As someone who considers himself a photographer more than anything else, I think about where photography’s place is among other media – it’s one of those things that’s inevitable to spend some time on. In the early 1900’s, the debate was between painting and photography, now it seems to be more between video and photography, especially with the way digital technology has shaped it; the two practices are becoming more and more alike.
From their onset through to the present, film (motion) and photograph (still) have been drastically different, yet strikingly similar. Without the still, motion would be impossible. When a video camera is rolling, it is not catching a moment – it is catching a string of moments. What separates photography from film is that photography needs (on most occasions) to capture a string of moments in a single, concise document.
What got me thinking about this film/photo relationship in any sort of depth was a statement in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (if you’re a photographer and haven’t read it – you should):
“Oh, if there were only a look, a subject’s look, if only someone in the photographs were looking at me! For the Photograph has this power – which it is increasingly losing, the front pose being most often considered archaic nowadays – of looking me straight in the eye (here, moreover, is another difference: in film, no one ever looks at me: it is forbidden – by the Fiction).”
In truth, I never made this connection, at least in a way that made me stop and reflect on it, until I read this statement. Every once in a while, after seeing a well produced video clip or movie, the emotional power it has on me makes me think that film is the victor in the bout.
The most powerful thing about film is its detailed scope of time. Not only do I appreciate the sense of time that its motion provides, but also the amount of time spent creating it. Maybe it’s unfair of me, but I also tend to judge photography based on the amount of time it took to create. This time is not limited to the time it took to capture the image or print it. A ‘good’ photographer (which would hopefully produce a ‘good’ image) should be consumed by their craft. The time present in a photograph is also evident in the way the photographer’s visions of composition, lighting, and ultimately the capture of a moment keep them up at night and occupy their mind anytime it’s left to wander. I want to see the obsession behind a photograph. Although some people may get lucky, photographs like Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare Saint Lazare (pictured above) show precision in thought as well as technical skill – he was only ready to capture that moment because he had seen its like (or at least felt its mood) over and over again in his mind.
Returning to Barthes’ struggle for intimacy with the subject in photographs – I feel this is an aspect of photography that needs more recognition. While not the more detailed or complete rendition of a subject that film provides, a photograph certainly has the potential of engaging the viewer on a more personal level than film ever can. As Barthes’ states, a subject in a film cannot enter the viewer’s world because it is ‘forbidden’. Anytime I have seen this attempted in a movie, it has been a non-issue; it doesn’t make the film more spectacular or personal. For me, those sorts of gimmicks just degrade the experience. Photography can capture a portrait of a person, place, or thing that breaks through the surface of the print in a way that a movie cannot ever break its two (or three) dimensional picture plane (or at least has not done for me yet).
I included a friend in this debate recently, and he mentioned that if you had a video playing in your house (with or without sound) it would become incredibly annoying. At first I just laughed, but then that observation sunk in. A video is very demanding of the viewer. It requires our time and attention, to the point of almost being intrusive. It also leaves very little to the imagination. It doesn’t illicit a response from our inner child – the one who loved to fill in the blanks, and to make stories and dialogue from the silliest things. Photography does do that; it taps into our ancient and youthful desire to tell stories, and to invest ourselves in the telling.
Though they are two different beasts, these differences are why I still see photography as superior to film, despite my occasional doubts. I would be hard pressed to find a single clip in even my favorite movie that I would go back to over and over again to view by itself. A photograph, when executed correctly, is a different story. There are a number of photographs, from those immortalized and hung in museums, to photographs of my grandfather as a young man, that captivate me no matter how many times I see them. It borderlines on magic the way a photograph can hang in the hallway of a viewer’s home and still evoke emotion after a lifetime of viewing. A photograph’s ability to capture the complexity of a moment, an event, an individual, a place, an object, etc. and the slew of emotions that can accompany those things is what, for me, sets it apart from all other media as the apex of art.