Movement and Stillness
Photography and Cinema — David Campany
Book Review by Daniel Jewesbury
Photography and Cinema by David Campany
Published by: Reaktion Books
ISBN: 978 1 86189 351 2
I expected to enjoy David Campany’s guide to the varied theoretical staging posts of the 100 year relationship between still photography and the moving image. It’s a clearly written, plentifully illustrated book by one of the most intelligent and engaging writers on these media. It offers some excellent descriptions of important works, with a little theoretical analysis. It’s also reasonably succinct. All these benefits notwithstanding, something is lacking. Campany’s choice to focus on the description of a range of rather familiar key works and on the brief summarisation of existing theoretical understandings means that the book ends up being something between an academic textbook, and a ‘World of Art’ style compendium of theory and practice (and at times, it has to be said, a very dry one), rather than an exciting or substantially new insight into the subject.
The book follows the current trend of presenting a number of linked, themed chronologies of its subject, rather than attempting to construct any too self-confident ‘history of all of it’. There are short chapters on understandings of time, movement and stillness in the two media (the part where Campany is strongest and most engaging); on the presence and influence of film on various published forms of photography (fotoromanzi, photo-romans, monographs and magazines); on the representation of photography in film (Blow Up, Rear Window, La Jetée and so on); and on the influence of film stills on contemporary art (Sherman, Wall, Crewdson et al.). Even in such a short book (140 pages for the main body of the book, which includes 127 illustrations), this has something of the encyclopaedic about it: by the end, we feel like we’ve become acquainted with a whole range of sideways glances from photography to cinema and vice versa. But what we can never know just from reading an encyclopaedia is how much any particular entry in it really matters; and moreover, what one can’t get from Campany’s book is a sense of any relationship between the categories he approaches in his reasonably hermetic chapters. Fair enough, this isn’t what the book sets out to do – it’s a handbook, a guide, not a theoretical analysis in itself. It’s for the reader to decide, perhaps, whether there’s any interesting relationship between Alain Robbe-Grillet’s photo-novel L’Année dernière à Marienbad, Cindy Sherman’s film stills, Michelangelo Antonioni’s strange unfilmic appropriations of photographic stillness, and William Klein’s fast-paced, breezy street snaps. One could say that Campany guides the reader to that further work in the book as a whole, but I can’t help feeling that the individual lectures from which the chapters were adapted have not been convincingly synthesised into a single work. The effect is of a series of disconnected observations rattling by like the illuminated carriages of a train at night: some captivating glimpses present themselves and then are gone. No particular theorisation of film and photography’s connectedness (or distinctiveness) is allowed to dominate, and so, once the last image has juddered by, nothing really remains.
Even if he doesn’t give himself the space to explore them fully, a couple of Campany’s points should be mentioned here, if only because they might have been usefully developed. Early on in the book, thinking about the apparently obvious difference between the two media (movement), Campany points out that the history of the technologies is not always as linear as presumed. The small, light 35mm Leica that Cartier-Bresson used to capture his "images à la sauvette"(for some reason misleadingly translated as ‘decisive moments’) was conceived as a tool for cinematographers to test exposures on the same film that they would then shoot with:
"So while photography may have begat cinema, cinema begat the ‘decisive moment’. This is true in more than a technical sense. Stillness became definitive of photography only in the shadow of the cinema… [T]he widespread desire for the precise freezing of action took hold in the era of ‘moving pictures’… Likewise, the term ‘snapshot’ dates back to the 1860s, when the instantaneous photo became possible, but it was not until the 1920s that the snapshot was professionalised via reportage and democratised via amateurism… It was almost as if cinema, in colonising the popular understanding of time, implied that life itself was made up of distinct slices and that photography had the potential to seize and extract them."
Elsewhere, Campany states that he wants to avoid the technological determinism that dominates theorisation of photography and cinema, particularly since the advent of digital media. Discussing Tim Macmillan’s ‘time-slice’ photography (in which a strip of cinema film that encircles its subject is exposed, to produce a 360° view of it, frozen in time, producing a kind of rotating ‘non-animation’), Campany comments that:
"Although it feels strikingly contemporary, the technology for doing this is as old as cinema, if not older. That it came into being only recently is less an anomaly than a sign of the fact that for any image form to come into existence it must first be imagined or desired, and imagination and desire are historically grounded."
This is a simple point but it’s crucial too, and would bear further emphasis, in the context of constant discussions about what the ‘innate’ qualities of photography and film might be, and how they can account for whatever are perceived to be the similarities or differences between the two. Desire and imagination create these innovations, not the other way around: these are not ‘latent’ technologies, waiting to find human expression.
The ‘temporalities’ of supposedly static photography are many, and Campany lists some of them: "the “decisive moment”, the pregnant moment, the constructed tableau, flash photography and the long exposure... the album, the archive, the diary, the photo-novel, the photo-essay, sequences, juxtapositions, montage, collage, the slideshow and all the new modes opened up by electronic technologies". So too, the ‘movement’ of cinema is not always what we might expect. Campany draws out many striking comparisons, but in the end some of his chapters feel like overextended analogies, standing in for a more precise analysis of an undoubtedly rich field.