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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.


  1. "Cinema is a language." Maybe you wrote this as a provocation to think about what follows (which I enjoyed and found interesting). But it seems to me from what you wrote that Cinema is a language in the same way that "The Book" is a language; in other words, that's a category error. The cinema and the book use languages to tell their stories. A still image cannot (or at least, not in the same way?). Though it seems to me that a sequence of images can and does (in some cases) tell a story, which implies a language.You dismiss that possibility in 7 words!

    I'm also confuses, as you've done some really close readings of images, and extracted one or more stories from them. Can we have a story without a language? Maybe the language of still images, devoid of the element of time, is more elusive and subtle than the languages of books and cinema?

    I'm probably writing hogwash. But thanks for making me think!

    1. Fair point on the category error, I dare say I was unconsciously echoing the "photography is a language" phrasing. I think my meaning is clear enough, though? Cinema is constructed using the tools of a language-like-thing, in the same was a Faulkner's novels are made out of English?

      I did indeed gloss over the capabilities of sequence. I was rather hoping the "you can make a bad movie" remark would cover it. You can make a "movie" out of stills, and it does work, and theory-of-cinema would be at least somewhat applicable to that object.

      My point was that this isn't consistently done, though. You can think about *that* book using ideas from cinema, but you can't think about photo books in general, right? Virtually all movies are made with the same set of editing techniques, but photo sequences are made with lots of techniques, or none at all.

      Finally, I maintain that photos do suggests stories, endlessly, but that those stories arise largely from within us as the viewer. Films tell us what the story is (with, to be fair, various degrees of wiggle room) but photos by and large leave the story-making up to us.

      My argument here is that this is so, specifically because of the linguistic character of film editing techniques.

  2. Sorry I didn't realise I was commenting anonymously. Tried signing in but G$$gle complains my browser settings are insufficient to allow sign in. So that comment on language was from me, ChrisR, carusb on twitter...

  3. You're point that photography is its own thing (a pretty vast territory at that) is the main takeaway.

    I personally sense there's some kind of 'language' lurking there. The technology (and our intellectual grasp of it) is too immature to describe this phenomenon in any meaningful way beyond the most simplistic, because the information is absorbed visually -- triggering a cascade of ideations per individual viewer that, from the outside, looks like random nonsense. Which is exactly how 99% of reviews come across.

  4. Wait... didn't Ken Burns make a career out of turning still photos into movies?