Tuesday, November 15, 2016

La Trame

Here is a piece from my wise and insightful sister on the word La Trame which I have fallen in love with. Using a french word makes me look smart, right? Without further ado:

La trame is, I think, pretty good - I was discussing Photos-and-Stuff's "missing word" with a Quebecoise friend who scouts here in (somewhat bilingual) western Canada for contacts and potential interviewees and locations for various Parisian film crews' projects, and she suggested la trame, and it felt like it had potential even with her short explanation.

I've looked into the word a bit more since, and it is, as she said, a weaving word. It means the weft, the strand that is woven back and forth crosswise through the plane of tightened warp strands. It is the strand that the weaver is most intimately acquainted with and invests most energy in; this is where much of the patient, meticulous, dexterous "work" of weaving is done. (as an aside, I notice that there seem to be modern reapplications of the word, both new-agey and computer-y, but I did not chase those down, heh.)

In art, la trame then acquires a delightful vibration ("frisson"? whoooo!) - first, it has migrated in the artistic context (such as in the French film industry) to meaning the collection of carefully curated details that provide ambiance, richness, and texture to a story. At the same time, the word also has the feeling of referring back to the fabric of the original meaning, the basic supporting structure of the story, the very skeleton of it, the warp and the weft. In this vibration between ostensibly extraneous detail and fundamentals, la trame then points towards the meat or the body or essence of the story.

As an example, I recall one of her completed documentary films that we watched. It was the Parisian exploration of what happens after the (western Canadian) timber industry has fallen through its initial stages of cheerful, more or less rampaging extraction-industry and is re-grouping - what happens to those workers, how does the industry re-create itself, what are the remnants, what are the new things, stuff like that.

A ton of more or less sensitive contacts and locations was scouted out (and the subsequent reality of actually gaining access for a film crew was worthy of a feature film in itself - "foreigners" wanting to film the difficult ambiguities of a dying industry, yikes!), lots of pixels were captured, and a feature was produced and eventually broadcast.

So there was a narrative, a voiceover which could have, with a little editing, been broadcast as a radio program. That's the story, the statistics, the data, the facts, the meat. Since this was a visual medium, there were the informational shots that are clearly the direct equivalent of data/facts - graphics, maps, locations such as "here we are rolling up to the sawmill, and there are some tree-trunks in a heap with bark still on but no branches" and so on. La trame was, at least partly, in the individual extra shots - a slow, lyrical pan off the river-cleaner's (tiny, compared to old-days) log-boom bucketing after the tug onto the glossy rolling water being pushed aside by the boom, a second or so of the tug-guy's rough, brown, hyper-aged hands on the wheel. Another example of la trame was in the choice of subjects to be included so as to provide additional layers of texture to the story - the crew spent some time filming the river-cleaner's family and home by the side of the river, and a few shots of that subject were included to give context.

But at the same time these details, both the smoothly-buckling river surface and the slightly strained family life, ARE also The Story, in some ways more so than the straight data that one could communicate as a spreadsheet or an essay. In a very real way, these little extras ARE the meat of the visual story that is the documentary.

Now, when you start trying to specifically extract the… meanings/applications/functions of the term la trame as in the film documentary above, and try to relate any of that to Photos-and-Stuff's "the story", the "frisson", the "allusion", the "intuitive knowledge" and so on, as attached to or arising from a given body of photographic work, there is not an exact mapping, at least not to my eye. (In fact, in my dim mind, I almost perceive... a relative inversion of function or relation? will think more? check me on that, if you can?) But I think that a leisurely and contemplative comparison of the world of la trame to what Photos-and-Stuff is trying collectively to dig out could be both enjoyable and fruitful. Like, with a drink of choice in hand, on a stormy Tuesday evening, with paper and pencil at hand for profound sketchings and notes.


  1. Andrew, just give the blog to your sister... ;)


  2. Beautiful.
    Also, how does one become a "river-cleaner"? Surely they will one day be the new high priests?

  3. Just looked "la trame" up - in German, it's called "Schussfaden" ("filling thread"). Incidentally, we have this term "der rote Faden" in our language (roughly, "the red thread"). It means something like "unifying theme", or "common motif" or "north direction". If something is just a mess and doesn't make sense, the we say "der rote Faden fehlt" ("the red thread is missing"). Maybe it's the same?

    Kudos to your sister!

    Best, Thomas

    1. One of the really great things about borrowing a word from another language is that even if it doesn't quite fit in its home language, you can modify the meaning as you borrow it, to suit your purposes!

      I like the red thread. Hmm.

    2. Interesting -- the "red thread" idea also exists in English, allegedly because the Royal Navy always had one woven into its ropes to discourage theft!


  4. Reading the description of la trame immediately reminded me of this nice (video) essay: https://vimeo.com/68514760