, which can only exist fully as movement. Seeing a film flow past automatically implies not seeing photograms, nevertheless the very essence of a film since they disappear, absorbed into the projection process. Photograms are the only real images and the only invisible images in a film. This is the ontological paradox which makes photograms into cinema’s blind « spots ».
Thinking about photograms as cinema’s blind spots is something that the aforementioned artwork – Pièce Touchée – questions. But is there a necessary stillness for that ‘blind spot’ to fall into a different category – that of parody? And what would parody mean in these circumstances? Would it point to an immediate finality, i.e., that of parody itself, thus strangling the work?
Le Tempestaire, by Jean Epstein, testifies to the multiplicity of aesthetic associations that can be made when one takes full advantage of the medium, with variations of rhythm, movement and temporality, plus emphasis on the symbolic dimension of things. Epstein became known for his research on the concept of photogénie (after Louis Delluc), describing the photogenic as “any aspect whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction”, then specifying that “sonly mobile aspects of the world, of things and souls, may see their moral value increased by filmic reproduction” (in On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie, 1926).
Epstein rejected narrative as the central element of the cinematic genre, instead highlighting the experience of aesthetic truth. Le Tempestaire presents us with the point of view of a “Storm Healer” who tames the revolt of the sea. Through a quick interim of planes and movements of distortion, retreat and advancement in the timelapse, the author suggests a particular feeling of the winds and sea. The face of the woman often highlighted in the film may refer precisely to the blind spot of the photogram, but in this case the repetition is in no way parodic. Instead, it stresses the punctum. The woman’s face repeats itself to such a degree that the spectator is invited to question: who is the observer?
This image happens to me in a way that goes beyond the anguish it transports. I see a character who is about to start crying or screaming in despair. This is where film and photography come together for me. Whether the images happen to me because they linger on screen or happen to me because they acquire a second nature when I close my eyes, that which grants both autonomy and soul to the images is their capacity to exist both in the visible as in the invisible space.