Posing, Acting and Photography

Stillness and Time, Photoworks, 2006

Posing, Acting and Photography

by David Campany

First published in Joanna Lowry and David Green, eds., Stillness and Time, Brighton, Photoworks, 2006

A gesture cannot be regarded as the expression of an individual, as his creation (because no individual is capable of creating an original gesture, belonging to nobody else), nor can it even be regarded as that person’s instrument; on the contrary, it is gestures that use us as their instruments, as their bearers and incarnations.

Milan Kundera Immortality

… I would say that no picture could exist today without having a trace of the film still in it, at least no photograph, but that could also be true of drawings and paintings maybe.

Jeff Wall, ‘Interview/Lecture’ Transcript  vol. 2 no. 3

Defining photography has always been a matter of comparison and contrast, of understanding with and through other media. Across its history, painting, literature, sculpture, theatre and cinema have offered different ways to think about what photography is. Not surprisingly different ideas have emerged. Painting puts the emphasis on questions of description and actuality; literature puts the emphasis on realism and expression; sculpture emphasises qualities of volume and flatness; theatre emphasises the performative; cinema usually emphasises aspects of time and the frame. These ways of thinking are almost unavoidable. We see them in all kinds of discussion of photography, both popular and specialist. They can be illuminating, but they can also be artificial.

First of all, the comparing of media often lapses into ‘technological determinism’, stressing the mechanical facts over social use. Or more frequently, what may seem like technical thinking often turns out to be thoroughly rooted in our always social understanding of media. For example, Christian Metz’ brilliant essay ‘Photography and Fetish’ is an attempt to compare and contrast photography and film.[i] He sees that the two share a technical similarity but each has its own relation to time, framing and the experience of objecthood. But as his argument unfolds it becomes clear that what’s really at stake are not the differences or similarities between film and photography per se, but between film in its popular narrative form and the photograph as domestic snapshot. Film is not inherently narrative or popular, and photography is not inherently domestic nor a snapshot. Metz’ opposition starts off general and technical but soon becomes a particular contrast between quite specific social uses of the still and the moving image. Metz’s approach probably wouldn’t work if the film he chose was Warhol’s Empire, and the photograph a publicity still from and Indiana Jones movie.

Secondly, simple binary contrasts can overlook the fact that crossover between media can be much more radically hybrid. The growing convergence of image technologies and their uses may often appear to make the idea of distinctive mediums seem old fashioned to us. Technologies are overlapping and blurring while the once distinctive uses of media are being eroded (producing ‘infotainment’, ‘docudrama’,  ‘edutainment’, ‘advertorials’ and the like).[ii] That said, such hybrid forms may also to alert us in new ways to specific differences between things. For example, we may grasp ‘cinema’ as a cultural form now scattered across many sites and technologies – television, DVD, video, the internet, mobile phones and posters, as well as actual movie theatres.  But the scattering may attune us to what is particular about each encounter. In this sense the world of ‘multimedia’ is also a world of ‘many media’, and we come to know what media are less by looking for their pure centres than their disputed boundaries.

I want to take as an instance of all of this the recurring fascination shown by photographers and artists with the depiction of narrative gesture in the still image. I have in mind the ‘staged’ photograph as it has developed in the art of recent decades. It provides a useful way to think about the way hybrid practices attune us to differences and similarities.

I begin with a particularly rich binary: acting and posing. Straight away we may associate ‘acting’ with something unfolding or ‘time based’ like cinema or theatre. ‘Posing’ may suggest the stillness of photography or painting. A sharp reader will also be thinking of examples that complicate this: scenes of arrest such as the tableau vivant in theatre, or cinema’s close-up of a face in pensive contemplation, or blurred movement caught but escaping a long exposure, or as we shall see, the narrative gesture performed for the still photograph. Such things might considered exceptions that prove the rule that acting belongs to movement and posing to stillness, but they are much too common to be mere transgressions. They are a fundamental part of how makers and viewers have come to understand images.

Frame from Federico Fellini’s Lo Sceicco Bianco (The White Sheikh 1952)

Let us first consider a film made over half a century ago. In one of his early comedies Federico Fellini makes a light-hearted but perceptive comment on cinematic movement and the stillness of photography. Lo Sceicco Bianco (The White Sheikh 1952) follows the making of a fumetto (or fotoromanzo). Fumetti were quickly produced photo-stories printed on cheap paper. Read in great number by hungry film fans they were commercial spin-offs from popular film culture inn the style of comic books, using sequences of staged photos to tell filmic tales with the help of captions and speech bubbles. (Although never very popular in Britain, they were a staple of post-war popular culture in mainland Europe, particularly Italy and France). In the The White Sheikh we see what looks like a regular film crew setting up on a beach. They are about to shoot a scene in which the gauche and chubby White Sheikh – a pale imitation of the silent movie heart-throb Rudolph Valentino – slays his foe and rescues a ‘damsel in distress’. Fellini shows us a frantic director preparing his ragbag crew while marshalling his second-rate performers who can’t get jobs in the real film industry. They begin to play out the scene.  Suddenly in a comic reversal of cinematic action, the director shouts “Hold it!” The ‘actors’ freeze in their postures, as if in some party game. A cameraman – we now see he is a still photographer- excitedly takes a single shot. The actors spring back into movement and the scene continues. Sometimes they pose themselves as best they can, or they halt when the director yells at them in the flow. Fellini cuts rapidly between the director, the actors and the photographer, presenting it all in his carnivalesque, knockabout style. The slapstick pace may be why, unlike the more self-conscious films that have explored stillness (most of which are ponderously slow films) this one is all but forgotten.[iii]  Nevertheless, the scene is a subtle and nuanced commentary on acting, posing, movement and stillness.

No doubt Fellini gives us an unrealistic account of how a fumetto would actually have been produced. He models the photo shoot too closely on filmmaking. He plays it as a losing battle of arrestedness against the juggernaut of popular cinema’s momentum, as if a photographer were trying to actually photograph during the making of a moving film. In this, Fellini positions photography as a poor relation of cinema. In cultural, economic and artistic terms this was so, even by 1952. The inequality was not something to be thought just at the level of the apparatus (the photograph as a primitive ancestor of film). Fellini was thinking in cultural terms too. Photography was being used to serve and mimic cinema.

Today the fumetto has all but vanished. The viewer’s desire to possess a film in a fixed form is now satisfied by video and DVD. But photography and cinema maintain an uneven relationship. Cinema continues to make use of the still for publicity (I return to this later), while photography in art has moved from the spontaneous freeze of the ‘decisive moment’ (by which photography was first compelled to differentiate itself from cinema in the 1920s and 30s) to the slower narrative tableau that we now see in advertising, documentary photography, fashion and photojournalism, as well as in art.

There is quite a variety of styles of acting, performance and gesture in contemporary photography. The more dramatic follow the precedent set by Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall, two artists who turned toward cinematics in the late 1970s. They began to expand what was then the pretty narrow repertoire of human expression and behaviour to be found in art photographs.[iv] Technically and stylistically their pictures were highly accomplished from the start. Departing from the simple use of photography to document performance, Sherman and Wall engaged explicitly with the idea of performance for the image and performance as image.  Their pictures were the result of range of considerations – not just gesture but framing, lighting, costume, make-up, props, location and so on. The craft complex more readily associated with cinema was applied to photography. This was an instance of the ‘reskilling’ that followed the technical reductions of photography in Conceptualism.

Despite its regular dialogues with theatre, photography’s artistic merit was discussed almost exclusively in relation to painting until the 1970s. It was only when it was taken up in relation to cinema that its theatrical condition was examined comprehensively. At its inception cinema inherited the behavioural conventions of theatre and developed its language from there. Cinema acting came into its own with the advent of the psychologically charged close-up. Paradoxically the close-up requires the actor to act as little as possible and tends to be reserved either for moments of reaction or contemplation. This makes the close-up as uncinematic as it is cinematic, and introduces pleasurable delay into the narrative film. As Laura Mulvey has pointed out, the close-up arrests time, absorbs and disperses the attention and solicits from the viewer a gaze that is much more fixing and fetishistic than narratively voyeuristic. It was also through the close-up that the ‘star persona’ was created. Stars are those actors that are more than their performances. They have a sense of ‘being themselves’ as much as playing their part. The phenomenon of the star is a recognition of the artifice of cinema, an acceptance that there can be an excess beyond the part played.

Although it has become central to mainstream film culture, this excess has troubled many filmmakers. The French director Robert Bresson, for example, disliked the idea of actors and preferred non-professionals in his films. As well as avoiding close-ups he avoided the term actor and all its theatrical implications. He liked the idea of the model, a term that recalls the still photograph or the painter’s studio. He had his models drain their performances of theatre, insisting they perform actions over and over in rehearsal. Finally, they could perform before the camera without thought or self-consciousness. Bresson writes in his only book:

            No actors.

            (no directing of actors)

            No parts.

            (no playing of parts)

            No staging.

            But the use of working models taken from life.

            BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors)[v]

Later he notes “Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and thought.” The result was a style of performance in which both everything and nothing looked controlled. The ‘models’ perform with an inner calm and apparent stillness, even when moving. They ‘go through the motions’, as we say. Unfairly described as austere, the restraint in Bresson’s films can seem unapproachable but absorbing too.

Jeff Wall, Volunteer, 1996

Jeff Wall’s photograph Volunteer (1996) may owe a great deal to Robert Bresson. Wall hired a man to clean the floor of a set built to resemble a community centre. The man cleaned it for a month or so. Only after he had become unconscious and automatic in his actions was the image taken. Wall has many different methods to distil a performance or narrative gesture into a photograph, accepting that there is no single solution to the challenge. For Outburst (1986) Wall’s models improvised situations between a tyrant boss and his sweatshop workers. These were recorded on video. The tape was then reviewed and frozen in playback to discover the gestures needed. These were then restaged for the final image. Here is Wall describing the image:

Outburst is a factory scene in which somebody – could be foreman, could be owner, is just losing his temper entirely. I wanted to depict it as if it was happening instantaneously so, for example, the woman, who is the object of his wrath, is entirely startled by it. I also saw it as a kind of explosion.”[vi]

Jeff Wall, Outburst, 1989

Where Volunteer threatens to become mundane in its flattened performance Outburst threatens to swamp us in dramatic excess, to burst out. But in their gestural language both may strike us as curiously automatic, deadly robotic even.

To become automatic is to enter into blank mimicry. Roger Callois once talked of mimicry possessing an estranging force.[vii] Similarly the philosopher Henri Bergson remarked that humans behaving like automata or robots may be a source of unexpected or uncanny affect, even anxious humour.[viii] So, what is the relation between human gestures that are automatic mimicry and the still camera, which is itself an automatic, mimicking machine? For art, the strangeness of photographed mimicry has often had a critical or analytical impulse. It has been used to distance us from the familiar.  Mass culture and daily life can be re-examined through engagingly awkward images of ‘petrified unrest’, as to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin.

Frame selected by Barthes for his essay ‘The Third Meaning. Some notes on Eisenstein Film Stills’, 1970

Excess in photography is usually thought to be a different matter from excess in cinema. In his essay ‘The Third Meaning. Some notes on Eisenstein Film Stills’ (1970), Roland Barthes looks for something between the two.[ix] He is attracted to enigmatic, unnameable meanings he senses lurking in the details of frames from movies. These meanings are beyond the conscious control of either the actor in the image or the director.  Often for Barthes they derive from those inert things that attach themselves to the flesh and blood of the living body – hair, nails, clothing and teeth. (Indeed, it is hair, nails, teeth and clothing that return in the form of the ‘punctum’ in Barthes’ later book Camera Lucida). These are things that belong neither to life nor to death, attached to the body but not strictly of it. They may express but they are in themselves inanimate, and in the suspended frame their excess significance looms large. For Barthes it is not the acting that interests, rather it is the capacity of the extracted film frame to intervene in the acting, to rub it against its own intentions. The choice of stills from films by Eisenstein was deliberate and quite subversive.  Famously, Eisenstein had championed a very different kind of third meaning. Putting one shot after another in a cinematic sequence could implant a controlled ‘third effect’ in the mind of the viewer.  Much more disturbing, Barthes’ third meaning resides within the single frame that lies within the single shot of the film. Barthes unearths the instability lurking even within the tightly organised imagery and editing (montage) of Russian avant garde film.[x]

In some respects, Barthes’ thinking responds to ways in which photography is an inherently theatrical medium, in the sense that it theatricalizes the world. Everything is alive and unstable in the image and as Barthes rightly noted this aliveness, or polysemy, is usually contained and directed by text, context, voice-over, discourse, ideology. Barthes appeals to the way in which the arrestedness of the single frame poses the world, or more accurately imposes a pose on the world, making it signify in often unlikely ways.  The philosopher (and photographer) Jean Baudrillard suggests that something similar is at work not just in the film frame but in every still photograph:

“The photo is itself, in its happier moments, an acting-out of the world, a way of   grasping the world by expelling it, and without ever giving it a meaning. An  abreacting of the world in its most abstruse or banal forms, an exorcism by the  instant fiction of its representation […]”[xi]

He is right, I think, that photography cannot but transform the world into a world performed or posed. This seems to be so even if it is a world of objects and surfaces. Understandably Baudrillard himself prefers objects to people in his own photographs precisely because there is then no confusion of poses. A photograph for him is performance enough without humans.

Let us return to the “film still”, which is a suitably ambiguous term for an ambiguous kind of image.[xii] It can refer to an actual frame extracted from the moving film, twenty-four of which conventionally make up one second of moving footage. However, it also refers to still photographs, shot by a stills photographer on the film set. For these images the film actors run through things again, “once more for stills”, adjusting their performance slightly so that the scene or situation can be distilled, posed almost, into a fixed image closer to the procedure of the condensed tableau. Both kinds of photo circulate under the name “film still” and both contribute to a film’s publicity, which in turn helps form the social memory of a film. But each has its own very different relation to acting, posing, stillness and movement.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Film Still) #56, 1980

Given this ambiguity what might we make of Cindy Sherman’s first major body of work, the Untitled Film Stills? Nearly three decades on this landmark series still has the power to fascinate. I see the title of the series playing very much on the ambiguity of the term “film still”. Are her images modelled on the film frame or on the restaging of the scene for the still camera? Does Sherman pose or act, or act as if posing, or pose as if acting? Is she posed by the camera, or does she pose for the camera? Or is it something even more complicated? A few years after Sherman made the series the writer Craig Owens pointed out the similarity between posing for a photograph and the nature of photography: “Still, I freeze as if anticipating the still I am about to become; mimicking its opacity, its stillness; inscribing, across the surface of my body, photography’s “mortification” of the flesh”.[xiii] When we pose, we make ourselves into a frozen image, into an anticipatory photograph. More importantly, even if we do not pose, the camera will pose us, perhaps in an unexpected way, without first being able to com-pose ourselves. Hence also the source of the great antagonism between the ‘taken’ and the ‘made’ photograph. By turns political, ethical, aesthetic and intellectual, the antagonism has fundamentally shaped debates, artistic credos and popular understandings of the medium. (It also shaped camera manufacture as it split between lightweight reportage equipment and larger format apparatus for use in studios).  While the taken and the made can never be totally separate – not least because both pose the subject – photos can still seem to flirt with the distinction. The staged photographic tableau often has a coyness in this regard. The sense of theatrical display orients the scene toward the viewer. At the same time the ignoring of the presence of the camera aspires to classical narrative cinema. Still photography always seems to carry with it a sense of frontality, a sense that the world will recognise the presence of the camera and reconcile itself to it.

Craig Owens’ insight about the parallel between posing and the still photo seems straightforward enough. Yet it may not account too well for what is going on in Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, nor indeed for the kinds of behaviour that have evolved in the art of staged photography since the 1970s. If posing suggests consonance with the still image, Sherman inaugurated a much richer dissonance. Coming at the end of the 1970s, her performance broke with what we traditionally think of as ‘performance art’ photography. This was usually premised on an authentic, non-fictional, direct relation between subject and camera, in which the image was assumed to function as a transparent document outside of the performance. Sherman’s camera is complicit in the performance, accepting that it would always be at least as responsible for the posing as Sherman herself. This, I think, has been the lasting influence of those early images.

I have always been struck by a certain reserve in Sherman’s work, despite all the performance. Within the endless personae and masquerades there is a remarkable withdrawal and I think it has to do with the face. With a few notable exceptions Sherman’s face remains almost neutral, very limited in its expression. All about her there is theatre, performance and gestures of communication yet her face gives little away. She refuses to act or pose with the face, even when appearing to cry. Instead, the face gravitates towards a mesmerising blankness, an immobility as still and automatic as the image itself. The photography poses and acts, the mise-en-scène poses and acts, but Sherman remains elusive and non-committal. (Interestingly Sherman did use exaggerated faces in her later Fashion series. Fashion models are often required to wear a blank, enigmatic face, so Sherman mocks this with a corny photographic grin). This blankness is not the cliché of the artistic self-portrait (artists, it seems, will never smile when taking their own picture, unless it’s ironic). Instead, Sherman alludes to those cool stars of cinema who rarely smiled and made only minimal gestures.  But Sherman’s blankness for the still image is of a very different order.

The opposite of overt theatricality is often thought to be introspection or absorption. While I was thinking about this I glanced at the image on the cover of my copy of Illuminations, an anthology of Walter Benjamin’s essays. In Gisèle Freund’s portrait from 1939, Benjamin is thinking. Or he acts as if he is thinking. Or he is thinking that he is thinking. Or maybe we think that because he is such a serious thinker he must be thinking. Maybe that is how Benjamin thought he ought to appear. Or perhaps Freund caught him thinking. Or she caught something that looked like thinking. We are so familiar with chin stroking, reticence and spectacles as signs of the intellectual that we do not give it much thought at all. Freund’s camera is so close to Benjamin that he must surely be aware of it. There is nothing surreptitious here. He is either pretending or he is pathologically absorbed. We can relate this to Michael Fried’s distinction between absorption and theatricality in painting.[xiv] Fried saw absorption as a mode in which people are depicted either being or doing something oblivious, or apparently oblivious to the presence of the viewer. While theatricality involves an explicit recognition of the presence of an audience, depictions of absorption solicit a suspension of our disbelief. We imagine we are looking at an unobserved scene. In photography the issue is slightly different since it is quite possible to take a photo of an oblivious person, usually from a distance. Any sense of theatre would stem from the photographic act, the posing of the scene as a scene by the camera. The ‘authentic’ photo of absorption at close range can only be achieved, strictly speaking, either with a hidden camera, or with the subject’s familiarity or indifference. But it is easy to simulate it with the resulting image becoming a theatrical representation of absorption.

I am fairly sure what this image of Benjamin is supposed to mean, but I am less sure what is, or was, really going on. This may be why it holds my interest. I sense mental movement beneath his still face and body. I sense too, a degree of melancholia in the portrait and by extension in Benjamin. Melancholia was a subject central to Benjamin’s thinking and it is a disposition to which he was himself prone.[xv] Melancholia has a very particular relation to photography because it is a state that exists on the threshold of self-performance and withdrawal, between social mask and nothingness, between theatricality and absorption. It is a condition not of the melancholic’s conscious making but it is experienced by them as a conscious condition. The melancholic is trapped in a kind of attenuated self-performance – alone but feeling regulated by the gaze of others, or by his or her own imaginary gaze. Obviously, melancholy can be coded in highly specific ways in photographs, and a number of women photographers of the nineteenth century refined this, such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Hawarden. Less closely coded, it slips into a range of moods – pensiveness, listlessness, boredom, fatigue, waiting. These are all states that seem to appeal to contemporary photographers, not least because the actors or models need not do very much. As long as they do little and the photography does a lot – in the form of ‘production values’ – a good result can be achieved. Narrative can still be present if entropic, while the pitfalls of hammy performance – always tempting in the face of stillness – can be avoided. (I have just returned from a seeing an exhibition of Gregory Crewdson’s latest series of cinematic tableaux photographs, Beneath the Roses 2004. At the heart of Crewdson’s spectacular over-production is the same basic human gesture, a sort of exhausted standing or sitting around, slump-shouldered with the vacant face of a daydreamer. The gap between inactive humans amid the over-active photography is so extreme as to be comic, although I’m not sure this is intentional.)

This might also be the reason why our galleries and art magazines have of late been populated with so many photographs of adolescents standing around. The adolescent embodies so many of the current paradoxes of photography: the awkward fit between being and appearance; between surface and depth; between a coherent identity and chaos; between assertion and withdrawal; between irrationality and order; between muteness and communication; between absorption and theatricality; between stasis and narrativity; between posing and acting. More significantly this turn towards ‘slow’, sedimented photography also chimes with the predominance of slowness in contemporary video art. Photography has all but given up the ‘decisive moment’ in order to explore what a moment is; video art has all but given up movement, the better to think what movement is. This is why just about all the current art and writing that explores stillness and movement really only considers slowness and movement. Worked-up tableau photos and decelerated video art partake of the same kind of exploration. But must the speedy always be sacrificed in all this? Need slowness be the only way? At this key point in the histories of art and media, I think it is a question worth posing (and a pose worth questioning).

[i] Christian Metz ‘Photography and Fetish’ October 34, Fall 1985, reprinted in Carol Squiers, ed., The Critical Image: essays on contemporary photography Bay Press 1990.

[ii] The consequences of this are discussed by Victor Burgin in ‘The Image in Pieces: the location of cultural experience’ in Amelunxen, ed., Photography After Photography G+B Arts 1997.

[iii] I am thinking of the post war cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni, Straub and Huillet, Robert Bresson, Wim Wenders, and Michael Snow (and countless contemporary video artists for whom slowness seems the only possible mark of serious reflection). A full discussion of the often-simplistic equation between slowness and seriousness will have to wait for another day.

[iv] Wall’s dialogue has also been with the history of painterly depiction, and at times this has interested Sherman too

[v] Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer (1975) Quartet 1986, p.4.

[vi] Jeff Wall “My Photographic Production” in Die Photographie in der Zeitgenössischen Kunst Edition Cantz 1990. Extracted in David Campany ed., Art and Photography, Phaidon 2003, 249-250.

[vii] Roger Callois “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia”, October n. 31 (1984), pp. 17-32.

[viii] Henri Bergson, “The Intensity of Psychic States” in Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, George Allen and Unwin (1910). 

[ix] Roland Barthes ‘The Third Meaning. Some notes on Eisenstein Film Stills’ (1970) Image-Music-Text Fontana 1977.

[x] There are echoes here of Walter Benjamin’s notion of the ‘optical unconscious’ which might be brought to the surface of things when the high-speed shutter or close-up lens appear to penetrate the obvious meanings of the world and reveal something deeper, beyond intention. Walter Benjamin ‘A Small History of Photography’ (1931) One Way Street, New Left Books, 1979.

[xi] Jean Baudrillard “It is the object which thinks us.” Jean Baudrillard: Photographies, 1985-1998. Hatje Cantz (2000).

[xii] “Film still” is the translation used for Barthes’ French term “photogramme”. In English, “photogramme” has another meaning – a cameraless image made by placing objects directly on to photographic paper before exposure.

[xiii] Craig Owens ‘Posing’ (1985) Beyond Recognition: representation, power and culture, University of California Press, 1992, pp. 201-217.

[xiv] Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality. Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot, University of Chicago Press 1980.

[xv] On the subject of Benjamin and melancholia see Susan Sontag’s introduction to Benjamin anthology One Way Street, Verso, 1985.

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