Friday, August 1, 2008

Photography and the Unconscious Panopticon: Part Three

In Wender's film, the characters encounter an experience of the visual unconscious that has never occurred before. They are able to watch actual recordings of their dreams. We rarely are conscious while dreaming, and so the images come back to us in our waking lives as memories, with all the problems that such an ephemeral format entails. Here, the dreams are recorded as little films that can be watched again and again. Where memory is flexible and changing, video is not.

Of course still pictures and moving pictures are quite different in the ways that they work. Film and video carry the viewer along in a visual and aural experience that has a built in sense of time. If nothing else, there is the time that it takes to watch the piece. And then there is the internal structure of how the piece creates or defeats a time-line or narrative. Even the dreamiest of film pieces have a start, a middle and an ending, which is to say that they are a narrative and cannot fail to establish control over the forward motion of time in the viewer.

Photographs are different. They are fixed. Because they are moments frozen and recreated from the past, they are pre-made histories, relics of events that are receding in time away from the present. But unlike narratives, which have a built in experience of time, from the moment that they are taken, photographs are fixed as images. They exist exactly static. The viewer can look at them as long as they like, and the same image will still be there. Because of this, the photograph escapes the narrative and becomes something beyond it, perhaps having more in common with pre-modern paintings than with cinema.

(Might it be possible that photography helped to liberate painting from the representational excesses of the nineteenth century? By carrying the cultural load of image production does photography free painting from its pictorial bounds and release it into the widely varied and wonderful modernist experiments that it achieves in the twentieth century?)

Photographs are outside of time and although they are remnants of things past, they operate singularly in the present. In this way photographs can project history forward in time, and the best photographs escape time by activating inner experience in a present audience.

This is part three in a summer serial posting. Click Here for part four.

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