Un-Still Photographs

  • Post category:Art

What is a static film? That’s easy. It’s a photograph that moves. That is to say, it is a film that is in its heart a photograph, a framed view, pointing the viewer to a moment, framing that moment for the viewer. Only in this case, since as a film it has a duration, it is a series of moments or, better yet, it is that same moment as seen by the still photographer, only elongated.

Got that?

In the more pure form of static film nothing much happens. But that can’t be quite right, can it? In a still photograph an awful lot is happening so obviously a static video–a photograph with the added characteristic of duration–can at least do what a still photo does, only more.

Nailing down definitions can be tricky. Let’s keep trying.

A static film is a film, usually a short film but it can go on for hours where the filmmaker has intentionally photographed something where nothing seems to happen. For example, a static filmmaker might make a film of a building. No edits, no story, no camera movement, nothing really moving in the picture other than incidental movement such as clouds floating by or office lights going on and off. Such a film might go on for hours. In fact, Andy Warhol’s Empire is just such a film, made on 16mm black and white film in the 1960s. The film is, you might have guessed, of the Empire State Building.

It’s not such a crazy idea, either, to shoot or to watch.

It’s not a crazy idea to shoot because pointing a movie camera at something and pressing the record trigger is about as primal an instinct as there is in photography. (You see, I just did it again, categorizing static films under “photography” in my head. I will keep doing it too, and soon you will join me.) You, as an artist, have this new thing, this movie camera, which you got without any clear idea of what to do with it. So you just point it. You shoot with it.

Browse any online photo forum and you will see the same thing. You see a lot of cats, kids running around while the photographer shoots from his seat. Brick walls. That the same instinct being expressed in a different way. Just shoot something, anything, to see what it looks like when it is shot.

Gary Winogrand has a famous saying: “I photograph to see what something looks like photographed.” This quote strikes non-photographers–especially curators–as some sort of revealed wisdom but all photographers know the sensation. It’s especially strong when you are young, first starting out before you’ve gained the ability to see the photo when you are shooting it. It’s that moment when you first open the envelope and pull out those thirty-six images, the moment when you first unspool that roll of Tri-X in the bare bulb light of your makeshift basement darkroom. The photos are a kind of abstraction, each a record of life minus all the other sensations, minus the context, minus everything but what is in the picture.

You point the camera, you press the button, to see something that you can’t otherwise see. The foundation is really that simple.

Static films build on this, not to tell a story or to document some event, but simply, at its most basic, to see something that is otherwise difficult to see. The magic here is that the photograph just keeps going. Maybe nothing much is happening, but something is happening. The passage of time, the passage of that time, at a minimum, is being recorded.

Back to our building. There it is, on the screen.

In this case, in this specific case, that of Empire, the screen I’m speaking of is not your iPhone, not your computer screen, or even that gargantuan 4K television dominating your living room. I’m talking about a home movie screen, an awkward and very heavy movie screen that you would drag out of some closet and haul up on its flimsy tripod legs, and pull up against the spring tension to clip upon an extendable arm in order that you would have a four by four-foot white screen, of strangely thick material, upon which to project your movie, your Empire. A complete pain in the ass. But when the room lights are down and that image is on the screen…oh my god. It glows. It’s realer than real. It has a presence. If you haven’t experienced it you missed out.

Consider. We aren’t talking here about a white square of cloth, just regular old cloth. Movie screens were special. The surface of the white screen was coasted in a layer of glass beads, very fine glass beads. The image was a magical thing, glowing there in its luminous glory. Even crappy color travel slides looked amazing–and this isn’t nostalgia we are talking about here. Do you realize that the digital camera in your phone doesn’t record the same range of colors as what you saw on that screen? Even in today’s movie theaters with digital projection, it is just not the same, not yet. In terms of color, in terms of capturing the subtleties of light and dark, those crappy travel slides were better than your $10,000 DSLR set-up.

And so there it is, your friends are over, it’s a party. You are playing your film. But because Empire is something like eight hours long you won’t expect people to sit there and watch it. My god, nothing happens! What would they be watching? But you run it anyway, off to the side a bit, with the lights turned up to party brightness. People hang out. They chat. They drift in and out of the room. And some stare at the screen while they chat. Others look over once in a while. Others mostly ignore it except during those awkward silences when their conversation comes to a halt and they are wanting something new to say. In that moment both people in a conversation may look at the film, look at it studiously, as a way to justify their continuing interaction.

The film is there, little changing. When you come back in the room after wandering around a bit you don’t ask “what did I miss?” or “what’s happening?” Because you missed only trivial changes and nothing of any note is happening. You knew that before you left the room. But you do look at it and you look at it not as a movie but instead as you would a photograph. You ask yourself, what does it look like and what do I see now that I didn’t see before? But mostly you just look, not expecting a new image but just to see the picture again.

You don’t watch static films. You look at them.

You look at them, you look away. You look back. You don’t need to see the beginning not do you need to stay to the end. There is no narrative arc, no characters. In traditional movie terms it’s not really much of anything. That’s because it’s a photograph.

I’ve been making static films from the first minutes of owning a video camera.

I made a static film once of a tree in my front yard in Maryland. It might have been that night the remnants of Hurricane Isabel came through. The tree, a large one, was being blown about. In those days video cameras weren’t very good in the dark and the tree was lit only by the light of my porch lamp. To get a decent exposure I had to set it at a very slow shutter speed, something like one-eighth of a second, which means the shadowy tree moved like it was a sort of stop-motion animation, while the sound was in real time, howling and blowing. Very cool.

I did another that I thought was funny. It’s in two parts because I used a whole tape for part one and had to switch tapes for part two. It’s a video of a lawnmower, looking from the point of view of the person pushing the mower, with the base and engine taking up almost the whole frame. I attached the camera to the arms of the mower and framed it up, hit the record button, and mowed my lawn. There’s a lot of personal meaning to me in that video, though I can’t imagine a viewer would get an inkling of it. And that’s o.k. It’s still a great video.

Another one, at night, just after a snow. I’m using the infra-red setting on my Sony which films things, though in complete darkness, in special-forces green. The camera is pointed straight down, framing my feet. I’m in the road in the fresh snow, walking. Walking and walking, leaving footprints as I pass. The crunch of the snow is on the audio track. Maybe you can hear my breathing, I forget. Eventually, I come upon my own footprints.

You’ll notice that all of my static films move. That’s how we can get back to the definition problem. I’m not the first to worry about how to constrain this thing, how to set some sort of boundary and thus an identity.

I’ve been saying, hinting, and suggesting that the static film is really a kind of photograph. But I didn’t really fool you, did I? A video, a film, taking up eight hours showing a building in New York City, isn’t really a photograph in quite the way photographs are really made or in quite the way that photographs are really viewed. There’s something fundamentally different going on here, or at least halfway fundamentally different. It’s not a film in the regular sense, nor a photo in the regular sense. A static film is a sort of missing link between the two, an interference pattern where the two waves of visual creation clap together and reflect off one another.

Hmmm. I like the sound of that. I’d better write that one down.

Scholars have not missed the fact that there’s something interesting going on here. Justin Remes is a scholar who specializes in static films (he coined the term) and I suspect he may be a photographer in addition to being a film theorist because he “gets” the genre from both an academic and practitioner’s point of view.

He points out that many other scholars are obsessed with defining a “static film” based on whether there is movement in the frame. That’s the wrong approach. Remes invented another phrase, “furniture films” (a play off an early phrase from experimental music, furniture music) which captures it a bit better. You look at the furniture in a room, it shapes your experience of the room and what occurs in the room.

Justin uses “furniture film” as a phrase to broaden the idea a bit, recognizing that you can enjoy such a film without staring at it. Without watching it in the sense that you watch King Kong. His phrase does a much better job of capturing the sense of this subgenera than those definitions which assume a static audience as well as a static film.

If I’ve already said all this well enough before in this essay it’s because Justin said it first. I make art, I don’t theorize about it.

Once you break free of the idea of the static film as a motionless film and start conceiving it as a furniture film, all sorts of interesting possibilities are open to you. Abstraction and repetition are two that I’ve used with good effect, both evidenced in The Rodeo, a series of films I made in Cheyenne, Wyoming in the summer of 2016.

Each Rodeo film is made up of a short snippet of “rodeo action”–a cowboy jumping off his horse to hog-tie a cow (if I’m using “hog-tie” in relation to “cow” correctly), a cowboy riding one of those great, huge bulls with enormous, thick horns. The snippet lasts perhaps a minute. I’ve then repeated that snippet ten times in a row, playing the same footage again and again but in each case I’ve altered the color in dramatic ways. There is no “normal color” to any of the snippets, all are some version of crazy neon colors, each snippet different.

It moves in a big way. There is even a bit of visual narrative, a short vignette telling a very short story–the man rides the horse chasing the cow, the man jumps off the horse onto the cow, the man and cow roll over each other, man ties legs of cow, man walks away victorious. But the movement is the same with each repetition. The story is unchanging. And yet it works perfectly as a furniture film in every way.

I have this film playing on a 4k, 50-inch screen at my workshop, facing out the window so passers-by can see it. The thing is hypnotic. Some people watch for a while. They come and go. They chat with others who are with them. Some sit (there’s a bench) for a long time.

My big surprise here is that many of the viewers, after watching the entire video, don’t realize that the footage was the same snippet, repeated. They didn’t really think about the film in that way. They were just sort of captured by the moment of it.

And that’s o.k., too. You don’t have to not watch the whole thing. This isn’t a test. It may not be a story but it certainly is an experience.

Once you are sensitized to the power of the static film you start to see them more clearly. You realize they’ve always been there, just without a name.

In the Odyssey and the Illiad, Homer uses very few color terms, and when he does he uses them in odd ways. Most interestingly, he doesn’t use any word for the color blue, despite referring to ocean and sky on numerous occasions. The feeling of intrigue grows stronger when you discover that no civilization of that time had a word for blue. Odd, isn’t it? Lots of theories abound, including eyebrow-raising ones suggesting that all ancient peoples were color-blind. (There are better theories.)

There seems to be a pattern in early civilizations. They come up with white and black first, then red, then a few other colors, then finally blue. It takes a while. The ancient Egyptians and the Babylonians were the first to use a word for blue. Political scientists have been long aware of a similar phenomenon in public discourse. Without words to describe a thing it’s hard to think about a thing. Hard to recognize it. That’s where the idea that if you can control the language you can control the people comes from.

So now we have a phrase for this thing. This static film, this furniture film. Now you’ll see it more readily. It’s been around since the beginning. It will likely be around until the end.