Movies Made by Still Photographers
Touring show explores the subtle, exciting impact of the photographer's eye on the art of cinema. FILM
NEW YORK — CINEMA has much in common with other arts, from literature to music. One of its closest cousins is photography, which grew - a few decades earlier - from the same 19th-century mixture of chemistry, mechanics, and aesthetics. A new film program, now in the early stages of an international tour, is exploring the relationship between motion pictures and still photography. Organized by the American Federation of Arts (AFA), it's called ``Moving Pictures: Films by Photographers,'' and a more varied program is hard to imagine.
Ironically, the film-photography relationship is less direct and immediate than it may appear. True, movies are made of still photographs - one after another, 24 of them speeding through the projector every second.
But if we decide to single out one of those photos, by stopping the flow for a moment, the movie vanishes before our eyes. What we have left is a still picture, devoid of the magical movement that's the heart and soul of cinema.
This paradox is worth remembering the next time a still image, whether in a newspaper or a scholarly book, claims to represent the look and feel of a movie. And yet, still pictures are the raw material of film, and the two media are connected in artistic as well as physical ways. Without delving into this issue on a philosophical level, cinema may be said to add a narrative and kinetic dimension to image-making, and to support the addition of sound (speech, music, noises) better than still photos can.
Conversely, still photography can be said to distill subtleties of light and composition that may pass unnoticed in movies. The very stillness and silence of photos is also a virtue, allowing a timeless and quiet meditation that films don't allow so readily.
The issue is more complicated than this, to be sure. Some theorists have noted, for example, that still images (including photographs) carry a sense of hiding some secrets beyond the edge of the frame, while movies - with their restlessly moving cameras and montages - capitalize on this phenomenon in very different ways.
What is certain is that many artists have been drawn to both media, finding different challenges and possibilities in each. They are the subject of the AFA's exciting show.
The program is arranged thematically, rather than chronologically. Yet it begins at the beginning, with cinematic masterworks by Louis and Auguste lumi`ere, the enterprising French brothers who gave the world its first projected movie show in 1895. Several of their films kick off the exhibition's first installment. It's called ``Surrealistic Tendencies'' and includes works that are genuinely surrealistic (Eikoh Hosoe's odd ``Navel and A Bomb,'' for instance), as well as films that might better be described as hyperrealistic, such as the lumi`ere offerings. The selection ranges from classics by Man Ray and Laszlo Maholy-Nagy to a recent work by American experimentalists William Wegman and Robert Breer.
Other portions of ``Moving Pictures'' describe themselves in their titles. ``Visions of America'' includes cinematic work by the newspaper photographer Weegee; the politically astute Paul Strand, in partnership with Charles Sheeler; and Gordon Parks, a leading African-American artist. The makers of ``Street Scenes'' include James Agee and Rudy Burckhardt; those of ``Photojournalism'' include Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White. ``Definitions and Experiments'' serves up avant-garde offerings by John Baldessari and the late Hollis Frampton, among others. Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber are two of the artists represented in ``Portraits,'' while ``Three Meditations'' includes a charming Danny Lyon documentary and a new work by Robert Frank.
As a whole, the bill of fare is unpredictable and sometimes uneven. The audience for Bruce Davidson's boisterous ``Isaac Singer's Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko's Beard,'' for instance, is likely to be very different from the audience for Michael Snow's hilarious ``So Is This,'' a film made entirely of written words. The issue of film-photography relations is such a broad and fascinating one, however, that a few strange bedfellows can't help being brought together when it's explored in depth. Hats off to the AFA for assembling such a sweeping look at such a provocative subject.
Billed as ``the first traveling exhibition to examine the impact of the photographer's eye on the art of cinema,'' the ``Moving Pictures'' exhibition began its travels at the St. Louis Art Museum. It is on view through March 22 at the Public Theater in New York. Upcoming stops on its 35-venue tour include the Cleveland Museum of Art; the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; the Museo Contemporanea in Prato, Italy; the Institute of North American Studies in Barcelona; and the IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez in Valencia, Spain.