By photofilms we understand films that essentially consist of photographs. Photographs placed in a cinematic context create a filmic experience. In photofilms, the film medium is dissected into its components. Photofilm authors experiment with the relationship of text, sound and image, reflecting on the composition of the cinematographic. They let us “think” cinema.
The images of light from photo and film cameras have effected a sustained change in our perception. With the invention of photography, which re-presents the light reflected on bodies and objects, we suddenly have irrefutable evidence in our hands of something that has been. Through the invention of film, which re-presents the movement from reality in successive phases of image sequences, we turn that which has been into a progressive becoming before our eyes. At the same time we also gained a new definition of how movement is represented, one that has also transformed both science and art.
Photos stand for the perception of memory, films for the natural perception of movement. But what happens when the image on the silver screen suddenly stops? “For a long time the still image was cinema’s nightmare. (…) Before the introduction of safety film in the early 1950s, a frozen image in a projector meant an immediate danger of fire” (Daniel Kothenschulte). From the beginnings of film history, it took more than 30 years till the “exploration of the uniqueness of film art” (Hollis Frampton) also became concerned with “still images”. With the freeze frames in the films by Dziga Vertov, Boris Barnett, Siodmak/Ulmer, and especially with the German Werkbundausstellung (German Work Federation Exhibition) “Film und Foto” exhibition in 1929, for the first time ever the relationship between the two media was systematically put into context. Up to the present day, the still image in film causes surprise. It disconcerts us, challenges and stimulates us. We see the film images because they move, we see the still images because our eyes move over them. This sensing is comparable to the sensing movements of our consciousness, jumping back and forth between the various layers of reality, between the past and the present.
In 1896 Henri Bergson had, parallel to the beginning of film history, “faultlessly discovered” (Gilles Deleuze) in his book Matière et mémoire the existence of movement images. In 1907 he noted in L’Evolution créatrice, that human perception tends to view “reality” in self-contained, frozen states as some kind of “snapshots”: “Perception, language, intellectual understanding all proceed in this general way.” Our perception apparatus can only intuitively infer real movement, the true duration, but we are unable to seize movement itself and comprehend it. Thus in the cinema, the sensing consciousness continually jumps back and forth between the comprehensible and the inconceivable.
“We take snapshots, as it were, of the passing reality, and, as these are characteristic of the reality, we have only to string them on a becoming, abstract, uniform and invisible, situated at the back of the apparatus of knowledge, in order to imitate what there is that is characteristic in this becoming itself. Perception, intellectual understanding, language so proceed in general. Whether we would think becoming, or express it, or even perceive it, we hardly do anything else than set going a kind of cinematographer inside us”. (Henri Bergson: L’Evolution créatrice, P.U.F. Quadrige, Paris, 2001, IV. fej., 305. o.).
Bergson’s “inner cinematographer”, who is responsible for the perception apparatus, does not register any characteristic images from the movement, but rather random snapshots. For memory, an inner photographer would have to be responsible for recording the characteristic images, similar to that which we see in the cinema when looking at photofilms. The contradiction of moving/non-moving is not just one of many contradictions, but rather it denotes the fundamental conflict in our perception, intellectual understanding and language.
According to Roland Barthes, the photo is a direct reference to the real, to reality, to the world, “the REFERENCE that represents the basic principle of PHOTOGRAPHY. Hence the name of the neome of PHOTOGRAPHY is: “˜that-has-been’, […], that which I see occurred there at that place located between infinity and the perceiving subject […].” A photograph contains a moment that we are able to hold in our hands. It reveals a moment in a way that we are not able to see with our natural perception. We recognise more in a photo than that which we would be able to naturally see in a moment. The photo represents something that has been. We comprehend in a natural way the photographic image as representing that which has passed. The photograph taken in the past shows us something that is no longer thus. We imagine – inspired by the photo – the future of the past. The photo gives us cause to consider: The past of that which has been, the present of that which has been and the future of that which has been. All have been, all have passed.
Film is an indirect reference to the real, to reality, to the world. A film contains a temporal duration (e.g. 24 x moments/seconds) which we can neither comprehend, nor hold in our hands as a moving image projection. The projected film shows a moving image that appears to us as-in-natural-perception. Are we able to recognise more in the cinema than we would be able to see naturally during the recording? In the cinema too, we do not see the world as we would naturally. Like the still image, the film represents something that has been. And yet paradoxically, we comprehend the moving image sequences as the present. A film always occurs now, because the illusion of movement continually updates and hurls itself anew into the here and now. It is true that film shows something of the past, but the process of perception at the present moment does not let us think about the past; our attention is fully occupied by what will be, the future. That which captivates our eyes at the present moment in the cinema, that which interests us, is the becoming. All in the future, all coming into being.
The photo in film invites us to see a direct reference to the real, to reality, to the world. In the context of the fleeting images in film, the photo stands for constancy, although we are not able to hold it in our hands. The photo in a cinematographic context shows us a moment in a way that we would not be able to see it with our natural perception in a film. We are able to recognise more in the non-moving image (in film) than we would be able to see in a moving image.
The photo in film assures us that what we are seeing now has been there beyond doubt. It gives us this reference to the past in the cinema’s own present and thus permits us to think about all further time dimensions. When we look at a photo on the cinema screen, on the one hand we see the self-contained future of the past of the photo and on the other hand we expect a future of the cinema’s present. The photo in a cinematographic context contains all states of time that refer to what has been (the past of that which has been, the present of that which has been and the future of that which has been). And on top of that, something is waiting for us there that is still becoming.
“If a film image stops, the illusion is shattered that same instant.” (Daniel Kothenschulte) Or to be more precise: The illusion of the movement is shattered in that moment and irritation arises. In order to clarify this unusual situation, our mind becomes active. As soon as the image stops in the film, it invites us to contemplate and we are pleased at “seeing more”: interpreting the image as a concept, participating in the author’s study of the images, and being inspired by the imaginary extension.
Photofilms demand active, thinking viewers. Christa Blümlinger wrote that Agnès Varda brings together two elements in her photo and essay films: The sensual level and reflection. Photofilm authors reflect, discuss, involve the viewer in the process of perusal. “Photos and voices also become associated in photofilms: Links which have to be actively formed by the viewer” (Ole Frahm). “If you have a photograph in front of you and place another one beside it, you automatically begin to search for a connection. (…) There’s a proper “˜program’ that then begins to run in your brain in order to connect up this encounter” (Gerd Roscher). We automatically search for meaning, yearn for interpretation.
The photofilm deconstructs cinema into single frames, language, sound, music – and treats its elements as independent components. Taking these “building blocks,” the photofilm is consciously assembled in a playful way to become a projected reality. The photofilm opens up interspaces. The interspaces are – as Raymond Bellour said – “between the images” and cause the consecutive nature of the filmic in the first place.
Between the unmoving images in films, there are blank spaces. However these are “potential spaces” (D.Winnicott) which are charged up by the imagination. The interspaces in photofilms are just as important as the still images. “Something always remains hidden, like something always fundamentally remains hidden in photography.” (Elfi Mikesch) And the photofilm makes us sensitive to what is hidden in the moving and the still image, in language, sound and music.
Photofilm gives us a time-image: “The time-arresting photo mutates in the film strip into a film still. (…) Still images in a film are not so still at all. Within them are rumbling and roaring. (…) Film has charged the still image with time. From the beginning, the still image is also a time-image. (…) The noise of the grain is a barely perceptible visual vibrato: From the very first moment it lets us feel that the images are based on time. Film breathes. Time is noticeably safeguarded in it.” (Gerry Schumm)
The photofilm contains all conceivable times. It can be regarded as a time container for memory and recollection: “Not everything can be remembered! That which cannot be remembered, the immemorable of film: Despite this force set in the course of time, at the same time the photofilm holds something which would not be memorable otherwise.” (Ole Frahm)
Photofilms could work as follows: The photographer deliberately records moments from “reality” gliding past which characteristically express that which interests him. Then these still images are taken by the cinematographer and, driven by the urge to become into being, are placed in a filmic context. On the silver screen, the photo is opened out in all directions. It inspires us to imagine movement, and thus all layers of time.
The photo on the cinema screen invokes the self-contained future of the photo’s past, while conversely also calling forth the future of the cinema’s present, through the: Sounds, music, language and moving or non-moving images. In the universe of photofilm, an exceptional anti-hierarchical arrangement of the individual media prevails which often leaves unclear which is caused by which. Chris Marker’s ultimate photofilm LA JETÉE (France 1962) was the first to demonstrate vividly that what is typical of the film medium is not exhausted by the presentation of movement, but can be further developed in the structuring and processing of time. The photofilm shows the photo (which stands for the past) its own present in the cinema and hence permits us to imagine all conceivable time dimensions – inspired possibly by LA JETÉE, Hubertus von Amelunxen developed the idea of a completed future.
“Inspired by Roland Barthes’ “The Third Meaning” it may be said that the future of the filmic is not strictly in movement, but rather in a third meaning, a framework for the unfolding of permutations that make a new theory of the photogram conceivable.”
© 2010 Gusztáv Hámos, Katja Pratschke, Thomas Tode
Translation: Finbarr Morrin
Katja Pratschke studied directing at the filmschool in Lodz and media art at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. Gusztáv Hámos creative output concerns work with photography, film, video and installations which deal with the complex relationships of media icons, private life and the cathartic function of myths. Together they realize photo films, film programmes and publications about photo film. Thomas Tode lives as a freelance filmmaker, curator and publicist in Hamburg. He researches and teaches essay film, Soviet avantgarde and political documentaries as well as re-education, architecture and epic films.
This text was first published in the brochure “Photo Film!” by Tate Modern in London in March 2010, accompanying the film programme of the same title