May 05, 2007
Contemporary photography "under the influence" of cinema
“We know that under the image which is revealed, there is another one, more faithful to reality, and under this other one, there is yet another, and on it goes. Right up to the image of absolute reality, mysterious, that no one will ever see.”
— Michelangelo Antonioni
There is a fascinating exposition currently showing at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. Ten Magnum photographers each agreed to identify a specific film, or film-maker, or period-style of cinema that had a recognizable influence on their own still-photography work. It is surprisingly generous in its direct acknowledgement of inspiration, and as a joyful, grateful homage to the movies and the people who make them.
The exhibition is delightfully varied. In some pairings, we see short film clips juxtaposed with contemporary prints. Others are presented as slide shows, revealing uncanny comparisons. There are also personal scrapbooks on display: While he was still living in the USSR, Gueorgui Pinkhassov met Andrei Tarkovsky, who invited him to come and watch the shooting of Stalker, so here we see the young photographer's documents of the director in action, and stills of the wild movie sets.
Each pairing is unique, so there is no formula, no repetition. It re-affirms how wide-reaching influence can be and how many different forms it can take.
Curators Diane Dufour and Serge Toubiana wrote this as an introduction to the exhibition:
The "image to come” is an expression coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson to define filmmaking as opposed to photography. For the photographer, the cinema is always what comes next: not the image that is being viewed or projected onto the screen, but the next one, taken as a progression. The still versus the moving picture.
Could the opposite also hold true, that cinema acts as an “image that came before”, inspiring the photographer while he captures reality? How does cinema infiltrate the photographer’s imagination? To what extent does the photographer project his dreams, fantasies, and obsessions onto the world?
In celebration of Magnum’s 60th anniversary in 2007, we questioned ten of its photographers, from different generations, representing various trends in documentary photography today. They revealed to us how a director, film, or scene left an imprint in the labyrinth of their psyche and how this imprint in turn affected or influenced their work. Many photographers have acknowledged the patent influence of another art on their practice. Deeply buried, mobile images superimpose themselves on the film of life: a way of framing what happens, “under influence”.
Transition, infiltration, and superimposition narrow down the complicity between the two media. Cinema creates the illusion of the real so that the spectator cannot doubt its verisimilitude; photography draws on the imagination to re-establish the truth of lived experience. Standing at the frontier between the true and the false, the certain and the uncertain, the just and the unjust. The ultimate possibility for recounting a reality that is mobile, evasive, on which we cannot get a re-take."
Here are just a few examples from the show:
Téhéran. 11 Février 1979. Des révolutionnaires arrêtent un membre présumé de la SAVAK, la police politique du Chah. © Abbas / Magnum Photos
Film still from Paisà by Roberto Rossellini (1946) © Films sans frontières
As an adolescent, Abbas saw Roberto Rossellini’s feature film in a film club in Algeria, which at the time was being ravaged by the war of independence. It immediately became one of his favorite films. In the exhibition, he juxtaposes extracts from Paisà (shot in Italy during the last weeks of the Second World War) with his photographic record of the Iranian revolution, as seen from the inside, turning from widespread jubilation in the beginning to doubt as this popular movement was appropriated by the mullahs.
New York, 1989 © Bruce Gilden / Magnum Photos
Film poster from Pickup on South Street, by Samuel Fuller (1953) © Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.
Bruce Gilden juxtaposes extracts from American film noir movies with his urban portraits taken in New York, which are in keeping with the tradition of street photography. He uses an artifice that distorts perception – the close up – to capture a disquieting world.
“As you see, we’re flying over an island. This city. A particular city. And this is a story of a number of people. And a story also of the city itself. It was not photographed in a studio. Quite the contrary, Barry Fitzgerald, our star, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Ted de Corsia and the other actors, played out their roles on the streets, in the apartment houses, in the skyscrapers of New York itself. And along with them, a great many thousand New Yorkers played out their roles also. This is the city as it is. Hot summer pavements, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people without makeup.”
Voice-over from another film noir classic, Naked City, by Jules Dassin (1948)
Taichung, Taiwan, 1987 © Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
Film still from La Divine by Wu Yonggang (1934) © DR
Patrick Zachmann has been working for eight years on the Chinese diaspora across the globe. He juxtaposes some of these images with extracts from films made in Shanghai during the 1930s that have subliminally shaped his visual universe. Zachmann discovered these films during a festival in Turin in Italy, but it was only later, when he saw these melodramas for a second time, that he became aware of the influence that they had exerted on his way of seeing and photographing Chinese slums and dives.
We cannot show the pairing that seemed the "popular favorite" of visitors. (On opening night, the screening room was packed continuously with standing-room-only viewers) It is a not-so-short film by Antoine d’Agata that can only be described as intellectual/philosophical/hard-core porn. It is an homage to Oshima’s Empire of the Senses. Steamy! There was a video camera crew on hand to capture reactions of people stumbling out of that screening.
The exhibition is open until 30 July 2007.
I'm a bit skeptical if the exhibition manages to explore the relationship between the influencer and the influenced. Do we now know how a director, film, or scene could influence us? I'm sure we can all come up with some photo from our achives which looks like a scene in a film, but beyond that, what's the learning? I won't be able to attend the exhibition, so I'll look forward to hearing your take on that!