Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography

Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography

by Karen Beckman

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In Still Moving noted artists, filmmakers, art historians, and film scholars explore the boundary between cinema and photography. The interconnectedness of the two media has emerged as a critical concern for scholars in the field of cinema studies responding to new media technologies, and for those in the field of art history confronting the ubiquity of film


In Still Moving noted artists, filmmakers, art historians, and film scholars explore the boundary between cinema and photography. The interconnectedness of the two media has emerged as a critical concern for scholars in the field of cinema studies responding to new media technologies, and for those in the field of art history confronting the ubiquity of film, video, and the projected image in contemporary art practice. Engaging still, moving, and ambiguous images from a wide range of geographical spaces and historical moments, the contributors to this volume address issues of indexicality, medium specificity, and hybridity as they examine how cinema and photography have developed and defined themselves through and against one another.

Foregrounding the productive tension between stasis and motion, two terms inherent to cinema and to photography, the contributors trace the shifting contours of the encounter between still and moving images across the realms of narrative and avant-garde film, photography, and installation art. Still Moving suggests that art historians and film scholars must rethink their disciplinary objects and boundaries, and that the question of medium specificity is a necessarily interdisciplinary question. From a variety of perspectives, the contributors take up that challenge, offering new ways to think about what contemporary visual practice is and what it will become.

Contributors: George Baker, Rebecca Baron, Karen Beckman, Raymond Bellour, Zoe Beloff,Timothy Corrigan, Nancy Davenport, Atom Egoyan, Rita Gonzalez, Tom Gunning, Louis Kaplan,
Jean Ma, Janet Sarbanes, Juan A. Suárez

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Still Moving engages new debate in a field central and crucial to cinema, media, and cultural studies. The collection explores the nature of photography and cinema both before and after the advent of digital media. As a result, some stunning work—on acceleration and simulation, on filming and editing in photographic and electronic media, on the fortunes of memory and oblivion, and on the dialogue and conflict of technologies—emerges from the tension of still and moving images.”—Tom Conley, author of Cartographic Cinema

Still Moving maps out various interesting directions, trends, and tendencies inspired by the fact that moving-image media are losing their coherence, spinning out and recombining in interesting ways. In doing so, it opens up a number of fresh paths for examining what film and photography, as well as cinema studies and art history, will become. It will be widely read and discussed in the worlds of art and film, the classroom, the museum, and the gallery.”—D. N. Rodowick, Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies and Director of Graduate Studies in Film and Visual Studies, Harvard University

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Duke University Press Books
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Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4155-0

Chapter One


Tom Gunning

If Freud had subjected one of the West's central ideologies-historical progress-to psychoanalysis, he might have discovered the primary psychic operation of displacement operating behind our constant impetus toward ever-greater perfection. What passes for progress (especially theoretical progress), I am claiming, often simply displaces unresolved problems onto new material.

As a historian of early cinema (and of the even earlier visual and sound technology that preceded the cinema, such as the magic lantern, the phantasmagoria, the panorama, the phonograph, and the devices of instantaneous and chronophotography),I am excited, but also a bit dismayed, by the current discussion of newly emerging media, especially when this discussion provides an account of the older media of cinema and photography. There is no question in my mind that the recent interest in early cinema and its technological antecedents springs partly from the excitement the appearance of such new media generates (and my friend and colleague Erkki Huhtamo has demonstrated this interrelation of old and new most wonderfully).

But, as Norman Mailer is supposed to have once said, ideals of progress often depend on the anesthetization of the past. While I believe that the possibilities and realities of new media invite us to (in fact, demand that we) rethink the history of visual media, I also fear they can produce the opposite: a sort of reification of our view of the older media, an ignoring of the true complexities that photography, cinema, and other visual media capturing light and motion presented, simply displacing their promises and disappointments onto a yet-to-be-achieved digital media utopia. Especially bothering to me is a tendency to cast the older media as bad objects, imbued with a series of (displaced) sins that the good objects of new media will absolve.

Let's tackle one of the largest problems first, the truth claim of traditional photography (and to some extent cinematography), which has become identified with Charles Peirce's term indexicality. Both aspects need investigation: the nature of the truth claim, and the adequacy of indexicality to account for it. This whole issue becomes even more obscure when critics or theorists claim (I hope less frequently as time goes by) that the digital and the indexical are opposed terms.

I will approach this last issue first, both because I think it is rather simple and because others have made the argument as well or better than I can (most recently Phil Rosen in his fine work Change Mummified [2001]). I have some difficulty figuring out how this confusion arose, but I imagine it went something like this: the indexicality of the photograph depends on a physical relation between the object photographed and the image finally created. The image on the photographic negative derives from the transformation of light-sensitive emulsion caused by light reflecting off the object photographed filtered through the lens and diaphragm. In a digital image, however, instead of light-sensitive emulsion affected by the luminous object, the image is formed through data about light that is encoded in a matrix of numbers.

But what problem does this change present and how does it challenge indexicality? Clearly a digital camera records through its numerical data the same intensities of light that a nondigital camera records: hence the similarity of their images. The difference between the digital and the film-based camera has to do with the way the information is captured-which does have strong implications for the way the images can be stored, transferred, and indeed manipulated. But storage in terms of numerical data does not eliminate indexicality (which is why digital images can serve as passport photographs and the other sorts of legal evidence or documents, which ordinary photographs supply).

Further, it would be foolish to identify the indexical with the photographic; most indexical information is not recorded by photography. Long before digital media were introduced, medical instruments and other instruments of measurement, indexical instruments par excellence-such as devices for reading pulse rate, temperature, heart rate, and the like, or speedometers, wind gauges, and barometers-all converted their information into numbers. (Think, for instance, of that household item, the thermometer, in either its analogical or digital form.)

Although a photograph combines both types of signs, the indexical quality of a photograph must not be confused with its iconicity. The fact that rows of numbers do not resemble a photograph, or what the photograph is supposed to represent, does not undermine any indexical claim. An index need not (and frequently does not) resemble the thing it represents. The indexicality of a traditional photograph inheres in the effect of light on chemicals, not in the picture it produces. The rows of numerical data produced by a digital camera and the image of traditional chemical photography are both indexically determined by objects outside the camera. Both photographic chemicals and the digital data must be subjected to elaborate procedures before a picture will result. Here we might grasp how the claim for digital uniqueness displaces a problematic issue within our conception of traditional photography, an especially pernicious one. The claim that the digital media alone transform their data into an intermediary form fosters the myth that photography involves a transparent process, a direct transfer from the object to the photograph. The mediation of lens, film stock, exposure rate, type of shutter, processes of developing, and of printing become magically whisked away if one considers the photograph as a direct imprint of reality.

Thus the very strong claim that digital images can be manipulated in ways that photographic images cannot must also be qualified. Indeed the much-heralded malleability of the digital image does not contrast absolutely with photography. I would not deny that the ease, speed, and quality of digital manipulation represent an important new stage in the technology of imagery. But we must carefully consider the situations in which such malleability becomes a value and the considerable debt such transformations owe to (although often displacing our attention from) the history of photography. Here especially, the intertwining of indexicality and iconicity must be observed.

Let us grant for the moment the ability of digital photography to transform absolutely the appearance of the object originally photographed. Doesn't this power of the digital destroy the indexical quality of the image? If we grant that the original digital photograph of Uncle Harry was indexical (and therefore bears an important relation to the actual Uncle Harry), what happens when we then intervene on the data in a Photoshop program and transform his nose into a pronounced beak, his bald head into a shaggy wilderness, turn his brown eyes blue? Surely the indexical is being attenuated, if not absolutely destroyed! Two answers are relevant here, both of which include a qualified yes. Yes, but ... film-based photography can also transform Uncle Harry's appearance, whether through retouching, use of filters or lenses, selection of angle of photography, exposure time, use of specially prepared chemicals in the developing stage, or adding elements through multiple printing. Traditional photography, therefore, also possesses processes that can attenuate, ignore, or even undo the indexical. No question digital processes can perform these alterations more quickly and more seamlessly, but the difference between digital and film-based photography cannot be described as absolute, only as relative.

But a more complex and, I think, more interesting answer would point out that the power of the digital (as well as the traditional photographic) to "transform" an image depends on maintaining something of the original image's visual accuracy and recognizability. I use this phrase ("visual accuracy and recognizability") to indicate the manner in which indexicality intertwines with iconicity in our common assessment of photographs. Our evaluation of a photograph as accurate (i.e., visually reflecting its subject) depends not simply on its indexical basis (the chemical process) but on our recognition of it as looking like its subject. A host of psychological and perceptual processes intervene here which cannot be reduced to the indexical process. The recognition of a photograph by a viewer as an image of its subject would not simply result from indexicality. Indeed, one could produce an indexical image of something or someone that remained unrecognizable. While the indexical relation may tie the photograph to its referent, the image must be recognizable for us to see it as a picture of the referent. More is involved here than simple indexicality.

Let me get at this point via another route. If one of the great consequences of the digital revolution lies in the freedom it gives people to transform a photographic image, we could say that the digital aspires to the condition of painting, in which color, shape, texture, all the components of an image, are decided by the painter, rather than determined by the original subject through an indexical process. But do users of Photoshop want an absolute freedom? Do they really want to create an image or, rather, is their purpose to transform an image that can still be recognized as a photograph (and maybe even as a photograph of Uncle Harry)?

The interest in transforming Uncle Harry's photograph is not quite the same as that of drawing a caricature of him. Admittedly one could point out that few of us have the depictive talent to produce a caricature, and that digital manipulation programs give us that power (interestingly this recalls the argument Fox Talbot gave for his invention of photography as a mechanical aid for those who lack drawing talent). But beyond the technical aid offered, it seems to me that the power of most digital manipulation of photographs depends on our recognizing them as manipulated photographs, being aware of the strata of the indexical (or perhaps better, the visually recognizable) beneath the manipulation.

The wonderful playfulness celebrated in the digital revolution remains parasitic on the initial claim of accuracy contained in some uses of photography. Just as I tried to untangle the idea of visual accuracy from simple indexicality, I would now like to consider the "truth claim" of photography that relies on both indexicality and visual accuracy but includes more (and perhaps less) than either of them. A great deal of the discussion of the digital revolution has involved its supposed devastating effect on the truth claim of photography, either from a paranoid position (photographs will be manipulated to serve as evidence of things which do not exist, thereby manipulating the population to believe in things that do not exist) or from what we might call a schizophrenic position (celebrating the release of photographic images from claims of truth, issuing in a world presumably of universal doubt and play, allowing us to cavort endlessly in the veils of Maya).

I use the term truth claim because I want to emphasize that this is not simply a property inherent in a photograph but a claim made for it (dependent, of course, on our understanding of its inherent properties). Perhaps its Ur-form can be found in Dion Boucicault's 1859 melodrama The Octoroon, in which Scudder, the play's Yankee "photographic operator," discovers that an act of murder has been recorded by a camera. He offers the photograph of the actual act of murder, showing the true culprit, as evidence to a lynch mob about to lynch a Native American falsely accused of the murder, declaring, "'Tis true! the apparatus can't lie!" (Boucicault 1984, 163).

We might add immediately that the apparatus, in itself, can neither lie nor tell the truth. Bereft of language, a photograph relies on people to say things about it or for it.4 It is no accident that Boucicault's melodrama involves a mock trial in which the photograph exonerates the falsely accused Indian chief Wahnotee and determines the true culprit. Given the early date of this play, characters question whether an official court of law would actually accept such evidence. Both historically and institutionally, in order to tell the truth, the photograph must be subjected to a series of discourses, become, in effect, the supporting evidence for a statement. Anyone who knows either the complex history by which photographs were granted evidentiary status in legal trial, or indeed the scrutiny and discussion to which they must be subjected before they are granted such status in contemporary trials, must realize that in order to speak the truth the photograph must be integrated into a statement, subjected to complex rules of discourse-legal, rhetorical, and even scientific (discussing the technical aspects of the photograph, its exposure, developing, and printing).

But I think we would also have to contradict Mr. Scudder and say that a photograph can only tell the truth if it is also capable of telling a lie. In other words, the truth claim is always a claim and lurking behind it is a suspicion of fakery, even if the default mode is belief. That is, the value placed on the visual accuracy of a photograph, founded on its combination of indexicality and iconicity, forms the basis of a truth claim that can be made in a variety of discourses whether legal ("Here we see the accused caught by a surveillance camera ...") or less formal and interpersonal ("Yes, his penis really is that big ..."). But insofar as this value of visual accuracy exists, there will always be a drive to counterfeit it. The truth implies the possibility of lying, and vice versa.

Faking photographs has a long history and was always possible, given the processes that intervene or shape the indexical process as it becomes a picture. Spirit photography, the attempt by Spiritualists to prove the survival of a soul after death by capturing its image in a photograph, a practice dear to my heart, provides only one early example (see Gunning 1995b). The variety of doctored photographs for political purposes is another (King 1997). But my point here is not simply to claim either that the manipulability of photographs predates the digital (undeniable) or that this practice was frequently employed in circumstances where truth claims were attempted (undoubted). Rather my point is that the practice of faking or counterfeiting can only exist when true coin of the realm exists as well. Rather than denying photography's truth claim, the practice of faking photographs depends upon and demonstrates it.


Excerpted from STILL MOVING Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Karen Beckman is Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Professor of Film Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Vanishing Women: Magic, Film, and Feminism, also published by Duke University Press.

Jean Ma is Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University.

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