Monday, 12 November 2018

Rereading Christian Metz

MPP Micro-Technical Mk VI with Ilford FP4 Plus
Rereading Christian Metz’s ‘Photography and Fetish’ (1984), which can be seen as part of the ongoing ontological project of conceptualising photography in the way Metz sets out the differences between film and photography, it is striking how historically situated his readings are. Possibly, at the time Metz wrote, the respective realms of photography and cinema may have seemed settled within the short history of photography and film. This appears to have been overturned, or at least greatly complicated since: a decisive shift occurred at the end of the twentieth century with the emergence of digital imaging technologies and their distribution. I first read ‘Photography and Fetish’ twenty-two years ago, while researching my undergraduate dissertation on ‘Photography and the Uncanny’. Then, digital cameras did exist, but they were thousands of pounds, and it would be many years before I even held one in my hands. Electronic moving images in the form of videotape existed, but generally as a poor copy of images originating in another medium - as indeed would be any digital images that I then worked with; in its linear construction, one can think of videotape as being a physical but non-indexical medium. Having retrieved Metz's essay online earlier this year, I subsequently found the original photocopy that I had made in 1996. I was initially surprised to find it printed in a landscape format, reduced from being reprinted in a larger volume, no doubt for reasons of economy. The juvenile appearance of my own handwriting also surprised me: at the time, writing by hand was an everyday occurrence: indeed, the first draft of my dissertation had been written by hand.

In ‘Photography and Fetish’ Metz discusses the medium of film largely in relation to the experience of such images within the cinema; television and, importantly perhaps, home video recorders must have been changing the relationship to the moving image at the time he was writing, but this is but lightly touched upon. Rather, a classical sense of ‘the cinema’ - coherent, discrete, but also with its attendant social practices - is used for the purposes of his argument (Metz does acknowledge that he is relying on generalisations). The differences between the experience of photographs and of film that Metz enumerates are now collapsing, or at least becoming less marked, with the access of digital technology and a few aspects of this collapse may be worth exploring.

There are several distinctions in ‘Photography and Fetish’ between photography and film that are not quite so clear today. Encountered more readily through a screen, a photograph in many people’s experience may no longer be understood as “a silent rectangle of paper”, changing its place in the “socialized unit of reading, of reception”, while, as a result of digital technology, film (or the moving image) is rather more equal in terms of its production, no longer “less accessible to ‘ordinary’ people than that of photography.” With the platforms of social media, Metz’s claim for photography having “a high degree of social recognition” in the domain of private, family life (“birthplace of the Freudian fetish”) feels diluted and complicated by uses which may have once seemed to properly belong to the private being turned inside out to a new kind of public face. As technology allows for ever-easier production of moving images, their consumption - and, importantly, access to their internal structures.
“Film subjected to repetition and return, when viewed on new technologies, suffers from the violence caused by extracting a fragment from the whole that, as in a body, ‘wounds’ its integrity. But in another metaphor, this process ‘unlocks’ the film fragment and opens it up to new kinds of relations and revelations.”
Laura Mulvey, Death 24x A Second
It no longer feels true to say, as Metz claims, that film is immersed in “a stream of temporality where nothing can be kept, nothing stopped. The emergence of a fetish is thus made more difficult.” Now film can be kept (stored) digitally, easily stopped, edited, re-edited, looped and fragmented. The easy availability of the digital image, its devices (and the attendant social media) put both photography and film more than ever in the hands of practically everyone, and allow far more control over the production, dissemination and consumption of images - of pictures - so much more than at any previous time in history. Yet what these images can be - the choices that inform how these images are made - must surely be determined by other structures: as well as how such technologies are designed, their use is formed by other pressures, social, political, and the idea of what possibilities can be imagined.

With the widespread adoption of the practices of digital imaging technology and its dissemination, one could argue that there has been something of a collapse between the moving image and the still image, even at the simple level of the devices that can accomplish both, embodied in the smartphone. (Intriguingly, some cameras produced early in the twentieth century after the invention of cinema were also designed to accomplish both: the Debrie Sept camera, for example, or the Bolsey 8, could record short sequences of moving images on film as well as shoot single frames; In Painting Photography Film, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy describes the ‘domestic pinacotheca’ which essentially embodies many functions of the smartphone: “‘domestic picture galleries […] brought out only when they are really needed.”) Indeed, in its most recent version, the ever present iPhone’s ‘live photo’ mode records 1.5 seconds of moving image before and after pressing the camera’s simulated ‘button’ on its interface. Early photography was always to some extant concerned with duration. Before the ‘instant’ photograph (which essentially emerged with the invention of the dry photographic plate) exposure times were counted in minutes, or at the very least, seconds, intervals of time that were within human perception, not outside of it, or perhaps more accurately, beneath its threshold, like the fractions of a second that photography became.

Perhaps one key relationship between the forms of photography and film as outlined in ‘Photography and Fetish’ that may remain largely unchanged is in the links that Metz makes between photography’s “immobility and silence” as signs of death, set against film’s signs of “livingness”; however some recent commentators (Garrett Stewart, Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis; Laura Mulvey, Death 24x A Second) have found less simplistic oppositions more fruitful, especially as film’s history lengthens. Film’s signs of “livingness” implicitly includes film’s incorporation of recorded sound as against the “silence” of the photograph; but this ‘silence’ can also now be seen in iterations of the moving image in current online practices. The animated GIF returns the moving image to a space where sound is no longer important. One might perhaps think of the moving image with synchronised sound as having always been a hybrid, although perhaps a ‘natural’ seeming one, its sound having such affinity with the moving image that it is easy not separate the two as being distinct while experienced simultaneously. However early cinema existed for thirty years without recorded synchronised sound: Rudolf Arnheim asserted that “No one who went unprejudiced to watch a silent film missed the noises which could have been heard if the same events had been taking place in real life […] People took the silence of the movies for granted because they never quite lost the feeling that what they saw was after all only pictures.” For much of the twentieth century, many people’s home movies before the advent of consumer video cameras would have been mostly without sound. Would this be seen as seen as a lack? Or would silent home movies be seen as more akin to photographs, albeit photographs that move. The occasions of the use of home movies are generally identical to that of the domesticated photograph - holidays, celebrations, and newness: a new baby, a new house, a new car, other new significant purchases.

However, when using the iPhone’s live photo feature the user is still intending to make something understood as a photograph - hence the name ‘live photo’ - and not necessarily a short film as such. A medium can be defined by its use, its practice, and the user’s intentions, as well as its constituent material. In ‘Against Post-cinema’, Ted Nannicelli and Malcolm Turvey argue against the conception of a digital 'monomedium' - with all that implies. 'Post-cinema' can briefly be summarised as the effect that digital technology has had on cinema - the divorce of the moving image from a physical strip of film (and for many commentators, this separates the moving image form the index) - meaning that with many practices being reduced or subsumed into digital technology, emulated by the interfaces of software (and these emulations becoming increasingly opaque), and that in so doing, cinema loses its distinctive qualities: Nannicelli and Turvey take issue with the "post-cinema thesis" which argues "not just that the cinema has been radically altered by digital technology, but that it is no longer a distinct medium because it has been subsumed by another medium. It has been dissolved into a broader medium in the digital era. Indeed, some proponents of this view intimate that digital technology has rendered the concept of a distinct medium obsolete..." Instead, Nannicelli and Turvey state that two senses of the term 'medium' are being confused; (quoting from Joseph Margolis) the medium is both “‘at one and the same time’” the physical material used and the "emergent work" being created. This emergent work is situated within a set of social practices that also define the medium (for example, the medium of paint can both be used to decorate or protect surfaces, or used to create something understood as a painting; one can imagine instances when making a discrete work of art through painting could possibly be confused with painting a wall, but this can be seen as an outlying use of practice); therefore the medium of 'cinema' can mean a distinct set of practices - production, distribution, exhibition and audience expectation (after all, audiences still physically travel in their millions to places called cinemas to watch productions - whether digital or not - called films). That there are crossovers between photography and film in the area of visual arts could be seen to be due to a sense of awareness of the historical practices bound up together with the medium's material characteristics (at the outset, each new medium tends to take on the forms or roles of those pre-existing historically, before an awareness of its own distinct qualities - which include distinct limitations - becomes consciously explored).

In a not dissimilar fashion, in his claims for film as art, Rudolf Arnheim's use of the term 'medium' is distinct from 'art' despite making categorical statements from a formalist position that recognises the properties of the medium as being its defining characteristics: “At about that time [the 1920s] I started to make copious notes on what I called Materialtheorie. It was a theory meant to show that artistic and scientific descriptions of reality are cast in moulds that derive not so much from the subject matter itself as from the properties of the medium - or Material - employed.” Thus, while anxious to place film as art, Arnheim was also aware that the medium of film could be used for other purposes which were 'not art': within the material constitutes of a medium, that medium can produce something outside of the realm of art. He lists: "coloured picture postcards [...] a military march, a true confession story, or a strip tease" as all being uses of mediums that can create art, yet these are not art, which implicitly recognises the social practices around the different mediums these examples conjure up (of course, one can now probably think of examples of all of these forms that are now firmly defined as art).
“Film is much more difficult to characterize as a fetish. It is too big, it lasts too long, and it addresses too many sensorial channels at the same time to offer a credible unconscious equivalent of a part object […] whereas a fetish has to be kept, mastered, held, like the photograph in the pocket. […] Most of all, a film cannot be touched, cannot be carried and handled: although the actual reels can, the projected film cannot.”
Christian Metz, 'Photography and Fetish'
With the touchscreen and its handling, animated by its swipes and other gestures, film is closer than ever to being ‘touched’. Experienced through digital technology, most of the qualities Metz ascribes to the photograph in ‘Photography and Fetish’ can now be applied to film: seen on a small portable screen, with internal access to its content, film can now possess “smallness, [the] possibility of a lingering look.” That a single device can contain both photographs and films, and can make both, opens the possibility that film can take on those qualities that Metz concludes as to how photography, rather than film (which plays on fetishism), is “more capable of itself becoming a fetish.” Metz places photographs in belonging to both “the ordinary sense of the word” fetish, as well as developing its relation to the Freudian meaning. Thus: “The familiar photographs that many people carry with them always obviously belong to the order of fetishes in the ordinary sense of the word”: now, in Freudian terms, the smartphone and all that it contains could be seen as a metaphoric phallus, cut off and kept in a pocket.


Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art, Faber and Faber, London 1958. First published as Film als Kunst, 1933
Lewis K. Bush, 'The GIF of Life: Vestigial Film Formats as Documentary, 10/10/16 retrieved 12/2/18 See also:
Christian Metz, 'Photography and Fetish', October, Vol. 34. (Autumn, 1985), pp. 81-90.
Laura Mulvey, Death 24x A Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, Reaktion, London 2005
Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo, Painting, photography, film, translated by Janet Seligman (Originally published as Malerei, Fotografie, Film, 1927) Lund Humphries, London 1969. Ted Nannicelli and Malcolm Turvey, 'Against Post-Cinema', Cinema & Cie, vol. XVI, no.26-27, Spring/Summer 2016
Garrett Stewart,Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis