Picture of the Week #83: Louis Daguerre, Father of Photography

A (very brief) account of the invention of the Daguerreotype photographic system developed by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787 – 1851), as featured in Camera Comics #005 (1945). To see some examples of the stunning results visit the galleries of the Daguerreian Society, or click on the examples of modern Daguerreotypes produced by the artist Chuck Close at the bottom of this post.

Fragment #29: Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion

Still playing around with iMovie, which lets me make short videos, I made this quick piece that features a montage of Eadweard Muybridge‘s Animal Locomotion photographic series. The music is an excerpt from Philip Glass’s 1982 opera The Photographer, which took its libretto from documents and transcripts from Muybridge‘s life, and in particular the court proceedings from when he was on trial for the murder of his wife’s lover. If you want to keep up with these videos, and hopefully watch me get better at making them, you can now subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Picture of the Week #77: Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills


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Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’, examples of which you can see in this slideshow and gallery (click on the images below for a larger view), were taken in New York from 1977 to 1980. Sherman uses herself as the model for a series of set-ups which see her assuming the roles of various characters from imaginary movies, like a portfolio of stills from the career of an actress. Although we’ve seen none of these films, we recognise something of these character types: women on the run, waiting in a motel room for a lover, plotting a theft, regretting an infidelity – every expression, every setting, every prop is a prompt to create our own stories.  

What might seem like an exercise in fantasy, a professional game of dress-up, ends up poignantly conveying a sense of isolation, perhaps inadvertently encapsulating the limited options available to women in Hollywood; the feminist interpretation is there if you want it – Sherman shows how easily you can knock up a pre-fab female stereotype with a bit of make-up and a wig, and how readily the spectator will accept and participate in the construction and reinforcement of ideals of femininity. The staging is never glamorous, and always a little cheap and sparse, as if Sherman’s characters have been left stranded, out of time and out of context after the collapse of the studio system. From one picture to the next, she is troubled, locked in a private struggle with a story which is never explained to us; Sherman is invariably looking off screen, rarely returning the camera’s gaze, both exposed to us and simultaneously inaccessible, distant. In that sense, they offer a beautifully succinct summary of our tendentious relationship with the people we see on the screen above us at the cinema.



Picture of the Week #73: Charlie Chaplin Colour Portraits by Charles C. Zoller

To mark what would have been the 122nd birthday of Charlie Chaplin on 16th April, I present these three magnificent colour photographs of Chaplin, taken around 1917- 18 by Charles C. Zoller (1854 – 1934) and currently held in the George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive. They look like they were shot on a film set, and Chaplin looks relaxed in the first picture, and more definitely “in character” in the others. It’s a treat to see the tramp costume in colour, and to see Chaplin isolated and working under someone else’s direction. Such candid shots of Chaplin in costume, sapped of pantomime and the energetic grace he had when in motion, give a very different sense of so familiar a star. He looks even more vulnerable than usual, and in colour the outfit looks faintly silly, even more like a protective armour against the indignities of the tramp’s tumbling social status. Also, the faded quality of the pictures, which were taken using the Autochrome process patented by the Lumière Bros in 1903, looks now like a home movie or amateur portrait, offering us more immediate access to a glimpse of Chaplin at work.

I’m not sure which film Chaplin was shooting at the time these photos were taken, and the records for the pics don’t say so either. I would bet, though, that it’s A Dog’s Life. This was Chaplin’s first film following his contract with First National signed in June 1917, which matches the time frame, and the setting and costume (admittedly, they are very similar across a number of films), seem to match this wonderful footage:

Picture of the Week #62: The Diehl Puppets

[Princess Puppet from Die Sieben Raben, Diehl Brothers Collection, Frankfurt.]

Sorry, dear readers – I’ve been stringing you along with little more than pictures-of-the-week this year. Normal service will be resumed shortly. I have a very packed publishing schedule this year, which will take up a lot of my time, but will also produce a lot of notes with which I can feed my blog. In the meantime, I promised some photographs of the Diehl brothers’ puppets, which I viewed in one of the archives of the Deutsches-Filmmuseum, at Rödelheim, Frankfurt last week. After watching a selection of the Diehl films at the Wiesbaden archive (thankyou to Michael Schurig and Jochen Enders for technical assistance at the Steenbeck, and for their excellent interpretations of the dialogue), I had the pleasure of handling the puppets themselves. It was a real thrill to pull them out of their archival hibernation. They’re beautifully preserved and carefully stored, but they don’t get out much, and are likely to remain in their boxes for the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t want to make the case that the Diehls’ films are all neglected masterpieces, but there is enough distinctive artistry there to justify further study. In particular, the lighting and camera movement they achieve is truly extraordinary, and the faces of their puppets are unusually expressive, thanks to their patented replacement animation techniques.

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Picture of the Week #50: Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Theatres

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This week I have some very beautiful photographs for you. Hiroshi Sugimoto shot these images of American (movie) theatres with a long exposure, capturing entire films in a single frame, reducing movement to stasis and complicating the usual distinctions between still photography (instant) and film (continuous). Here’s how he describes the germ of the idea:

I’m a habitual self-interlocutor. Around the time I started photographing at the Natural History Museum, one evening I had a near-hallucinatory vision. The question-and-answer session that led up to this vision went something like this: Suppose you shoot a whole movie in a single frame? And the answer: You get a shining screen. Immediately I sprang into action, experimenting toward realizing this vision. Dressed up as a tourist, I walked into a cheap cinema in the East Village with a large-format camera. As soon as the movie started, I fixed the shutter at a wide-open aperture, and two hours later when the movie finished, I clicked the shutter closed. That evening, I developed the film, and the vision exploded behind my eyes.

Of course, you can’t see which film is which – there is only a celestial glow emanating from the screen. It’s a wonderfully romantic vision of the cinemagoing experience as a trascendence of our quotidian timeframe (and don’t you wish all cinemas looked like these?. See more of Sugimoto’s spectacular photographs at his website.

Picture of the Week #46: Eadweard Muybridge at Tate Britain

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If you’re passing by Tate Britain between 8th September and 16th January, you’ll have the chance to catch an exhibition of photographs by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), pioneering chronophotographer and proto-animator, creator of the zoopraxiscope. The exhibition promises to cover the full range of his art, though he remains most famous for his sequential studies of human and animal locomotion, produced using an array of cameras timed to record the incremental the stages of a catalogue of movements and activities. It promises to be a wonderful opportunity to examine his work in more depth, and especially to see a 17-foot panoramic photograph of San Francisco, rather more impressive than the version shown below (click for a large, but not that large, view):

Fragment #10: David Campany on Acting and Posing in North by Northwest

How does the dialectic of stillness and movement impact upon the representation of the human body? Let us consider ‘posing’ and ‘acting’ as two distinct modes of bodily performance. We might associate acting with unfolding or ‘time-based’ media like cinema or theatre. Posing may suggest the stillness of photography or painting. Of course, plenty of examples complicate this. Think of scenes of arrest such as the tableau vivant in theatre, cinema’s close-ups of faces in stilled contemplation, blurred gestures caught but escaping a long exposure, or narrative scenes acted out for the still photograph. Such things are too common to be exceptions.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959), Cary Grant’s entire performance is a series of balletic swoops and pirouettes strung between archly frozen poses. He is on screen almost the whole time and his inter- mittent halts provide the suspense in the hurtling story of mistaken identity. Early in the film he stoops to aid a man who has been knifed in the back. Stunned, Grant puts his hand on the weapon and becomes easy prey for the incriminating flash of a press photographer. We see the resulting image on the cover of a newspaper: his indecision has framed him decisively. He flees in panic, setting the plot in motion.
Grant’s performance is a slick and knowing commentary on the very nature of screen presence. Each pose is a wink to the audience that he is toying with his own identity and celebrity. Fans knew Grant began life as plain Archibald Leach, a circus tumbler from Bristol. In the film he plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive mistaken for the non-existent spy George Caplan. Grant holds his poses for longer than is strictly necessary, long enough for the story to fall away momentarily and allow the audience to stare at a man with four names. At one point Grant breaks in through a hospital window. A woman in bed yells ‘Stop!’, first in shock, then with a comic swoon. What if your movie heart-throb really did spring to life from a frame on your bedroom wall? Grant’s technique, much like Hitchcock’s, is extravagant but it differs from convention only by degree. Hollywood performances, especially in thrillers and dramas, criss-cross between filmic character and the excesses of star persona, between acting and posing.
From David Campany, Photography and Cinema (London: Reaktion Books, 2008)

Fragment #8: Sam Rohdie on Eadweard Muybridge’s Illusions

Muybridge’s locomotion studies though appearing to be successive moments of a continuous movement were at times faked. In these cases, he had his models pose in a succession of gestures imitating rather than enacting movement. A Muybridge nude descending a staircase or washing linen might, for example, hesitate at each step or each stage of the process. It was her pose in suspension that Muybridge photographed as if in movement.

Perhaps, except for scientific accuracy, it was not that important if the reproduction of movement by Muybridge was real or artificial, a matter of the camera capturing movement as it took place or a matter of hypothetical movements staged. Muybridge was an illusionist not a scientist, and his ends were commercial rather than educational. The succession of stills made the details of movement believable. EAch shot was part of a consecutive series, therefore incomplete in itself, requiring a before and calling to an after.

Illusions so produced rested on a double disavowal (they were to be perceived as continuous) and the gap between the real and the representation of it equally disavowed (the representation appears as the reproduction of the real). The camera, in the details it exhibited, though it went beyond normal vision, only provided a more robust spectacle of it, since it was to normal vision reconstituted that Muybridge’s photographs returned. Because the camera was a mechanical instrument, and thereby could not be thought of as accurate because objective and non-interpretative, it guaranteed an identity between vision and reality. The camera was like the eye, but better.

It is the gaps between the still images and between the images and the real they represented that Muybridge’s work ‘covers’ and in so doing produce an illusion of movement and of reality: not an analysis, but a spectacle.

Sam Rohdie. Montage. Manchester University Press, 2006. pp.3-4.

[For more on Muybridge’s working methods, visit ‘Freeze Frame’ at the National Museum of American History.]

Picture of the Week #38: Carl Weese’s Abandoned Drive-ins

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The most striking feature in this month’s edition of Little White Lies, the ever immaculately designed movie magazine, is a compilation of photographs from Julia Solis’s abandoned theatres project, which includes some spectacular images of derelict, decaying movie palaces. You can see a slideshow of the images here. Searching for more of her work brought me to Carl Weese’s similarly poignant, slightly more plaintive pictures of drive-in theatres in North America, most of them run down and emptied of patrons. It’s a blunt reminder of how viewing contexts for movies have changed over the years, with the gradual miniaturisation of media platforms leaving the epic scale of these venues seeming obsolete and unloved.

See more of Carl Weese’s photographs here.

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