‘Photography and the Wind’

Photoworks, Spring/Summer, 2006

‘Photography and the Wind’. First published in Photoworks magazine, Spring/Summer 2006

 

There is a song by Robert Wyatt titled The Sight of the Wind. Backed by whispered sucking and blowing sounds he sings of a lazy afternoon by a beach:

Then we found

Miniature sand dunes

On the concrete of the balcony

And a dead leaf

Zig-zagging

Scratching an urgent message

In Sanskrit

Before hitching a ride

On a frisky gust,

A plastic bag

Caught by a rail

Rearing to go,

In such a flap

We set it free

To join a page of last week’s news

Racing high

And the invisible flying sand

Casting a fast moving shadow

Stroking the beach clean

Wyatt’s subject is the incidental, the almost overlooked. His language is languid but his imagery is crystal clear. Wyatt cannot see the wind. He sees or imagines its effects, evoking them in a way that is quite photographic and quite filmic too. Listening to it recently led me to this reflection on the unique place of wind in matters of stillness and movement.

I begin with cinema and the human face. The stillness of the face in movie close-ups is often offset by wind, usually playing in the hair. It can be made to suggest many things for the character concerned, from stoicism or torment to lack of control or fate. Perhaps the most famous example is the closing shot of Queen Christina (1933). In the title role Greta Garbo stares out impassively from the prow of a ship, an ‘untamable’, adventurous woman. While she’s instructed by the director Rouben Mamoullian to hold herself as still as a photo, the camera approaches. Her hair blows wildly, letting us know she is at the eye of her own emotional storm, sailing onward. Versions of this scenario are numerous.  In Powell & Pressburger’s Back Narcissus (1946) Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) is a troubled nun whose violent passions become murderous. She bursts through a convent door into the final scene and stands immobile for a few seconds. Her habit and veil are gone and she stares wild-eyed and motionless into the camera while her hair dances frenetically in the mountain air. In Jules et Jim (1962) Jeanne Moreau’s character flirts with her boyfriends and the camera. She strikes a series of photographic poses in the breeze and the frame freezes each time. While she poses, the frame halts her unruly hair, mimicking the clichés of informal fashion and portrait photography. In a more complicated case we may remember the mental image carried in the mind of the hero of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), a short film comprised almost entirely of stills. His picture resembles a cherished snapshot of a girlfriend taken by a boyfriend and the fleeting nature of their moment together is enhanced by the mess of hair framing her face.

Balck Narcissus

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Such scenarios depict women more often than men. This is partly because they tend to have more hair, but really it’s to do with their still narrow place in popular film as figures to be looked at, ‘contemplated as enigmas that play with patriarchy’s linear time’, as they used to say when film theory was at its height. There are notable exceptions. Think of Tom Cruise’s gorgeously tossed locks in the adoring close-ups in Vanilla Sky (2001) and Mission Impossible (1996), or Martin Landau’s unkempt short-back-and-sides as he is shot and slowly topples from Mount Rushmore in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959). More recently Zhang Yimou’s Chinese epic Hero (2002) is built around a series of outdoor close-ups. The sublimely still faces of the male and female leads are framed by masses of swirling hair that wouldn’t look out of place in a shampoo ad. Whatever the gender we can see the appeal. Spectators get to contemplate stilled faces, to project their desires and identifications upon them, while the accompanying wind signals time passing.

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Wind presents different problems and attractions for still photography. But let us approach the matter indirectly, by way of a grey area between film and photography. For a number of reasons much recent video art has become preoccupied with the radically different natures of movement and stillness. The long take of an almost static world, shot with a locked-off camera is common in contemporary art. It has no apparent gimmicks, just straight, unblinking recording. Time itself becomes the overriding subject. (The artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau was once asked about the difference between a photograph of an object and a film of it. “In the film” he replied “time courses through it.”) It is typical of what critic and curator Raymond Bellour calls the ‘Lumière drive’ in time-based art media. He suggests that video art is reworking of the approach of cinema’s inventors the Lumière brothers, with their unedited single reel shots. When Sam Mendes director of American Beauty (1999) wished to describe how ‘sensitive’ boys can be, he showed us a long take made by an adolescent with his video camera. We see single shot of a plastic bag tossed by the wind along a melancholy side street. It is a brilliant piece of contemporary video art, and a brilliant parody of alot of it too,  showing us the daft assumption in contemporary realism that the more trivial or marginal the subject matter the more ‘authentic’ it is must be.

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Burgin, Nietzsche's Paris, Still #2

More specifically some video artists have merged static and moving images in the single ‘shot’. They blend the Lumières’ temporal stare with the trickery and filmic magic of their contemporary, Georges Meliès. Interestingly several do this through the depiction of wind. David Claerbout’s projection Untitled (single channel view)(1998-2000) appears to be a still of bored boys in a boring classroom. The only perceptible movement is in the leaves on the shadow of a tree cast on the back wall. Something similar is at play in Victor Burgin’s meditation on time, love and place, Nietzsche’s Paris (1999-2000). A ‘nineteenth century woman’ sits uncannily, photographically still on a park bench while the foliage around her shimmers. Past fact and present memory fuse, or at least trouble each other. This is something like art’s version of Hollywood tumbleweed. The sole purpose of that odd plant, it seems to me, is to bowl through small towns that time forgot as a visual equivalent of a drum roll, creating expectation, promising action.

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Let us move a little closer to photography, while staying near cinema. There is an image from the American silent film The Wind (1927) in which the young actress Lillian Gish struggles to dig the ground with a shovel as a dust storm engulfs her. I say ‘Lillian Gish’ rather than the character she plays because I imagine she cannot really be in character under such duress (there are times when acting is more about fortitude than finesse). This is a publicity still, not a frame of the moving film. It was shot on a 10×8 inch plate camera. Having done her takes for the film, she would have had to pose for this and other still shots. For publicity stills make-up and hair are usually groomed to perfection (consummate glamour is their point). Gish’s hair is quite unmanageable, blurring into the dust. And her face is almost invisible. While there is great technical skill in the making of the photograph, it is an image of semi-controlled chaos. Beyond the frame there were wind machines with airplane propellers. After filming Gish told a movie magazine,

“It is, without any doubt, the most unpleasant picture [film] I’ve ever made… the most uncomfortable to do. I don’t mind the heat so much, but working before the wind-machines all the time is nerve-racking. You see, it blows the sand, and we’ve put sawdust down, too, because that is light and sails along in the air, and then there are smoke-pots to make it all look even more dusty. I’ve been fortunate. The flying cinders haven’t gotten into my eyes, although a few have burned my hands.’[i]

Realism in cinema is often the genre requiring the most artifice. Perhaps knowing this is a film still and not a documentary image lifts a burden from the viewer. We are a little freer to enjoy it. That said it still strikes me as an image of real endurance on the part of the actress if not the character. Moreover I am somewhat relieved that it dates from 1927 and not later given the many similar images it anticipates. After all ‘popular memory’ of 1930s America is still dominated by reformist documentary photographs  – ‘Great Depression’ images of the ‘dustbowl’. Arthur Rothstein’s Farmer and Sons Walking in the Face of a Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936, springs most readily to mind.

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In his suggestive little essay ‘Photography and Liquid Intelligence’ (1989) Jeff Wall talked of the way the chaotic forms of water may be captured by the camera, allowing us to see it in new ways. We could say the same about dust and other wind-born material. Think of all those laboratory photos of turbulence patterns. Wall made his own homage to wind in 1993. A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) is a ‘decisive moment’ remade from a set of digitally composed photo-fragments. It gives us the illusion of a too-perfect instant. Wall had models, assistants, wind machines and all the rest. He describes this method as cinematographic, involving ‘preparation and collaboration’ and the suspension (in part at least) of photography’s claims to actuality. A Sudden Gust of Wind is not an obviously ‘digital’ image. Nothing betrays the presence of the technology besides the unusual nature of the result. It conforms to the idea of the singular, coherent photograph while still looking a bit unlikely. But once we know it is a composite many things change, not least our relation to the wind that appears to blow through the picture. This is a curiously airless depiction of wind, especially compared to the equally film still of Lillian Gish. The wind animates Wall’s image at a level more conceptual than actual. What is captures in the first instance is an idea, not a gust of wind.

The central figure in Wall’s picture has long hair but it is tied back and well under control. Unlike Gish he is shown enjoying the disruption in which he is caught. Wall has recounted how the man’s smile was not scripted. It was the actor’s own spontaneous response to the absurd request to pirouette repeatedly while looking up towards his hat and flicking out his coat tails. It is one of very few depictions of levity in Wall’s highly studied oeuvre.

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In his book Poetics of Cinema, the filmmaker Raul Ruiz recalled a scene from his own past:

“I remember an image from my native land, Chiloé. In front of my house, wind would move the trees. At a certain point the wind would blow with such regularity that one had the impression the trees were frozen in place, bent over in the same direction. The fishermen moving through the scene stopped short themselves, but in a posture opposite that of the trees.  Complemented by the extravagant positions of the fishermen and the trees, that moment of immobility gave the impression that movement and its opposite were not contradictory. When the wind recovered its irregular rhythms, the immobile image vanished in homage to movement and everything became normal again. But it always could happen that the wind would blow constantly and the landscape would return to immobility, only to spring back into motion some few seconds later. This oscillation gradually gave a new feeling to the scene: when everything moved about one only saw immobility, and vice-versa. I told myself this was a good way to photograph wind.”

This is a memory or a wish for that non-existent state between movement and stillness.

I cannot tell from this intriguing passage whether Ruiz is thinking about making a still photograph or a moving film of his scene (‘to photograph’ could mean either here, I think). Each would be extraordinary in its own way. Or perhaps, like Robert Wyatt’s song, the image of wind may be expressed best in words.

David Campany, 2006.

 


[i] Katherine Albert, ‘”A Picture That Was No Picnic”: Lillian Gish has something to say about the location tortures accompanying the filming of “The Wind”, Motion Picture Magazine, October, 1927