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Sunday, August 7, 2022

Language, Photography, Cinema, and Gaze

Not too long ago I had the opportunity to revisit the idea that "photography is a language" which it is not. I thought about it some more.

Cinema is a language. At the very least, the way movies are usually made is to assemble the pieces according to a fairly well defined, teachable, system that is very linguistic in character even if it perhaps falls short of some specific definition of "language." The linguistic part isn't the part with the camera, though, it's the part that comes afterwards where the output of the camera is cut together into a movie.

A clip of an actor speaking a line of dialog enjoys much of the same ambiguity a still photograph does. The clip spans time, giving you a taste of before/after in ways that a still does not, but it is nevertheless free floating. Cut that clip together with another actor speaking a response, and make sure the faces are looking in opposite directions, and that eye-lines match, and so on, and abruptly the meaning of the clip is much more nailed down. The character is in conversation with the other character. Continue in the same way for long enough, and you have a movie in which a story is told, relationships are revealed, and so on. Much of that meaning can be imposed after shooting is completed. In extreme cases all the meaning is imposed in the edit.

When we speak of cinema, we speak of these completed objects. These are finished statements, written in a language, which nail down by the use of that language much of the meaning we might make of the film. This is the point of the language of cinema editing. This is why a language has been devised to do this work: because film makers want to nail down the meaning, they want to say coherent, specific, unambiguous things. He said this to her, she shot him in the forehead, and then left through the glass doors, feeling upset and angry. Not everything is nailed down, of course, nothing ever is. But the point is that there is much that is nailed down.

We tend to think of a photograph at least mostly as if it were outside of any context, as free floating. We treat photographs in roughly the way we would think about a single clip of film, before it is edited into a movie.

This is important: It is tempting to apply theory and ideas from cinema to photographs, because they are in some sense the same medium. This is invariably a very bad idea. Film theory applies almost exclusively to the finished product. It is a theory about objects which are linguistic in character, about objects that say things intended by an author (pace Barthes.) Film theory is, if anything, about the ways authors can say things with film, about the ways they cannot say things, about the ways the things the film says are or are not what the author intended.

Photographs are not like that. They are non-linguistic, and most of the meaning we make of a photograph does not arise from the author's intention but rather from what we imagine the author's intentions to have been. There are signs and symbols in a photograph, but for the most part these are not organized into a sentence-like structure which carries meaning. The signs and symbols in a photograph simply are, radiating their ambiguous meanings. The distinction here is something like the difference between literary criticism and etymology.

You can, of course, edit photographs in a way that is analogous to the way we edit movies. This is referred to in modern parlance as "sequencing" and there is no coherent, teachable, school of how that should be done. Advice on sequencing invariably comes out to "print them all out and stick them up where you can look at them. Then shuffle them around until you want to die." You know you're done when you know you're done, objective criteria, or even shared criteria, for done-ness would be considered gauche and a violation of the artist's true expression. You can, of course, apply cinematic methods and produce a sort of stupid "movie" but mostly this isn't what you do. Sequencing, anyway, is largely an art-school affectation with 1000 different flavors, and is thoroughly divorced from photography as a cultural force, as a cultural phenomenon.

The idea of male gaze comes out of the theory of cinema. It is the notion that women and men are commonly presented differently in movies. The women are victims, passive, sexually available, and so on. The men are active, heroic, and so on. You observe these things at the level of "text" in a movie. You can "close read" by counting lines of dialog, you can measure screen time, and so on. You can look narrative structures, etcetera and so forth. You can probably re-task all the techniques of literary analysis to a movie to demonstrate this point, and you discover something real. "Male gaze" is an actual thing in movies.

You cannot meaningfully apply these methods to a photograph, or really even a grouping of photographs.

Re-tasking "gaze" to still photographs is essentially nonsensical. It's like applying differential calculus to dogs. This is why we've ended up with a theory of photographic gaze that is impossible to explain, you can "just see it" and if you can't you "need to do the reading," except that it invariably is just a proxy for the identity of the photographer and how much the critic likes them.

It is notable that Mulvey's original formulation of "male gaze" makes it clear that women can and often do make movies in which "male gaze" is a phenomenon. "Gaze" in Mulvey's formulation, is a well-defined property of a movie, which exists independent of the identity of whoever made the movie. You can basically fill out a spreadsheet for a movie and see how much "male gaze" is in it. You cannot say any of this for the corresponding photographic concept, because the latter is a mess, and it's a mess because "gaze" is an attempt to apply a quasi-literary concept to a medium that isn't even linguistic, let alone literary.

In general, any attempt to apply cinematic theory to still photographs is as doomed as an effort to apply literary criticism to etymological problems, and for exactly the same reasons.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Something To Look At

Let's take a look at this photo.

We see a man, older and running to fat. He's running his hand through his own hair, which appears greasy and unfashionably long. He is ill-shaven, and has bad skin, whether from age or from injury is unclear. His hair is grey, his ears have the characteristic enlargement of an old man's, the backs of his hands are a forest of hair. Indeed, this is a very very hairy dude, his ears are hairy, his hands are hairy, and it seems likely that someone's making him maintain his eyebrows and use a nose-hair trimmer, even if they can't get him to groom anything else.

His eyes are closed, his head leans toward the hand, as if for support. His lips appear pursed, perhaps vaguely suggestive of some inner turmoil, but see below. Behind him, some kind of signage which, despite being legible, seems to have been expertly cropped to prevent us guessing at any of the words.

His clothing, insofar as we can see it, is as they say a study in contrasts. The neckline suggests a T-shirt, and there's something of a profusion of collars going on. Over whatever that is, he is clearly wearing some more dressy jacket sporting 4 decorative buttons at the cuff. The sleeve of a shirt protrudes from the jacket cuff. Is he wearing a long sleeved T-shirt? The jacket itself, while clearly leaning toward dressy (buttons) seems also a trifle frayed. The apparent fraying is probably emphasized, if not entirely created, by the strong, harsh, lighting. On the clothes, see below.

The lighting is harsh, somewhat low, and very directional. This feels like headlights, or a simulation of headlights. I don't see any twinning of shadows, so possibly it's just an unmodified flash held low and to the photographer's left. The effect, though, is very harsh, revealing to the point of a kind of nakedness. This is very much a WeeGee vibe.

I think we can comfortably read this as a tired man, perhaps even a beaten man, pinned down under harsh light, revealed and trapped in a moment of weakness. He seems to be neither embracing the camera nor rejecting it, but oblivious to it. The camera feels quite close, though, so the sense we get is not that the subject hasn't noticed, but rather that he doesn't care. Possibly, he is acting as-if he doesn't care, an interpretation which suggests that the act might extend further.

The subject is Steve Bannon, photographed after having been found guilty of lying to Congress. He was photographed by Mark Peterson, who also shot a photo of some cops that I talked about.

Bannon's lips are in fact simply very thin (or possibly he keeps them always pursed) so any impression from the set of his lips is probably a chimera. The chaos of collars and jacket is standard Bannon fare, he is known for wearing at least three shirts at all time. Further, the ill-shaven face is another Bannon tic, something like Boris Johnson's perma-rumpled hair — most likely some dumb but successful attempt to appeal to Regular Guys (Bannon, like all these assholes, is a multi-millionaire.)

What does not appear, at least to my eye, is any judgement on the man.

I am in judgement of Steve Bannon, who I consider to be a worm, and a very bad person. I am glad he was convicted of something, although I think that lying to Congress ought to be mandatory rather than illegal. I mean, seriously, what a bunch of doltish scoundrels. Why would anyone sully the truth by uttering it in those chambers? But anyways, Bannon guilty yay I guess.

If you're a Bannon fan, though, I think you might find much to sympathize with here. This is an intimate photo of a man who's taken a pretty severe blow. There's something of a boxing photo in here, I think, and this is, somehow, the fighter who got the worst of the bout. However, to acknowledge and to reveal the loss is not to judge. There is a strong flavor of pathos here.

If we imagine he might be acting, as noted above, it becomes reasonable to speculate that he's playing to his fans, milking them for sympathy with a routine of discouragement. The pose is, indeed, reminiscent of a drama queen with the back of her hand to her forehead, gasping about her vapors for sympathy. It's not at all clear that this is what's going on, and in fact I am fairly convinced of the genuineness of Bannon's emotions here.

I am glad he lost, and I take genuine pleasure in the loss revealed by this picture. That pleasure, and the source of that pleasure, is in me. I dare say many of my readers will also take the same pleasure, for the same reasons, but I defy you to find the judgement you feel anywhere in the blobs of tone which make up this picture.

You are judging, not the picture.