Still Photography?

By Cholodenko, Alan | Afterimage, March-April 2005 | Go to article overview

Still Photography?


Cholodenko, Alan, Afterimage


Death shadows, specters, the photograph, as it does the cinema. That this is the case for the photograph is now a common understanding. I will come back to it. As for the cinema, death is inscribed there from its very advent, including in the first substantial account of it, Maxim Gorky's on July 4, 1896, when he saw the Lumiere Bros. films at the Nizhni-Novgorod fair in Russia. Gorky began his review with these extraordinary, and extraordinarily apt, words:

Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows.

If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Everything there--the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air--is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its sound-less spectre.

Here I shall try to explain myself, lest I be suspected of madness or indulgence in symbolism. I was at Aumont's and saw Lumiere's cinematograph--moving photography. (1)

Of course, Gorky's characterization of the cinema as moving photography not only describes cinema but photography, but "negatively" as it were, as not moving. Building on Gorky's description, Tom Gunning proposes in his essay "An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Film and The (In)credulous Spectator" that the "ur" attraction/shock/experience of cinema--the experience in and by which it demonstrates its powers to the spectator--is the sudden transformation, the "magical metamorphosis," of what the first spectators were first presented with--the "all too familiar" still photographic image--into the all too strange mobile cinematographic image of living moving shadows of people and things. Quoting Gorky's famous description of it--"Suddenly a strange flicker passes through the screen and the picture stirs to life" (2)--Gunning sums up this process, what he calls "this cataclysmic event," as "this still projection takes on motion, becomes endowed with animation, and it is this unbelievable moving image that so astounds." (3)

Coming to photography through "cinema," I was struck by the possibility that the term "still" may not have been used in front of the term "photography" until the advent of cinema--"moving photography." I have in fact asked photography historians about this and neither do they know if it is so nor can they offer any other suggestion. I would add: a sign posted outside Aumont's advertised the wonder produced by the Lumiere cinematograph as Living Photography, (4) meaning photography, i.e. still photography, was not only not moving but not living.

But the question is: is photography "still"? And a correlative one: "is photography photography still?" I will try in this essay to offer some "answers" to these key questions, including mobilizing those already advanced by leading theorists of photography. (5) But here I need to add: not only do I come to photography through "cinema"--I would use the more common term "film" except of course it applies equally to photography, and this is not unimportant for my argument--I come to both photography and cinema through animation. And the question of the "still" is for me a question of animation, a question of motion and life. The Webster's Dictionary definition of "animate" reads:

animate ... v.t.... ["L. animatus, pp. of animare, to make alive, fill
with breath" anima, air, soul]. 1. to give life to; bring to life. 2. to
make gay, energetic, or spirited. 3. to inspire. 4. to give motion to;
put into action: as, the breeze animated the leaves.

For me, not only is animation a form of cinema, cinema--all cinema--is a form of animation. To which I would now add: so too is photography. Photography--all photography, photography "as such"--is a form of animation. Which would allow me to put it the way I have put it before: not only is animation a form of film, film--all film--is a form of animation. …

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