PLAYING WITH STILL IMAGES
Updated: Nov 30, 2022
In this last article about still images in experimental cinema, I focus on slower pace practices. While photography can be a strategy to stop time, some filmmakers can also play with its duration.
STRETCH TIME AT WILL
Always looking for the specific nature of motion pictures, the Canadian Michael Snow is precisely interested in the relationship between photography and film. At the question: "What essential aspects of cinema distinguish it from other mediums?", he answers : «Light and duration, not movement or narrative». A concept he elaborated explicitly in «One Second in Montreal» (1969, 16 mm, 19:07) which feature only still images, without any soundtrack. The film scrolls through thirty badly printed black-and-white outdoor photos of the nearly deserted city in winter. These images convey a sense of nostalgia for Snow who lived in Montreal for five years in his childhood.
At first glance, it may seem quite unusual to construct a movie with only filmed photographs, especially since each has the same treatment and the same framing. There are only temporal differences. Each image is held on the screen for different period of time, increasing with each photo and then, after two-third of the film, rapidly decreasing until the last one. In this movie, one second of camera clicks is stretched to 19 minutes of screen time. Faced with this extreme example of a film only based on banal pictures, one might think at first : nothing happens in this film ! But the use of photographs without particular appeal shows the intention of Snow to engage the audience’s attention with the forms on the screen, independently of traditional storytelling. He experiments ways to look differently. In a photo exhibition, the viewer determines the time he spends in front of each image, but here the viewer must comply with the time set by the filmmaker. “One Second in Montreal” presupposes availability, attention and patience. If the effect is surprising at first, it can become soothing if we settle in this contemplation without expectation. Almost more relevant today, years after its creation, this movie is the opposite of the accelerated pace of current narrative films and even the frenetic pace of our daily lives constantly bombarded by images of all kinds.
DESTROY MEMORIES... OR TRY TO The film «(nostalgia)» (1971, 16mm, 36:00) by Hollis Frampton (US) is also composed of black-and-white photographs. They represent 13 years of his artistic explorations and documentation of New York’s art scene. Different from Snow’s “One Second in Montreal”, there is a action : one after another, the photos are slowly burned to ashes on a round stove element. The soundtrack provides personal comments read by fellow artist Michael Snow. But gradually, beyond this consistency, the viewer becomes aware of an anomaly. Indeed, the sound and image do not match. While looking at a photograph burning, the viewer is listening to a commentary about a photograph that he will see afterwards. The viewer therefore never hears the description of the first photo of the film nor does he see the last picture described. As the words anticipate the events to come, the audience inevitably starts imagening the upcoming photograph. The commentaries are intentionally detailed in the analysis of each picture. They refer to Frampton’s nostalgic memories and critical thoughts about the medium. By displacing sound and vision, Frampton makes the viewers live an unusual experience and play an active role. There are three moments in this film : the past captured by the photos, the present by their disintegration and the future by the anticipation of their description. Like a loop that closes on its subject, “(nostalgia)” finally speaks of nothing but photography in its various aspects. It remains that the immolation of the photographer's work does not have any consequence, because there are always copies of it. And as Frampton said about the photos : “They are not destroyed; they can be resurrected by rewinding the film”!
RETRIEVE OLD MEMORIES... OR CREATE A NEW ONE The film “La Jetée [The Pier]” (1962, 35mm, 28:00) by French director Chris Marker is also composed almost exclusively of black-and-white photos. He even calls it a “photo-roman [photo-story]”. But unlike Snow and Frampton, Marker tells a linear story narrated in voiceover. The film begins with the sentence "This is the story of a man marked by a childhood image." Actually the image of a woman seen on the pier at Orly airport. "La Jetée" takes place after the Third World War. To survive, people must seek resources in the past by travelling back in time. The protagonist has an advantage in this mission because of his fixation on the woman’s face haunting him. He therefore revisits his story, creating new memories in which he interacts. This story unfolds in an invented future that owes its survival to the ability to go back to the past. As if the past had joined the protagonist’s present… in the future! In “La Jetée”, the main character acts as if he was flipping through a photo album. Here Marker make links between photography, time and memory. Photographs that freeze a moment in time, photographs that recall the memory. That’s why the choice of using only stills pictures for this film is well suited to a plot based on a souvenir. The only filmed sequence, lasting a few seconds, shows the awakening of this sought-after woman. The process used in "La Jetée" is very efficient. The viewer does not have the impression of watching a static movie. He follows the plot very easily. The sequence of still images accurately reproduces the action. Marker forces the viewer to focus on the details of each scene. The narrator's deep tone adds to the compelling atmosphere of the storyline where the spectator no longer knows what’s true or false. ANIMATE A STILL SHOT
This last example shows an intriguing self-portrait. The video “Double” (2011, 6:45) by Quebecer Manon Labrecque gradually introduces us to a fascinating static shot. At first, a small part of the image is progressively revealed, like the development of a photo in a darkroom. Although it remains blurred, it is accurate enough to recognize a face with a window in the background. In the middle of the film, a zoom out gives an overview of the whole picture which is hard to fully understand. It shows a reflexion of Labrecque shooting a reflexion of herself in a complex «ready-made» set-up. While she was staying in a cottage in the countryside, she came upon that scene which attracted her and she waited for the right time of the day and the right light to capture it in video. The final result gives the impression that her upper body is framing the window seen at the beginning of the video. Although «Double» is mainly a static shot on a scene except for the zoom out movement and sometimes a little bird passing by during shooting, it is never totally still. Labrecque animates it by manipulating the textures and colors of the image that are subtly transformed throughout the video. By inversion, here the window does not symbolize an opening on the world, but on oneself. Interior and exterior blend. The framing within a framing recalls the one imposed by the camera as well as the duality referred to in the title. This scene in «Double» catched Labrecque’s eyes because it represented the multiples layers of the blurry areas of the concept of identity. «Double» concludes with a fade to white as we hear the flopping end of a reel. Were we finally looking at the capture of a projection ? This ambiguity adds complexity to the work. Is Labrecque having fun pretending to navigate between analogic and digital media ? Since «Double» manages to show Labrecque two times in the same shot, it addresses the idea of duality and personal boundaries, exposing her vulnerability. The identity is imprecise, always to be defined. The «who am I ?» which follows us all our life and which can be solved only by diving into oneself. The complex soundtrack occasionally featuring a child's voice and sounds akin to musical toys suggests a quest that does not forget its origins.
«One second in Montreal» de Michael Snow :
«La jetée» de Chris Marker :
«(nostalgia)» de Hollis Frampton :
«double» de Manon Labrecque : https://vitheque.com/fr/oeuvres/double
About the Author:
For more than thirty years, Johanne Chagnon has adopted a diversified artistic practice that calls on several mediums, in addition to exploring various forms of distribution and various types of presentation venues, often unconventional. More recently, she has turned to experimental video in which she brings together writing, installation and performance to illustrate her symbolic universes. She has been involved for over 15 years in the art magazine ESSE as coordinator and editor. From 2000 to 2017, she also developed the LEVIER and ROUAGE programs of the Engrenage Noir organization, which works to support community action art. She has published a monograph, “Naviguer malgré tout” [Navigating despite everything], retracing her practice from 1986 to 2015.
IMDB page: https://pro.imdb.com/name/nm12593014/
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