Les États généraux du film documentaire 2009 Photography and cinema

Photography and cinema

Some remarks on the relations between photography and cinema.

There was a time (Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein) when the notion of "photogenic" characterised the cinematic image. The same word designates today exclusively the quality of a good photographic object, a sort of predisposition to the image. Photography is everywhere and nowhere except in cinema, unless a long still shot gives the illusion.

It is well known that good photographers rarely produce good films, even when their photographic practice integrates the example of cinema. The case of Walker Evans is significant. When in 1932 he tried to make a film on Tahiti, he was forced to admit after several weeks that he had good photos but had been incapable of putting together a sequence. He wrote to a friend: "Films are more difficult than I thought. Apparently I am able to take striking individual images, but I am unable to compose an interesting sequence. I can't seem to give a dramatic form to my subjects." This difficulty is surprising in an artist who, later, showed a genius for the assembly of still images in books (American Photographs, 1938) or an exhibition. This shows that the analogy between cinema editing and the juxtaposition of photographs must be handled with care.
Examples abound. An exception, so it is said, is Robert Frank. His cinema is sometimes considered equal in quality to his photography. Is it so sure? Pull My Daisy certainly opened up new territory, inspired Warhol, but his two books, The Americans and Lines of My Hands are usually considered more important in the history of the image in the twentieth century. On the contrary, some great filmmakers like Johan van der Keuken had a disappointing early career in photography. In the recent exhibitions by Abbas Kiarostami, the substance of cinema had been reduced to a series of insubstantial shots of photogenic subjects.

Film historians have rarely shown interest in photography except to reduce it to the composition of a shot, a freeze frame or, even worse, a kind of ersatz painting. (It is true that Art historians showed the way as they long wrote their histories of painting in the nineteenth century ignoring the influence of photography.) Similarly, more recent historians of photography take into account just as rarely the influence of cinema. Perhaps things will improve one day, when we can hear the message of an artist photographer like Jeff Wall who moves freely through the history of photographic and cinematic images associating them to a pictorial tradition; when the history of cinema is no longer focused on authors, genres, production machinery; when for example the great cameramen of Italian neo-realist cinema are no longer overshadowed by the "authors", screenwriters and directors. I recommend reading the text by Nestor Almendros on Aldo in Film Culture, number 20 (1959).

Talking movies, so it is said, moved cinema away from photography. Cinema became an "impure" art. But photography had always been one: torn between the visual and literary arts, description and narrative, but also a tool of knowledge and distraction. As the poet Pierre Reverdy said in 1933 in the first issue of the review Minotaure, cinema was born as an "art of the gutter", it didn't care about the examples from painting. Photography, on the contrary, developed between the fine arts and the media, and it is in this way that it contributed to the definition of modern art.

It is obvious that a good film is not made up of a succession of good photographs. But that is no reason not to distinguish good photography from bad. On the other hand, photographs have used film as an inspiration to break the conventions of the "good picture", that is to say the well composed, well lit image constructed according the standards of a fossilised pictorial tradition. A good example is the Ballade de la dépendance sexuelle (1981-1996) by Nan Goldin projected as a slide show. Sincerely, in the history of art in general, artists have always sought their liberty outside the rules of the craft. At the beginning of the twentieth century for example, cubist painters (Picasso, Braque) used poets as their inspiration (Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Max Jacob...).

In this impure art that is cinema, silence can speak, description can replace narrative, or the narrative can precipitate, block, or subvert description. This relation between description and narrative also conditions photographic montage, that is the passage from the recorded image to the sequence (the series constitutes an intermediary form as it functions as variations based on a prototype). Can we consider that the sequence is a common trope to the still image and the image-movement, or a common and improper form to both registers of image? The documentary genre, to the extent that it exists, seems today to be the ideal zone to express this play on borders. Documentary is the zone where there is interference between all kinds of image.

The weaknesses of silent documentary description are well known. Bertolt Brecht pointed out that a view of a factory said nothing about the way it worked. The photographic document generally needs a caption. It takes on meaning when confronted with other documents, in an order of discourse. But photographs have always benefited from the silence of the image. This possibility also exists for filmmakers. We have often wondered how still and silent images can be inserted as such in the meeting space created by cinema (and also in the debates, in the discourse on film).

Between the still image and the image-movement the difference is as much in the experience of the viewer as in that of their production. It is the difference between seer and spectator. Three young artists will each present a photographic work. These pictures will be hung on a wall. The seer will view them in the light of day, standing, as if looking at a painting. The spectator will see them seated in the dark. The image is projected on a screen. It passes. The photographic image presents itself in the space of the seer. It seems to confront the individual, which is why critics have often lent works of art a presence. In cinema, the effect is that of a picking up or capturing stimuli often comparable to a hallucination or hypnosis (ref. the latest book by Raymond Bellour). The exposed photographic image and the projected film are isolated, separated from the space of daily activity, but this separation does not work in the same way.

People think too frequently that the recorded image constitutes the naturalist substratum of the cinematic narration. The isolated photographic image — if conceived to be seen in isolation — immediately affirms its abstract character: it is literally abstracted out of the space-time continuum of perception, this continuum that the film is too often supposed to replicate. Naturalism has always embarrassed, bothered both documentary cinema and journalistic photography. This is due in part to the convention of the "subject", but also to the influence of an audiovisual culture which flattens the document to a so-called narrative standard of daily life. In Man without Qualities Robert Musil evoked the power of the "primitive narration": "Most men are, in their fundamental relationship with themselves, narrators. They do not like poetry, or only momentarily. Even if some "becauses" or "in order that" get mixed up here and there with the thread of life, they nonetheless refuse any reflection which tries to go beyond. They like a well-ordered succession of facts because it takes on all the appearances of necessity, and the impression that their life is following a "course" which is for them a shelter from chaos."

Jean-François Chevrier

Three young artists are invited to present one of their photographs and to display it in connection with a documentary film: Madeleine Bernardin Sabri, Maxence Rifflet and Claire Tenu. All three recently worked together on a collective exhibition entitled Champs d'abondance (Galerie Dix9, Paris, Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009). Chosen with them, the films deal with subjects close to those of the photos they display. This link raises questions of representation, they question the authors' positioning and ways of viewing. The encounter allows us to raise questions concerning documentary and narrative within the field of the photography and also cinema. The three photographers will speak to us of their approaches, the production of their images and their documentary content. Jean-François Chevrier, historian and art critic, professor at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, has accompanied them in their reflections and work for several years. He will place their photos in historical and aesthetic perspective.
Madeleine Bernardin Sabri (1980) is currently shooting a series of photos with asylum seekers while carrying on a parallel militant activity as administrative and judicial counsellor: she helps asylum seekers to write the narratives which justify their request for refugee status to the French Refugee Authority (Ofpra). In her photography, she tries to reconstruct the depth of experiences and particular situations, to represent certain ways of inhabiting the space and territory. She presents in Lussas an image accompanied by a text, each one expressing the circumstances of such a narrative.
Ce monsieur doit rentrer chez lui, Florence Miettaux, 2002
A few months before the presidential elections of 2002, Florence Miettaux filmed the judicial attempts by the Cimade (a French Protestant support group for migrants' rights) to prevent a released prisoner being sent back to Algeria where his life was threatened.
Between 2002 and 2006, Maxence Rifflet (1978) documented photographically the transformations of the Yangtze Valley region as work advanced on the Three Gorges Dam. The images resulting from this work are so many questions on the possibility for the Chinese to reappropriate spaces in crisis. They indicate ways that these places, caught between a past which no longer exists and a future which has not yet arrived, can be inhabited in the present. Extracted from this set of photographs, the view he presents describes the dam's construction site where cultivated fields subsist amid the earthwork.
Bingai, Feng Yan, 2007
Shot in a village of the Yangtze valley, the film describes the consequences of these changes on the life of a family of which Zhang Bingai (the mother) is the central character.
The River, Pare Lorentz, 1936
The River is an ode to the Mississippi and part of a propaganda campaign for the film's commissioner - the Farm Security Administration (FSA) - a lyrical celebration of progress and America's capacity to master natural phenomena.
In 2004, Claire Tenu (1983) went to Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) to photograph this small industrial town documented by Walker Evans in 1935-36 when he was working for the FSA. She did not aim to describe the consequences of the end of industrial prosperity but she concentrated on a study of the site. The black and white photograph presented at Lussas is the result of this work. The structure of the image which plays on numerous details transmits by equivalence the complexity of the location.
Lettre à Freddy Buache, Jean-Luc Godard, 1981
The film is an attempt to paint a cinematic portrait of the city of Lausanne in three shots. What could appear to be a purely formal conceit in fact corresponds precisely to the topographical and historical reality of the town.

Works exposed in the School Cafeteria:
Madeleine Bernardin Sabri, Madame T., of Armenian origin explains to Mireille Moreau, Cimade volunteer, how she was evicted from the Asylum Seekers' Hostel in which she lived, Paris 17th. 2008. Colour chemical print, 50 x 62 cm. A text.
Maxence Rifflet, Three Gorges Dam seen from the new town of Mauping, 2002. Colour chemical print, 115 x 150 cm.
Claire Tenu, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 2004. Black and white chemical print, 133 x 165 cm.

For more information on work by Madeleine Bernardin Sabri, Maxence Rifflet and Claire Tenu, and on the exhibition Champs d’abondance: www.desterritoires.com and www.maxencerifflet.com

The morning session will start with the discovery of the three photographs displayed in the school and visible as of Sunday afternoon.
As an extension of the day, in a special screening, will be presented L'Arrière-pays, the first film by Safia Benhaïm who after a period of photography made her entry into cinema with this troubling journey into the land of exile. Then the "Fragment of an Opus" devoted to Peter Hutton will close this exploration.

Coordination : Jean-François Chevrier, Élia Pijollet, Madeleine Bernardin Sabri, Maxence Rifflet, Claire Tenu, Christophe Postic.